Abuse in care inquiry: Boys' home 'beginning of my criminal career'

4:35 pm on 12 March 2022

Warning: Details in this story may be distressing to some readers.

They were supposed to be homes of healing, protection, and safety. They were supposed to be a sanctuary for tamariki taken away from a world of 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

But for those placed in Social Welfare facilities in the 1970s and '80s, they were houses of pain and fear, where any chance at a decent life was torn asunder.

The only education they got was an induction into a world of crime, a preparatory course for prison.

The Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry is now halfway through a two-week hearing into the experiences of Māori in state- and faith-based care.

It has so far heard of deep-seated racism at agencies, of adoption being used as a tool of assimilation, and of Māori bearing the disproportionate brunt of state agencies.

On Friday, it heard testimony from two people who spent much of their childhoods in these institutions.

Hohepa Taiaroa: 'The beginning of my criminal career' was Kohitere boys' home

Hohepa Taiaroa spoke of his time at the Kohitere Boys' Training Centre and then in borstal, where he said he was stripped of his Māoritanga, his whānau and his education.

He spent much of his childhood at Ratana Pā, near Whanganui, where he grew up surrounded by whānau, tikanga and Te Ao Māori.

His parents split when he was five, and then when he was nine, his mother came and asked if he wanted to join her in Wellington.

He said yes, but arrived to the shock of a new man and three new siblings. It was exciting at first, but he soon started to feel left out.

"School was hard. I was still trying to figure out what was going on in life. I remember going there and they couldn't spell or say my name properly," he told the Royal Commission via video link.

"Joseph is what they called me. Anything to do with school or anything else in the community, Joseph was my name because Pākehā couldn't say my name properly," Taiaroa said.

Home and school life was not going well, and he rebelled by getting angry. He said he committed petty theft to get his mother's attention. In the end, he took to the streets, getting money from a paper round and sleeping in cinemas and wherever else he could.

"In the summer I would go onto the roofs. In the winter I would sleep under the house."

This brought police and social welfare into the fray.

"Social welfare was always there when I got in trouble but was never there when I needed help. You were never listened to. The only thing they listened to was that sheet that was in front of them."

No one ever asked him what was wrong, he recalled. No one sought to understand why he was acting out. He was just another case number.

He was briefly moved to an uncle's in Hawke's Bay then, at 14, the state, against his uncle's wishes, sent him to the notorious Kohitere near Levin.

"[My uncle] believed he could do something with me and I believe he could have if he had the chance, being in a whānau environment with family."

At first, he thought Kohitere would be exciting, living with a whole lot of boys his age. That was dispelled as soon as he arrived, when the brutal initiation began.

"The first night I was there I ran away from the violence. I never expected the abuse that went on. I'm talking daily, 24/7. The verbal abuse. The trauma that went with it, just watching the ones that were weak trying to get through the situations they were in."

But to run away was to only make things worse. When he was caught he was sent to 'the block.' A cream-coloured concrete building, away from the main campus and obscured by trees.

Inside were concrete cells, where they would spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. They would be woken at 5am, have some exercise, then be put back in the cell. No bed sheets, nothing to do but sit and stew.

Coupled with his unresolved childhood trauma, the Kohitere experience sent Taiaroa inwards, and he shut himself off from the world. He said he built a wall around himself.

"The wall is where you've had enough. You've exhausted all your resources in finding answers, so the first thing you do is you find your own answers. And when you can't find those answers you start building a wall around yourself, it's like a self-protection.

"If nobody's going to help you and you can't explain yourself to them you start building a wall around you so that nobody can get inside. It's like a protective wall."

Taiaroa was at Kohitere until he was 17. There was little education, and Māori was not tolerated in the slightest. He told the commission he was once heavily reprimanded for saying "Kia Ora".

The staff turned a blind eye to the violence, sometimes encouraging it to get their way.

"You might think it's just a boys' home, but to be honest, that was the beginning of my criminal career.

"Instead of learning Māori and other stuff we were supposed to learn, we learned how to steal, how to gamble, how to get ahead of everybody else in the system."

When he was released, there was no support. It was hard to adjust to life outside, he said, and there was years of anger still simmering within him. He started a spate of petty crimes, and was in borstal a year later.

"[Borstal] just prepared me for prison. What I didn't learn in borstal or Kohitere, I enhanced in prison to the point where my wall was so high now above my head I would let nobody in."

After several run-ins with the law, Taiaroa found himself in Mount Crawford prison. It was there that he was - finally - visited by a social worker, only to be told his eldest daughter was going to be put up for adoption.

"I said, 'Well, hello? She's got a father. He's coming out soon and he'll be ready to pick her up,' and they said no. They put it down because I was incarcerated.

"They gave me an ultimatum - either I sign the papers now, or they're going to take me to court and do it anyway."

They reunited when she was 12, and his daughter was in the room with him as he gave his testimony.

In the years since, Taiaroa has been to counselling, a retreat, and reconnected with his whānau, iwi and Māoritanga. It was finding that, he said, that started to dilute his anger.

He works in Palmerston North, helping people who are in similar situations to what he has been in. Out on Friday and Saturday nights giving coffee to those who need it, kai to anyone who needs a feed.

But he can't help but lament what could have been. If the state had instead chosen to support his whānau, if he had the chance to stay with his uncle. If he had not been institutionalised.

"If we had iwi involvement in these situations and if we had whānau involvement in these situations it would help bring that person out and help them have better choices," he said.

When asked what redress he would like, he was direct: "I want my name back. Taiaroa. I am not a number."

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

Te Aroha Knox: 'You have to fight your way through everything'

The state's move to protect only exacerbated hell for Te Aroha Knox. She gave evidence to the Royal Commission after Taiaroa.

"I want my story to become a case study so that it doesn't happen to others," she said via video link.

Knox was born in the 1960s, one of seven children in a house soaked with alcohol and shaken by violence. They moved around, following various jobs her father had at the timber mills. She recalled going to 10 different schools in five years.

Te Aroha was her grandmother's name. Aroha means love, and her nanny gifted it to her. But when she went to school, that identity was stripped away. Knox broke down as she recalled her teachers, unable to pronounce Te Aroha, opting for 'Lovie' instead and sticking by it.

"It means a lot to me," she said. "It means a lot to me because I've got to live and breathe it ... It's my grandmother's name. I love my grandmother."

Her childhood was far from stable. Her father was imprisoned and her mother sent to Tokanui Hospital. The only reprieve seemed to come when she went to her grandmothers, or stayed with aunties. Her parents eventually split, and her mother raised the six children solo in South Auckland.

"We had no guidance at all from anybody, we had to fend for ourselves," Knox said.

They started stealing food to get by, which brought police and social welfare attention. Eventually, the state took her away. But things only got worse.

Knox and her brother were placed into a Department of Social Welfare family home in Papatoetoe where, aged 10, she was sexually assaulted. After the attack, she and her brother ran away.

But for doing that, the pair were split apart. Her brother was sent to boys' homes, and Knox to several institutions, including the Allendale and Bollard Girls' Homes and Fareham House in Featherston.

At no point, in any of these institutions, did someone ask her what had happened or why she might have run away.

"I was so lost. I was so lost," Knox told the Commission. "I was so lost then I don't know how I got to see myself through all that."

The houses were violent, and offered little in the way of opportunity. There was little Māoritanga, just the occasional bit of kapa haka at Fareham House. Knox said doing that was the only time she felt happy.

"They did some sewing and cooking, but little academic stuff in terms of school. Education was zero."

"You have to fight your way through everything. You have to claim who you are, what you're doing. Violence was a big deal, you have to have a fight to be able to be bullied or be the bully. That's the difference."

At Fareham House, as a young teen, Knox said her fight or flight sense took over and she ran away. Already, the only place that seemed open to her was the underworld.

"Back then they had the Black Power and the Mongrel Mob running the whole big scene then in the '70s. So I would just run away to them. It was horrible. Nothing's ever nice in any gangs. But where else would you go if you're just a street kid?"

Wherever she ran, all roads would lead back to Fareham House. It became a vicious cycle. Fed up with the torment, Knox would run away from Fareham. She would get caught by the police and returned. Then she would get it worse, so she would run away. Repeat. Repeat.

"Running away was my way of coping with everything," Knox said.

"But then I'd get caught and go back to the Fareham House and that's when I'd really get treated like shit from everybody."

When she was returned she was placed into what was known as solitary confinement. There, the caregivers would take her clothes and lock her in an empty room for days on end.

Eventually, she was sent to a home in Paeroa, but she was sexually abused there too. Knox told the Royal Commission that what little self-confidence she had left was then completely shattered.

As an adult, she was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She detailed how throughout her adult life she has struggled to trust anyone or anything. That has come to affect her relationships.

That trauma still lingers, but she told the Royal Commission that the opportunity to reconnect with her taha Māori was therapeutic. She was taken in by Manurewa Marae in Auckland some years ago.

"Kaikaos, male, female, all of them. They worked off the marae in Manurewa and we had a whare for those who needed healing. So all the nans there would support me for what I was doing. I realised then that's what it's really about, really connecting properly.

"They could see the potential that I couldn't see with my own [eyes]. I couldn't see. I was just blinded by what had traumatised me before."

Half a century later, Te Aroha Knox is still proudly bearing her grandmother's name. She has two sons and seven mokopuna who adore her. She told the Commission that only now was grasping all the opportunities the state had stripped from her in her childhood.

Knox had recently taken a literacy programme at a local education centre in Whakatū.

"I'm in my 50's, I'm just experiencing it now. I'm learning new words I never got to learn when I was growing up, my world was black and white, but now the words on a piece of paper just colour my world. Now I'm able to express the words properly and understand what it means."

And now she is studying to become a kaiako. To help new generations, and be an example of what's possible. To make her whānau proud.

"I've gotta be here for the next generation, that's what I'm really here for," she said, the tears giving way to a smile.

"To say to them, 'it's okay, you can do it'. Whatever goals you choose in your life you can do it. If I can, you can.

"Just to let them know they're supported, manaakitanga."

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