As New Zealand finally prepares to officially address its history of child abuse in state care, newly-minted child protection laws are only just being implemented. What does the Royal Commission mean for the new system? Teuila Fuatai reports. 

In less than six months, one of the most significant inquiries into child abuse in New Zealand is set to begin.

Announced yesterday by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Minister for Children Tracey Martin, the Royal Commission for Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care will consider the experiences of children in the state system from 1950 to the end of 1999.

Carrying on from the work of the now defunct Confidential Listening and Assistance Service (CLAS), the inquiry — which will not have its final terms of reference set until after a three-month public consultation period — provides a platform for the hundreds of adults who experienced physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect while under the care of the state. And similar to the CLAS, which heard from more than 1100 victims over a seven-year period — the inquiry’s findings and recommendations will be considered by the Government so practices and circumstances that enabled and perpetrated widespread abuse are not repeated.

“I think we can say it is probably one of the more significant historical issues that this Government will deal with in our time in Office, in fact, that New Zealand is likely to deal with in some decades to come,” Ardern said.

Recent abuse cases: possible consideration

At a broad level, timing of the inquiry coincides with the ongoing implementation of the recently revamped Children’s and Young People’s Well-being Act — the legislation which dictates how children removed from their homes are cared for.

In explaining the inquiry’s 50-year timeframe, Martin said it took into account the early 1950s, when “a number of children’s homes were opened in New Zealand and … the bulk of children were taken into care”.

“There were 15 pieces of legislation starting in 1987 moving forward that were put in place to protect children, once these sort of situations became well-known.

“We’ve given a 50-year span, with a span of another eight to 10 years from the beginning of the 1990s because we know things have to flow and settle,” she said.

Recent cases of abuse in state care, and ongoing problems with the current system — which were taken into account in the overhaul of the Children’s and Young People’s Well-being Act — were also highlighted to Martin and Ardern in yesterday’s press conference.

Both reiterated that if the chair of the inquiry, former Governor General Sir Anand Satyanand, recommended the timeframe of the inquiry be extended past the end of 1999 to include more recent abuse cases following consultation on the draft terms of reference, problems with the current system may well be considered.

Impact on new childcare laws

Children’s Commissioner and former principal youth court judge Andrew Becroft — who has spoken out about the mishandling of Child, Youth and Family Cases, particularly those involving Māori children — said the inquiry could be particularly useful in addressing “concerning rates” of re-abuse of children in care.

Becroft, who has described the new Children and Young People’s Well-being Act as a  “second-chance” for those working with children in state care, told Newsroom the inquiry could likely improve systems that monitor the health and safety of children in care, as well as those that deal with complaints and investigations.

“Simply put, we think New Zealanders will be shocked at the sheer magnitude of abuse in the care system in this country.”

— Whakarongo Mai chief executive Dr Ainsleigh Cribb-Su’a

When asked what possible impacts the inquiry could have on current-day practices, Becroft said a complete overhaul of the legislation was unlikely.

“The recent changes that have resulted in the establishment of Oranga Tamariki means that whatever the Royal Commission reveals, some improvements have already been made and we have begun to move away from the ‘bad old days’.

“There is already more oversight already to reduce the chances of these historic abuses ever happening again,” he said.

VOYCE – Whakarongo Mai, an independent organisation that advocates for children and young people who are, or have been, in care, said a “comprehensive” inquiry like this one was likely to impact current systems around children in care.

“Simply put, we think New Zealanders will be shocked at the sheer magnitude of abuse in the care system in this country,” Whakarongo Mai chief executive Dr Ainsleigh Cribb-Su’a said.

“[While] it is difficult to predict specific outcomes of the inquiry, and the impact these may have on existing legislation … we would not be surprised if further legislative changes result from the inquiry as this will be the first comprehensive inquiry of its kind — where the voices of those affected are to be heard.”

Coming months

The Government said it expects to release the draft terms of reference for the inquiry next week. Final terms would be set after the three-month public consultation period, although Ardern acknowledged that may need to be extended.

When the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service was established, it was originally mandated to operate for five years. That was extended for two years due to the number of people that came forward. Panel meetings for the service took place throughout the country, including in 18 prisons. Meetings were also held in Sydney to hear those unable to return to New Zealand. Of the 1103 people heard by the service, nearly 60 percent were referred to the Ministry of Social Development and Ministry of Health to seek an apology and compensation.

Ardern and Martin said yesterday the Royal Commission of Inquiry did not have the mandate to consider compensation for individual cases, however it would be able to hear about the current process for historic abuse claims, and comment on how well that was working. The cost of the inquiry in its first year has been estimated at $12 million.

Read more:

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Children’s Commissioner: NZ’s second-chance for Māori

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