State abuse inquiry makes slow progress

By David Cohen
Radio New Zealand
September 20, 2020

Attendees and witnesses tied ribbons at St Patrick and St Joseph Cathedral in Auckland when the Royal Commission's hearings wound up for the year in November 2019.
Photo by Patrice Allen

Judge Coral Shaw is now chair of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care.
Photo by Patrice Allen

Opinion - Nearly three years have grumbled by since the government first signed off on the Abuse in Care Royal Commission. What on earth have they been up to?

Announcing the inquiry shortly after assuming her premiership, Jacinda Ardern said it would be a historic opportunity for the nation to "confront our history and make sure we don't make the same mistakes again".

A little noticed omission in the fine print appears to have been that rather a lot of this historical confrontation would take place behind closed doors.

At the same time, what relatively little has gone on in the public domain since the commission finally got going late last year hasn't always enhanced its brief to quantify the abuse that took place in many of the old state-run institutions and their faith-based counterparts.

Defections. Bickering over terms of reference. Allegations of poor management. The surprise resignation of the inaugural chair, Sir Anand Satyanand, who stepped down from the role late last year for the chancellorship of the University of Waikato.

As might be expected for any initiative in which a number of advisors have had longer rap sheets than resumes, there has been the odd controversy over the commission's choice of advisors.

The pandemic, which derailed the last set of planned public hearings this past March and May, has not helped, either, although it did help keep some of the planned increases in expenditure in line.

Now the doors are set to squeak open again tomorrow as the inquiry considers questions of redress.

It will be the commission's first public outing since last year's introductory two-week-long "contextual hearing" in Auckland, where the commission now works out of a customised hearing space it purchased in February.

Last year, former wards, lawyers and scholars, along with the occasional contributor whose specific relevance wasn't always entirely clear, offered perspectives either having to do with their own direct experience or particular academic expertise.

In the coming sessions - there will be two at a fortnight apiece, with a two week break in the middle - the focus will be on civil claims made by former wards, including litigation in the courts or before the Human Rights Tribunal.

In a media release, the commission said this next step of the process "will help us to build a picture".

Presumably it will also help it to address what has always been the financial elephant in the room.

The government insisted from the start that these hearings were not mainly or even partly about money, and indeed compensation has pointedly not been included in the terms of reference. But it's hard to see how weeks of hearings on redress, which the dictionary defines as specific compensation for a past wrong, can sidestep it - something the commission acknowledges in its advance publicity.

In addition to questions of financial compensation, there will likely be discussion on rehabilitation through medical and psychological treatment, counselling, and other health and social services, the actual accountability of those responsible for any abuse, and - in the prime minister's phrase - the all-important matter of heading off future abuse.

In the second phase of the state redress hearing, witnesses for the Crown will give evidence.

This could be interesting, too, as it touches on an important part of the inquiry's brief, which is to better understand why these individuals were placed in these residences in the first place. Since the hearings are about abuse in care, the natural inference for some onlookers - buttressed by frequently lurid headlines and lengthy accounts of sexual assault - is that those who did the caring must have all been monsters or perverts. But that has always been a bit misleading.

Many, probably a majority, of the youngish men and women who worked in the 26 state institutions now under investigation were by the standards of their day five-star liberals.

Yes, the old Child Welfare Division of what we now call the Ministry of Social Development would be seen today as schoolmarmish - at best. But in the context of the 1950s, and even well into the following decade, it might just as easily have been criticised for being untowardly woke.

Indeed, those who worked for it would not have been all that different in the main to the 100 or so equally well-intentioned people currently working for the commission.

So, what else have the commissioners and their support staff been doing since the last round of public hearings?

For one thing, there have been 500 private sessions with of the people who say they suffered abuse. These conversations have involved commissioners travelling around the country or else zooming in. More than twice that number are still waiting to be done.

While that's certainly a lot of work, it's not clear how this conversational process, if it can be called that, is substantially different from the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service that ran for six years until June 2015 and involved 1100 former wards discussing much the same thing.

Elsewhere, however, the commission can point to a clutch of other milestones.

First, there have been eight investigations launched so far into alleged abuse that occurred in care settings. Investigations are also in process into the thematic issues that will dominate the rest of the hearings: redress, the specifically Māori experiences, abuse in psychiatric or disability care, and, along with the state institutions, a look at the places for kids and young people that were variously run by the Catholic and Anglican churches or the Salvation Army.

The commission is also specifically looking at abuse experienced by Pacific people, which still appears a little surprising as the vast majority of wards from 1950 to 1999 would have been Māori or Pākehā.

Second, the commission says it has now made significant progress behind the scenes in what it calls survivor-engagement, including MoU's it has established with the likes of Corrections, New Zealand Police, VOYCE Whakarongo Mai.

Above and beyond the $15 million already set aside for counselling, the plan is for such initiatives to help affected people find a road back to something approaching normality.

Finally there's the reporting. The commission says reviews have been completed in all its current investigation areas. An interim report for the governor-general should appear before Christmas.

Will the public end 2020 better informed about the Abuse in Care Royal Commission than when the year began?

Maybe, even probably, and possibly even imminently.


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