Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry begins hearing Māori experiences

8:00 pm on 7 March 2022

The Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry has heard of young Māori being torn from their families and put into a system that wrote them off from the start.

Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei marae

The Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry is being held at Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei marae. Photo: supplied by Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei

Monday was the first day of a two-week hearing into how Māori have experienced abuse in state and faith-based care.

It is being hosted by Ngāti Whātua at Ōrākei marae, where a powhiri rang out this morning to welcome the survivors, and to offer protection and support ahead of two weeks of painful testimony.

The long-running Royal Commission has so far heard largely historical evidence. But the first witness on Monday, Tupua Urlich (Ngāti Kahungunu), was only 26-years-old.

"I'm kei te pai with everybody witnessing this," he said via livestream as he struggled for words at the start of his powerful testimony, "because this is what we live with every day. My heart is racing right now".

Urlich detailed the vivid memory of a van arriving when he was five years old. Of his mother crying as he and his younger sister were taken away to be placed hundreds of kilometres away.

In Hawke's Bay, he was separated from his sister and placed with a state caregiver in Flaxmere. He had not been abused until he moved in with this caregiver, but from then endured near daily beatings, he said.

"How anyone could deem him safe or appropriate to take care of me I don't understand," Urlich said.

"You take me away from my whānau and place me with someone who beats me nearly every single day. I missed so many days of school due to the bumps and bruises and black eyes that he'd leave me with from as young as five.

"My pain turned to anger very, very quickly because no one was there, no one had my back. My father passed away when I was living with this man. This one day I'd just finished getting a hiding, I was crying on the floor and I remember I was bleeding.

"The door opened and he said, 'Oh yeah your dad's dead by the way' and the door closed behind him."

At six years old, he summoned the courage to report the caregiver, but instead found a system which he said closed in to protect itself.

He was dragged through an uncaring court process in which he was berated by a defence lawyer. The caregiver was acquitted on all but one of the charges against him, and sentenced to 30 hours of community work.

But there would be no semblance of stability from then on. Urlich was moved from house-to-house until he was a teen. He had little contact with his whānau, let alone any knowledge of his whakapapa, he said. He rarely encountered a Māori social worker.

From the start, he was dismissed as a "future youth justice" with a pre-determined path that few seemed to want to help change.

"It's a train track that the crown has laid down for us, and it's so hard to get off that," Urlich said.

"I've attended education centres with some bright young Māori men who just aren't given the support they need when they need it as we witness non-Māori receive."

"You know, all of those guys now, they all made it into the gang life, into jail.

Urlich's mamae is the first of many that will be laid before the Royal Commission in the next two weeks.

'We are here because Māori have suffered more than most'

An independent counsel assisting proceedings, Julia Spelman, said it was right there be a special Māori hearing.

"We are here because Māori have suffered more than most, both individually and collectively. We are having this hearing because we know that Māori perspectives and solutions have been previously ignored.

"We are so that the crown and the faith-based institutions responsible for this tukino can listen."

'Tō muri te pō roa, tērā a Pokopoko Whiti-te-ra' - hope and healing after years of darkness.

Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei's Taiaha Hawke said that was the name gifted to the hearing.

"We're pleased to offer our whare as a safe haven for you as you stand and speak your truth as you talk about the suffering, the pain and anguish that you've had to bear."

But already a wero (challenged) has been laid.

Urlich said he wanted education scholarships for those who had been disadvantaged, the state to give up its power and for Māori to help their own whānau.

"Whakapapa is where I should have been, they are the right foundations."

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