16 Nov 2017

Quiet tears on tattooed cheeks: State abuse survivors await apology

7:14 am on 16 November 2017

Analysis - I know way too many people who have been sexually and physically abused while in the care of the state.

State care abuse petition, Parliament

Former wards of state demand an inquiry into state abuse at Parliament. Photo: RNZ / John Lake

None of my siblings have any history with state care but I am Māori and currently 6 out of 10 children who are taken from their families are Māori, while we're just 15 percent of the population.

I've watched as these survivors of state abuse struggle to keep in relationships, to control their addictions and anger, to be loving parents or to even keep a job. The abuse served out under the state's care has woven its way through generations of families like a toxic weed, my whānau included.

Earlier this year my colleague Aaron Smale went back to Kohitere Boys Training Centre near Levin. He'd just recorded an interview with former state ward Albie Epere about his harrowing experience in state care.

Albie Epere

Albie Epere Photo: RNZ / Aaron Smale

Aaron went along to visit and photograph the boys' home, where many of the 100,000 children put into state care between the1950s and 1980s were taken.

The images of Kohitere were haunting, especially when you know the horrors of what went on there. Aaron wrote about "an eerie silence" while at the ravaged 1950s buildings, describing it as "a prison for boys".

READ Aaron Smale's reports into state abuse:


Kohitere Boy's Training Centre in Levin was one of the main welfare institutions that has been the subject of complaints. Photo: RNZ - Aaron Smale

The first-person accounts of abuse were chillingly similar to those survivors who'd shared their stories with me - bashings, stompings and sexual abuse were woven through them all.

Many had never told their stories and others are just beginning to. When Ngā Mōrehu told their stories to me this year there were tears from them, from me and many more from those who watched.

Kohitere Boy's Training Centre in Levin.

Kohitere Boy's Training Centre in Levin. Photo: RNZ / Aaron Smale

They were quiet tears that rolled down tattooed cheeks and splashed on their heavy chests. Once they'd started it was a river, and I suspect the flood gates will open again when this government stands to publicly say sorry.

As a country we're only coming to understand how these abuses took place. How many people drove past those places not knowing what was going on behind the fences and gates of Kohitere, Ēpuni, Hōkio, Ōwairaka and more? How many knew and said nothing, and how many participated in the abuse?

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy has launched an online conversation asking victims of state care abuse to give feedback on how they would like an independent inquiry to run.

Holocaust Remembrance Day held at Makara Cemetery in Wellington. Dame Susan Devoy was a guest speaker. Raising growing concerns around the influx of hate speech online.

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

In July, the National-led government rejected a petition signed by 12,000 people calling for an independent inquiry into state care abuse.

Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox says the survivors deserve a Royal Commission of Inquiry, which would be truly independent of the government. It would investigate the facts and provide policy or legislative changes to prevent abuse happening again.

State care abuse petition, Parliament

Former wards of state demand an inquiry into state abuse at Parliament. Photo: RNZ / John Lake

In 2013, Australia launched a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It investigated the history of abuse in institutions including educational and religious groups, and sporting organisations.

New Zealand's inquiry is in the government's First 100 day's list - it is part of the Ministry for Vulnerable Children's portfolio, where New Zealand First's Tracy Martin is the minister.

Her office told RNZ they were just beginning to work through what shape the inquiry would take.

Back in July, after the government rejected the petition, I escorted a small group of Ngā Mōrehu to Parliament to meet the then-MP for Tāmaki Makaruau, Peeni Henare, and MP for Mt Albert, Jacinda Ardern, where they committed to an independent inquiry.

They're now the Minister for Whānau Ora, and the Prime Minister. The survivors are ready to collect on that promise.

Ngā Mōrehu of state abuse, with Mihingarangi Forbes, speak to Jacinda Ardern and Peeni Henare.

Ngā Mōrehu of state abuse, with Mihingarangi Forbes, speak to Jacinda Ardern and Peeni Henare. Photo: RNZ / Mihingarangi Forbes

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs