16 Dec 2020

Abuse inquiry report: limited data paints illuminating, inexcusable picture

9:36 pm on 16 December 2020

By David Cohen *

Opinion - "Show me the money!" is the phrase that became popular from the 1996 hit movie Jerry Maguire. When it comes to the Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry, it has been more a case of "show me the data!" - an even trickier demand for officials involved in a process that has been decidedly heavy on grim anecdotal testimony but rather light when it comes to actual numbers.

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The inquiry now has numbers aplenty, including about the number of affected children, David Cohen writes. (file pic) Photo: 123RF

And those numbers matter. How many kids, exactly, are we talking about who may or may not have been abused in the various residences and schools that operated during the last half of the 20th century? What's their ethnicity? What has been the financial cost, even roughly speaking, to the individuals themselves, to the economy overall and to the exchequer?

Questions like these have blown around the capital like so much wind buffeting the local outdoor cafes. Yet the answers have proved maddeningly elusive even for officials involved in the five-year inquiry that began in 2018. It's a bit like an investigation into the collapse of a newspaper in which nobody seems to know what the circulation was, who advertised in it or even what language it was published in.

With a clutch of significant new studies quantifying important themes on which the commission's work turns, the inquiry now has at least some numbers at its collective fingertips.

The three new pieces of research - a cohort study, an economic study and the Royal Commission's own research report - provide a crucial statistical dimension to the commission's interim report that was released today.

To be sure, as Dr Rawiri Waretini-Karena is quoted in the interim report as saying everything has a whakapapa. But everything has relevant numbers, too.

The main research offering the statistics we now finally have was prepared by the consultancy firm MartinJenkins, whose services would not have come cheaply and whose conclusions on this occasion will almost certainly not be the last word. As first words go, however, what Royal Commission chair Coral Shaw described as "astronomical numbers" have certainly improved the game.

In the first of the studies, the consultants have attempted to put an accurate number on how many children and young people passed through the residences under scrutiny, whether the old state-run institutions, faith-based residences or schools for those with special needs.

In the case of the welfare-run institutions, it is thought that perhaps as many as 258,000 people resided in the state settings, either in what's now called youth justice (95,000) or in other community-based places (163,000).

The report surmises that as early as the 1950s there were 250,000 people in faith-based care. This is scarcely believable if one considers that New Zealand had fewer than 2 million people living in it at the time.

Moreover, the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, along with the Salvation Army - the only denominations with serious activity in this area - simply lacked the logistical means or staff to have somehow housed an average of 25,000 different young people each year.

On the other hand, the figure could refer to admissions rather than individuals, which would start to make more sense. In the case of the old state-care system, however, we know that it was more the exception than the rule for a youngster to have just the one residential experience; usually it would be many times that, usually in pretty quick succession. These latest figures can better be seen in that context.

Māori numbers

Similar caveats probably apply to what another piece of research highlights as the historical over-representation of Māori in the system under scrutiny.

The authors point out that the government did not systematically collect data on the representation of Māori in care. "Nevertheless," they note, "by piecing together the available sources, a clear picture of Māori over-representation in care emerges."

This they do, mainly, by looking at information from the children's courts in which Māori were far more likely to get hauled back in for re-offending and considerably more likely to end up going on to ethnically star in the wider court system.

It's not so easy to surmise in the case of kids whose family origins were in the islands of the South Pacific (and one has to put it this way rather than talking about things "Polynesian", because for a long time this was used interchangeably with "Māori" as a category).

Significant gaps in Pacific numbers

While significant gaps in knowledge exist across all three cohorts, the authors acknowledge, the gaps are particularly obvious for Pacific people in state and faith-based care, especially for the period 1950 to 1999. The report blames this on "sporadic and inconsistent" reporting of ethnicity for most of the period covered - but of course this was a conformant era in which the political culture was far less interested in ethnic roots than social destination. To this the research more or less admits.

As with ethnicity, so with actual numbers overall. "We will probably never know for certain how many children, young people, and vulnerable adults were abused in care in Aotearoa New Zealand in the period 1950 to 2019," the consultants conclude.

"We can, however, make indicative estimates and continue to develop our knowledge of the size of these cohorts, throughout the life of the Inquiry. We can also say that despite some data limitations, it is clear that the abuse of children, young people, and vulnerable adults in care in Aotearoa New Zealand is a significant problem."

And what were the financial (and non-financial) costs of all this? Here the consultants have looked at a variety of categories, including education, productivity losses due to poorer employment outcomes for former wards, health system costs, the cost of protecting vulnerable kids, and so on.

Cost of abuse put at $857,000 for each person

As of last year, it calculates, astonishingly, the average lifetime cost for an individual abused in care was $857,000. About $184,000 of this is financial costs to the economy from increased spending on healthcare, state costs responding to negative outcomes from abused children, deadweight losses from collecting taxes to fund state services, and productivity losses. The remaining $673,000 (78 percent) representing a non-financial cost "reflecting the pain and suffering and premature death" of the survivor of abuse.

Extrapolating from this per-individual cost (and here the concepts of "survivor" and those who simply passed through these places are used fairly interchangeably), the authors suggest the economic cost overall for the last 50 years of the 20th century was somewhere between $96 billion and $217 billion, or up to 0.8 percent of GDP. Talk about a Covid-size hit.

While some of these figures are eminently debatable - a number of them appear to be number-crunching exercises based on how much relevant government agencies spend or else extrapolations from not entirely relevant overseas jurisdictions - the broad picture we now have stands as illuminating, inarguable and, alas, inexcusable.

Show us the data indeed.

*David Cohen is a journalist and the author of Little Criminals: The Story of a New Zealand Boys' Home. He writes regular analyses of the Abuse in Care Royal Commission for RNZ.

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