"a Lot of Abuse Took Place There': State Care Institutions Vanished from Records

By Aaron Smale
December 16, 2020

There’s a big chunk of Kath Coster’s childhood that is a blank. Not because she can’t remember it – she will never forget the time she spent at Strathmore Girls’ Home in Christchurch.

The abuse she went through from the age of nine has left deep scars. “I don’t think you ever get over that kind of thing,” she says.

But the Department of Social Welfare, as it was called then, that ran Strathmore has passed on an institutional amnesia to its present-day iteration, the Ministry of Social Development. It has left little trace of the existence of Strathmore, which was closed in 1980.

“There were a lot of girls in there when I was in there. And a lot of abuse took place there,” Coster, who is now 57 and still lives in Christchurch, says in an interview. “But if I look up Strathmore to try and find information, there is none.”

Sometimes it appears in government records as a transition home, sometimes as a hospital for women, sometimes it doesn’t seem to have existed at all.

“It doesn’t matter where I look, there is nothing on it. How does that happen? It was run by welfare. I can’t find it,” she says.

Coster says she bounced between foster homes, where she was being groomed by paedophiles, and Strathmore. In Strathmore the “girls that were 13 or 14 had to have internal examinations” and were held in cells until they complied.

The abuse that Coster endured, and her difficulties in finding any official record of New Zealand’s welfare institutions, hint at the wider challenges facing the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care.

The commission, established in 2018 by the Labour-led government, will spend five years investigating abuses in state welfare, psychiatric and disability institutions, church schools and care homes. Some survivors have given evidence at commission hearings, while experts have also testified.

Its first three reports will be presented in Parliament on Wednesday.

The lack of government accountability led Coster to set up a Facebook group so survivors could share stories and create a kind of informal support network and reckon with the past.

“I started in Dunedin and I haven’t even managed to get out of Dunedin because they were everywhere,” she says. “When you do the research there’s no information on them. A lot of people get stressed because it’s like it never happened.”

In the course of her research, Coster has found the way children were moved around in the system was chaotic.

“A lot of them have gone from place to place to place, backwards and forwards. Some [homes] would close down and open under another name. That happened to quite a few of them.”

‘’Histories have been shredded, destroyed,’’ says Elizabeth Stanley, a Victoria University of Wellington criminologist.

Victoria University of Wellington criminologist Elizabeth Stanley, who wrote the book The Road to Hell: State Violence Against Children in Postwar New Zealand, says this lack of sound record-keeping is a measure of the value the state put on people for whom it was responsible.

“The preliminary evidence is showing us how little data on children and adults in care has been collated or safely stored,” she says.

“Histories have been shredded, destroyed. Time and again, officials have decided that the information about their lives is not important to keep. It tells us a lot about how we look after the most vulnerable in our society.”

Stanley estimated that more than 100,000 children were removed from their families in the postwar period. This number was based on a tally of children in various institutions that was recorded in November every year.

However, this didn’t account for children who may have passed through at other times of the year and Stanley had to make calculations to allow for this.

Now the royal commission is trying to figure out just how many people like Coster there are. It’s a fraught task, with patchy data and inconsistent records across vastly different institutions.

The commission asked consultants Martin, Jenkins and Associates to try to make sense of the information that was available. The resulting statistical report has come up with numbers that are broad in range and qualified by numerous caveats, and gaps in information have been filled by various extrapolations.

The statistical report covers from 1950 to 2019 and estimates that 655,000 people passed through different forms of care. It estimates that between 17 and 39 per cent of these people – between 114,000 and 256,000 – are likely to have been abused.

However, an individual could pass through several different institutions from different categories – church, welfare, psychiatric – which meant their admission could be included in counts for each of those categories. The statistical report adjusted for such overlap, but the adjustment was based on one report with a limited sample.

Andrew Sporle, Auckland University senior research fellow, says ‘’the lack of data reflects the sidestepping of the duty of care’’.

Andrew Sporle, who teaches statistics and research design at Auckland University, says the report risks giving credence to numbers that are far from established.

“If you say these are the results of research they get some sort of veracity that isn’t justified by the source of the data or what is done with it,” he says.

“The problem with that is, once it comes out with somebody’s name on it, then it becomes almost fact because people won’t look at the criticisms, they won’t look at the peer review. It will come out as fact because it’s got the royal commission’s name on it.”

Sporle points out that the Australian royal commission into sexual abuse refused to produce a report on the numbers because the data wasn’t strong enough. He believes the royal commission here should have taken a similar stand.

“That should be the statement – sorry, the data is crap,” he says.

“Their methods don’t take into account the completely different age profiles between Maori and non-Maori, which means there are completely different population dynamics over the last 30 years. Which means they’re massively underestimating the impact of this on Maori society.

“If one of my stage 3 students had done that, I would have failed them. Seriously, it is that bad.”

The royal commission acknowledged that more work needs to be done and will be done particularly on specific groups like Maori.

“This study has also identified key gaps in New Zealand-specific abuse prevalence data, particularly for certain population groups such as Maori, Pacific and disabled people,” chair Judge Coral Shaw said.

“To fill these gaps, the commission is undertaking detailed research and investigations to inform our recommendations.”

Judge Coral Shaw says: ‘’If you’ve got vulnerable people in care and you don’t take the care to properly record their histories, their progress, their data, their ethnicity, their degree of disability, then what does that say about the extent that we are caring as a nation?”

While the data is incomplete, Shaw stressed that it was a requirement of the commission’s terms of reference that it try to quantify the numbers of children who went through different types of institutional care.

But debates about statistics raises wider questions. What has the state known about the extent of the removal and abuse of children, particularly Maori children, over the last 50 years?

Given how much money Crown Law and other agencies spent defending allegations of state abuse, surely someone must have asked how big the problem was.

Countries like Australia and Canada investigated the removal of indigenous children, sexual abuse in the church and other similar issues years, sometimes decades, ago. New Zealand is only starting now.

A briefing for an interagency meeting on the issue of abuse in state custody in 2006 noted that Ministry of Social Development chief executive Peter Hughes became concerned about the number of potential claims when it merged with Child, Youth and Family in the early 2000s.

The briefing discussed a number of topics, particularly the Crown’s liability, but didn’t raise any questions about the extent of the harm and the potential numbers of people affected.

Hughes is now State Services Commissioner. Over the years MSD and its predecessor DSW have also destroyed files that could have been significant in calculating the scale of the issue. In 2007 a staff member acknowledged in court that staff files were likely destroyed in 1999.

Sporle says the lack of records is a glaring problem and the ultimate blame lies with the agencies that removed children but failed to keep adequate records.

“It breaks my heart that we don’t have good evidence on this stuff,” he says. ‘’It’s an important story, it needs to be told right. This doesn’t tell it right. The lack of data reflects the sidestepping of the duty of care. They [the state] didn’t even care enough to keep proper records.”

On that point at least, Shaw is in complete agreement.

“That’s the tragedy of this whole thing,” she says in an interview. “To me it indicates a degree of carelessness. If you’ve got vulnerable people in care and you don’t take the care to properly record their histories, their progress, their data, their ethnicity, their degree of disability, then what does that say about the extent that we are caring as a nation?”

If measuring the numbers of people who went through the state system is difficult, measuring the impact on those people is even more problematic. How do you put a price on a childhood taken and an adulthood blighted?

The royal commission has made an attempt, with a separate report that calculates the economic impact on individuals and come up with a figure of $857,000 as the average lifetime cost for someone abused in care.

About $184,000 of this is the cost 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 is a non-financial cost reflecting the pain and suffering and premature death.

While the methodologies will be the subject of scrutiny, the figure for individuals is in the ballpark of estimations that have been cited in litigation. Lawyer Sonja Cooper says it is broadly similar to calculations she has received and put forward as evidence.

“These figures are consistent with the sort of figures we have been provided by actuaries in preparation for trials. In other words, the total economic cost of abuse is very significant because of the fact that the effects are ongoing. The figures support our evidence about how grossly inadequate the state’s redress processes are.”

One of Cooper’s clients, Tyrone Marks, went through a number of welfare homes and other institutions. He first filed his claim 13 years ago and is still waiting.

“When Sonja first put my claim in it was for $759,000. That’s 13 years ago. When I spoke to her recently she said they’d never pay that much, but that’s not the point. The point is that they did a valuation and that was the figure.”

MSD recently offered Marks a settlement of $15,000. He turned it down because he thought it was insulting.

Whatever the numbers of people who went through different forms of care actually are, so far only a fraction of survivors have come forward to the royal commission.

Stanley says this is something the commission must face up to.

“With 1332 people registering as survivors, it’s clear that many New Zealanders who have experienced abuse have not yet approached the royal commission.

“Why is this? A lack of trust in giving testimony to this body? A sense that nothing will change as a result? Something else? This situation must be addressed, with some urgency.”

Disclosure: Aaron Smale, who is doing a PhD on Maori children in state custody, gave evidence at a commission hearing.








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