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‘It never goes away’: New Zealand survivors of abuse in care hope testimony will herald change

·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Jack Sullivan/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Jack Sullivan/Alamy Stock Photo

“For me, healing is not possible, because of what has happened,” Tyrone Marks told New Zealand’s royal commission into abuse in care on Monday. “I still carry on however, as normally as possible.”

Over the last two weeks, the commission has held hearings, gathering testimony from those held as children in residential state care. A sprawling independent investigation put in motion by the Labour government in 2018, it is tasked with revealing the extent of abuse in state care and its ongoing effects.

In total, 16 men and women took to the stand to testify, each speaking for about three hours. Their testimonies revealed a litany of horrors. They spoke in detail about extreme physical abuse, beatings, sexual assault, psychological torment and repeated rape. Many experience ongoing health conditions as a result, including severe injuries from physical beatings, the aftermath of sexually transmitted disease, psychological distress and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Related: 'You ruined me': New Zealand's abuse survivors speak at landmark inquiry

Those speaking made up only a tiny fraction of the total estimated number of survivors, and are a small representative group of the thousands spoken to by investigators. The commission estimates about 655,000 people have been in care settings in New Zealand since the 1950s, and up to 256,000 may have been abused. Their testimony was livestreamed, and transcripts will be published on the commission’s website.

Marks, 60, spent time in up to eight state institutions, where he experienced physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Speaking to the Guardian after the panel, Marks said he tried to compress all those years into the two hours and 50 minutes allotted to him. “You don’t get a lot of time. That’s years and years … It kind of doesn’t do it justice,” he says. The hearing scheduled a 10-minute break during his testimony. In hindsight, he says, he wished he had those minutes back.

“There are thousands and thousands of similar stories. Those other survivors don’t get the opportunity we had. I want to punch it out as much as I can, to tell the stories of others too.”

The commission will make recommendations to government in 2023 on how the country can improve its care system – but those recommendations are not binding, and the commission itself cannot prosecute offenders or offer compensation. For some survivors, it is an opportunity to be heard; to hold the state publicly accountable for abuse and neglect, and to try to trace social problems to their roots.

‘All you can hear is screams’

Some testified anonymously. Mr X, a 61-year-old Samoan man from Christchurch, began running away from home after experiencing physical and sexual abuse from family members. He was first sent to the state boys’ home at around 11 years old.

There, he was physically assaulted, abused, and repeatedly raped by several staff members.

In the secure unit of Ōwairaka Boy’s Home, his cell was next to the shower block. “When they used to take the boys in there you could – I’d sit on my bed, you imagine that, you’re a kid and you’re sitting on the cell bed and all you can hear is screams from the boys being sexually abused, being beaten.”

Daniel Rei reeled off account after account of violence and assault: of being thrown into a forestry ravine in a hazing ritual, of the teeth that came loose in his beatings. The 47-year-old spoke in plain, clear language and short sentences, looking directly at the panel.

But when legal counsel asked him to recount a sexual attack – an assault by a resident on another boy, involving a broomstick – he paused, screwing his eyes shut. “If it needs to be said, I’ll say it, I’ll talk about it,” he said. The chair stopped him: “Daniel, just to let you know we’ve got your account here, we can read it, and so we respect your choice not to say.” He nodded. “Things blur,” he said. “You try to let certain things go, and they stick around, they change format, and they change shape. You have to recall them, horribly, just to make sure what you thought was correct.”

Asked about his feelings of fear and hopelessness, he responded: “It’s stuck on. You can’t get it off. It never, ever, ever goes away. And it never will.” He describes those years in state care as being “like a tear” in his life.

People need to recognise the scale of it and they need to recognise the damage. It’s done not just to individuals, but to successive generations

Aaron Smale

Many survivors hoped that their testimony would help reveal the roots of some of New Zealand’s enduring social problems, including persistently high suicide rates, high rates of domestic violence, and disproportionate incarceration of Māori, New Zealand’s indigenous population. In the 1970s, the majority of children taken into state care were Māori, and over-representation of Māori children in care has continued. According to the royal commission’s report, Māori today make up 69% of children in care and 81% of the children abused in care, despite making up only about 16% of the overall population.

“People need to recognise the scale of it and they need to recognise the damage. It’s done not just to individuals, but to successive generations,” says Aaron Smale, a journalist and researcher who has reported on abuse in state care for many years. He’s now a PhD candidate, studying the experience of Māori children in state care.

Many children were sent into care facilities for minor violations: truancy, or petty crime. To the commission, Smale cited one instance where a boy was sent to Epuni Boys’ Home for stealing a pencil.

“It sets in motion a train on this whole path of destruction – and not just for that individual, when you’ve got a traumatised kid and they grow up and they have kids, they’re not necessarily going to find it easy to be a good parent.”

“If you went through these welfare homes, the state was your parent,” Smale says. “The state was the parent to thousands of children, and what kind of job did they do? What kind of parent was it? What kind of damage did it leave in its wake?”

“Until we acknowledge that, until we address it, we’re just going to keep punishing people.”

Marks says that many of his peers who went through abusive care environments passed on some of that trauma to their children. “Many people I know [from the homes], they’ve had children like me, and their children have suffered – haven’t been raised with care, because others have been affected by what’s happened to them … A lot of people, they got broken. They broke their spirits,” Marks says.

He now has six children and has worked his whole life to try to break that cycle: none of them have ever been placed in state care or in prisons. “I made sure they weren’t statistics in that intergenerational stuff,” he says. “I didn’t want them to go through all that.”

Related: New Zealand royal commission: victims in shock at paedophile's access to inquiry

Marks’ four adult children all watched the live stream of his testimony, in support of him on Monday.

‘The importance of changing the system’

Mr X ended his testimony by requesting that New Zealand learn from what happened to him. “There is no redress, no recourse, because they can’t take us back to those days,” he said. But he, along with a number of other survivors, believes the state should pay proper financial compensation to survivors of abuse in state care.

Many survivors have already spent decades battling the government for compensation. As of 2020, the average payout to survivors who did manage to win a settlement from the state was NZ$19,000 – less than a fifth the average payout for comparable cases in Australia. In some cases, the state settled for as little as NZ$5,000. In 2020, the ministry of social development revealed more than 60% of the money it spent on settling historical abuse claims went to operational costs and legal fees, not survivors.

Mr X asked the commission to focus on “the importance of changing the system, the importance to us that children are not treated like this any more.” Marks too hopes that New Zealanders will watch the videos, and read the testimony of those who spoke.

“I’ve been telling stories like this for years and years but it never gets too far. So having that opportunity to tell it feels like something.”

“If you don’t address the past, you can’t address the future,” he says: New Zealand must reckon with the legacy of abuse in state care, and begin to understand the impact it has had on future generations.

“You don’t start a book halfway through, and then get to the end and expect to have the answers,” he says. “You have to identify where things come from.”