The first stage of one of the most significant child abuse inquiries in New Zealand has been completed. As the Government considers what to do next, Teuila Fuatai reports on initial feedback to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse in state care.  

Submissions citing recent and “present-day” problems of abuse in state care are recommending that the Royal Commission of Inquiry not limit itself to historical cases.

The Human Rights Commission and a group submission based on input from more than 400 survivors of the state care system both want the Inquiry’s proposed 50-year limit – ending December 31 1999 – removed.

Currently, Government ministers are considering a report from inquiry chair Sir Anand Satyanand about submissions made on the Inquiry’s draft terms of reference. More than 400 submissions were made in the last month. The inquiry is due to begin hearings once its terms of reference have been finalised by Cabinet, and its panel members appointed.

Cooper Legal, a law firm representing more than 900 people with claims of abuse under State care, surveyed some of its clients and other former State care children to prepare for the inquiry. Feedback from the findings – based on 422 survey responses – were provided to Oranga Tamariki (formerly Child Youth and Family), and used for a formal submission on the Inquiry’s terms of reference.

Principal lawyer Sonja Cooper noted that excluding “the care of children in the present day” would discount what was happening to those children still suffering in state care. An Oranga Tamariki report which examined the number of children who had an “incident of harm” while in state care was used as a reference to ongoing problems in the system. Released last year, the report found about 12 percent of children in the 12 months to June 2016 experienced harm – ranging from emotional distress to severe physical injury – while in the care of the state.

Cooper added: “Our clients range in age from 17 years old to 90 years old. Many events are not ‘historic’ but present-day concerns. To ensure the best evidence is captured, and so the Commission has visibility across the changing legislative and policy background, we strongly recommend that no ‘cut-off’ date is applied to the evidence heard by the Commission.”

The Government previously said the Inquiry’s proposed timeframe began in 1950 as many children were taken into state care during that decade. The 50-year limit was based on significant legislative changes – which sought to improve what happened to children in state care – over the years.

However, those who have come through the system believe a 50-year timeframe would limit the effectiveness of an inquiry.

Comments from Cooper Legal’s survey participants included: “How are the processes of the Inquiry going to be used to remedy the abuse of our very own ‘millennial generation’? How are the people involved … going to address the abuse that is ongoing?”

Another person said: “All victims of state care should have a say in terms of what changes should be done to make sure what happened to us shall never happen again.”

The Human Rights Commission said in its submission that concerns had been raised about the “arbitrariness” of the proposed time limit.

“While acknowledging the changes that took place with the establishment of the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services in 1999, there is significant evidence of unaddressed abuse occurring since 1999, including abuse of young people and disabled adults.

“If the Royal Commission is to deliver up-to-date recommendations, based on a courageous, meaningful and fulsome inquiry, the time frame should be expanded.”

Submissions from the Salvation Army, and Barnardos, also touched on the complex nature of the cases.

The Salvation Army, which previously operated six children’s homes around the country, acknowledged its own “regret and shame” at the abuse which had occurred to children in its homes.

“To date, the TSA [the Salvation Army] has settled claims from 180 claimants. These include both state wards and privately-placed children. An insignificant number of these claims have resulted in litigation. None have gone to trial. There are only a few claims still outstanding.”

The charity, which closed the last of its homes in January 1990, recommended that the Inquiry’s terms of reference specifically state that past settlements could not be affected by the Inquiry’s work.

“The TSA is concerned that the [terms of reference] as currently drafted … may lead to lawful settlements being unwound, which the TSA respectfully suggests would be contrary to principle and unfair.”

Barnados, which still provides care services for children in the state system, wanted the terms of reference to guarantee fair treatment of every organisation that came before the Inquiry.

“The need to ensure that non-governmental organisations and other parties (including those who have placed children in state care or provided care service on behalf of the Government) are accorded fair and reasonable process and treatment when engaging with the Inquiry in any capacity.

“This includes being given a sufficient opportunity to respond to requests and requirements for information, documents and things, including, for example, having regard to any need to obtain archived material and make any enquiries necessary in order to inform any response to the inquiry.”

Both charities are supportive of the Inquiry.

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