The Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse in state care has been hearing some harrowing evidence – but an investigation by journalist Aaron Smale published in Newsroom recently has revealed just how difficult it’s been to lever the truth out of the institutions that sheltered abusers. 

There are some harrowing and horrific stories emerging from the Royal Commission into abuse into state care.

But a journalist who’s spent five years tracking down and reporting the stories of the children and adults tortured, abused, or sent to welfare homes for the slightest of infractions says there would have been no need for such a high-powered inquiry had the Crown been more forthcoming with information at an earlier stage.

Freelance journalist Aaron Smale now says these stories have grown too big and sprawling to be adequately treated in the media. He’s now undertaking a PhD, looking at the treatment of Māori children in state care.

One case is that of Tyrone Marks, taken into a welfare home in 1967 when was six years old.

Years later, after 47 failed attempts to escape from Holdsworth Residential School in Whanganui, Tyrone broke out for a 48th time.

“There was a bunch of them, took off, pinched some bikes”, says Smale.

“He got hit by a car and dragged some distance under the car.

“He had multiple serious broken bones, lost a lot of skin and tissue. He was in hospital for a good six months.

“[He] got out, went back to Holdsworth – and was then taken and dropped off at [infamous psychiatric hospital] Lake Alice.

“He got [shock therapy] there … he was sexually abused by one of the inmates on the first night.

“I struggle to comprehend how these individuals are still standing. The levels of suffering … I can’t get my head around.”

On today’s episode of The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks to Smale about the inquiry; the various parties’ responses; and the ongoing battle to get state agencies to front up to crimes committed under their watch.

Obfuscate and withhold

The Royal Commission is essentially looking what happened to children, young people, and vulnerable adults who lived in state and faith-based care between 1950 and 1999.

It’s investigating why people were taken into care; what abuse happened and why; and the long-term effects of that abuse.

During this period, more than 100,000 children spent time in state care, with the majority – estimated to be 70-to-80,000 – Māori.

Smale says every step of the way of his investigations, officials have sought to obfuscate and withhold as much information as possible.

He says there’s been a focus on protecting the reputation of institutions, rather than being honest about what went on and exploring how to make it right.

“I think there’s a slight naivety in NZ – we like to believe and we tell ourselves that we don’t have corruption: ‘we’re good, we lead the world in human rights’.

“I don’t think there’s adequate comprehension on the part of the public as to the seriousness of this, the scale of this.

“There’s this naive belief that, oh, it couldn’t happen here. Well, it did.

“We’ve let these people down, as a country. And we need to to something. I don’t know what that looks like, I haven’t got the template … but we have to listen to them, to listen to what it is they want done to change it.”

Live streaming

The Royal Commission into abuse in state care continues this week – the Crown has been presenting witnesses since Monday.

You can watch a live stream of proceedings here.

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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