Compensation payments to some of New Zealand’s most high-profile offenders have been quietly paid for abuse they suffered while in state care, but plans to restrict how they can use that money have been shelved. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

A group of murderers, rapists and child molesters have begun to receive compensation for abuse they received while in state care as children.

Payments to the ‘high tariff’ offenders have been delayed in some cases for more than a decade while the Government decided how to proceed.

Now, payments for those who suffered abuse have been approved.

The previous National-led government had plans to place caveats on the payments, putting the money into a trust that could only be tapped into for rehabilitation and reintegration purposes.

But that idea has now been scrapped.

A briefing to Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni, released under the Official Information Act, revealed that a group of offenders who were either still in prison or subject to extended supervision or a public protection order had lodged claims of state care abuse.

“Their crimes, including murder, child molestation and rape had been the subject of extensive media coverage,” Sepuloni said.

“Previous ministers were therefore concerned about community views on unrestricted Crown compensation payments being made to people with serious criminal histories.”

A group of 74 prisoners who were locked up at Auckland’s Paremoremo prison in the 1990s and were treated inhumanely have also lodged claims across two class actions relating to their treatment under the “behaviour management regime”.

But while any compensation they receive will be made public and subject to claims from their victims, payments to the state care abuse claimants will not be made public as the events happened outside prison.

“I get really hot under the collar about this cash for criminals stuff … if you treat people like monsters then sometimes they grow up to be monsters.”

Sepuloni said no matter what a person had done they had to be able to look to the Government to protect their rights.

“People who have been convicted of crimes are not precluded from this process. I expect the welfare system to act fairly, and without judgment, and so I expect claims of historic abuse in the care of the state to be equally even-handed.”

Following questions from Newsroom, MSD confirmed 49 people had been identified as meeting the criteria of a serious offender under the previous Government’s proposed regime.

So far, 18 claims have been settled at a cost of $327,000. The highest payment was $50,000.

People treated as monsters, turn into monsters

The briefing revealed that both the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) and Corrections had been instructed by Ministers to apply conditions to high-profile claims for people sentenced to more than 10 years’ jail or awarded more than $10,000.

But in 2014 Cooper Legal, who represents the offenders, complained to the Ombudsman that the claims were being delayed.

In early 2016, the Ombudsman issued a provisional opinion critical of MSD’s approach.

Amanda Hill, a partner at Cooper Legal, said it was a relief to see the policy scrapped and her clients’ claims treated in the same way as everyone else’s.

In 2013, MSD simply halted progressing any claims without an explanation as it didn’t want to be seen giving money to criminals, she said.

Documents she had received under the Official Information Act showed work to restrict the payments was even being referred to at one point as ‘the murderer’s policy”.

Since the recent change, some clients had settled their claims while others had rejected offers. Some had died during the process, which dated back to 2004.

“These guys had some of the worst childhoods while in the care of the state and the ministry said ‘No, no, you grew up to be a serious criminal, you don’t get compensation’.

“I get really hot under the collar about this cash for criminals stuff … if you treat people like monsters then sometimes they grow up to be monsters.”

Government ‘washing their hands’

Last year, the previous Government cabinet approved a regime that would restrict the use of the payments and ordered officials to begin drafting legislation.

The law change would see the money held in a trust and only be available for use for approved purposes.

But in its briefing to Sepuloni, MSD advised scrapping the work for several reasons including an annual $2 million projected cost and the fact no agency, either public or private, was keen to administer the trust.

“I think if the current Government proceeds with that decision they are basically washing their hands of those people.”

There was also no evidence to suggest previous payments had been used for criminal purposes and there was a possibility of loopholes being exploited.

“For example, a high tariff offender could claim that money will be used to support dependent family members, and have funds approved for that purpose but arrange with the family members as to how the money will be spent.”

MSD advised the minister that if she agreed to halt the policy, work would begin to progress the claims but no public announcement would be made.

It also provided advice on how the minister could respond to criticism if the payments were made public, and curiously also noted that she could face criticism from the Opposition about stopping their policy.

Louise Upston, who is now National’s social development spokeswoman and was previously Minister of Corrections, said not putting any safeguards in place to ensure the money helped the offender was doing them a disservice.

“I think if the current Government proceeds with that decision they are basically washing their hands of those people.”

Coming out of prison after a long sentence was challenging and the previous Government’s plan was to ensure the money was used for purposes such as private counselling or buying a car, Upston said.

It was important those who had suffered abuse were compensated but there was also a need to help people deal with the challenges and vulnerabilities they faced, she said.

Upston admitted it was a tricky issue to navigate but believed a solution had been found to manage the trust regime through the secretary of justice.

With no-strings payments now being made, Upston said she was interested to see how the Government tracked whether the money was used to commit further crimes.

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