4 May 2023

'They're going on our vulnerability' - Ministry abuse compensation payment pace criticised

7:08 pm on 4 May 2023
05072016 Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King. Ministry of Social Development on Willis Street in Wellington.

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

A human rights lawyer is appalled at what she says is cynical behaviour from the Ministry of Social Development when offering compensation to victims of state abuse.

While survivors wait for the development of an independent redress scheme following the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State Care, interim payments are supposed to be available for the old and the sick.

Cooper Legal principal Sonja Cooper said these payments could take away survivors' rights for further redress, judging by correspondence from the ministry.

But a senior ministry manager said it was too soon to pre-empt any cabinet decision about this, and many survivors are choosing the rapid payment process for their claims.

Cooper said rather than offering clearly defined interim payments to victims of state abuse from the likes of borstals and psychiatric institutions, the ministry was sending out financial offers marked "full and final".

That went against what the Royal Commission envisaged in its interim recommendations in December 2021, she said.

"It was very clear that any interim payments should be for the elderly and the terminally ill to make sure that they would receive some redress now and were not prejudiced from accessing the independent scheme if and when it ever gets up and running."

The independent scheme is a source of frustration to survivors, who are critical of the pace at which it is moving.

The ministry offers have a clause saying full and final payments - which Cooper said were much lower than what it was expected the independent scheme would offer - may not rule survivors out of this scheme.

But, the offers say, that depends on the scheme established and if it includes survivors who have already settled elsewhere.

Cooper said a redress scheme would include more than just money - also trying to look after survivors' needs.

The offers also do not take into account individual allegations of abuse, just the time spent in state custody, and Cooper worried they could bar people from taking court action or seeing justice done.

"This is giving away quite fundamental rights that the Royal Commission was very clear shouldn't be interfered with in the intervening period until government has received the Royal Commission final report, considered all of that, and then started to put in place how it's going to give effect to that."

Cooper had advised clients to seek interim payments because they would not get in the way of receiving full redress later.

She is now concerned that could be wrong.

"The other particularly cynical thing about this is this is the most vulnerable and damaged group of New Zealand society.

"They are impoverished, many of them, in every way that you can think of, and particularly financially."

Cooper said the ministry was slow to respond to claims and might see making interim offers as a way to clear the backlog.

'We're not stupid'

Robyn Dandy was abused at the Lake Alice psychiatric hospital child and adolescent unit in the 1970s.

She was unhappy with the lack of pace for the independent redress scheme and agreed with Cooper about the cynicism of making full and final offers now.

"What they're doing now is they're going on our vulnerability and for me that's disgraceful as well. We may have been through a lot in our lives, but we're not stupid."

Dandy wanted the independent redress scheme to be rolled out as soon as possible.

She said she would not consider accepting anything placing her eligibility for that in doubt.

"I'm happy just to move on. I want this over and done with so I don't have to wake up at night with nightmares and all those sorts of things.

"I don't need this, doing that in my old age."

Rangi Wickliffe, who was sent to boys' homes and Lake Alice, had a similar take on the ministry's move.

"They're just going to dangle a bit of money in front of you. We're all going to go, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.' And every six months they'll be dangling a bit more, and a bit more. Well, that's not right.

"What they're affectively saying is, 'Hopefully you die before the next dangle'."

Mike Ferriss, from the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, said the ministry's approach was suspect.

"They're going entirely against what the Royal Commission recommended, who talked about interim payments for the elderly and physically and mentally infirm, unwell people, who could benefit from some initial payment to get them through until the redress scheme is set up."

Ministry general manager for historic claims Linda Hrstich-Meyer said rapid payments gave survivors a choice to seek payments now or wait for the new redress scheme.

She said the ministry's approach sat within the wider Crown approach to resolving claims of historic abuse, and the clause in offers referring to full and final settlements was consistent across Crown agencies.

Hrstich-Meyer noted the rapid payment announcement from late last year, by then-public services minister Chris Hipkins.

Hipkins then said: "While cabinet has yet to make final decisions, I intend that survivors who have resolved their claims will still be able to seek additional redress under the new system, although any payment already received would be taken into account in any acknowledgement payment made by the new system".

Since late last year the ministry had made more than 135 offers of rapid payments to abuse survivors. About 100 had been accepted.

"To date, over 75 percent of survivors who have confirmed their preferred assessment pathway have chosen rapid payment," Hrstich-Meyer said.

"The feedback we've received has highlighted the relief survivors felt that they haven't had to share their personal experiences to make a claim, and how important it has been to be able to make a choice about how their claim is assessed."

Some survivors did not feel comfortable sharing their experiences, and the rapid payment scheme meant they did not have to.

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