Even well-resourced residential care is developmentally damaging for children. Māori survivors continually reflect on the trauma of being forced into Pākehā cultural identities and the loss of te reo and broken connections to whānau, hapū and iwi
Opinion: The latest report from the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care presents another damning illustration, if more was needed, of the failings of our care and justice institutions to protect children or ensure they flourish.
Most people who grow up in state care do not go on to offend or spend time in prisons. This point is always worth repeating. However, the commission’s report concludes people who spent time in New Zealand’s residential care system (from 1950 to 1999) were five to nine times more likely to be incarcerated than those who grew up elsewhere.
This appalling statistic prompts the question: is state residential care actually criminogenic? Does residential care increase the production of crime? I would argue yes.
All residential care is developmentally damaging for children. Even if institutions have extensive resources, with positive, culturally appropriate environments set by highly trained and empathetic staff, as well as strong, independent monitoring, they remain unnatural spaces in which to grow.
In all residential care, relationships become temporary and transactional. Rules become standardised. Lives become microscopically monitored. Identities become ever more fixed. It is always harder for children to connect, love and thrive in these spaces.
A crucial step is to be far more honest about the long-term risks of placing any child into residential care. Residential institutions can bring damaging consequences, not least in widening the pathways into crime
In New Zealand, the care system has operated at some distance from the drab image of residential ‘best practice’. Survivors of our state care system consistently tell us about the pain and terror of growing up amid state-led neglect, physical and sexual violence, bullying, intimidation, isolation, heavy meds, sadistic punishments and torture.
They underline their lack of education in care, their social abandonment and disadvantages on release.
Māori survivors continually reflect on the trauma of being forced into Pākehā cultural identities and the despairing loss of te reo and broken connections to whānau, hapū and iwi. Many people – including girls, Pasifika people and those with disabilities – recount how their abuse enforced a sense that they should ‘know their place’.
Those who complained often got it worse. Snitches get stitches. And, with very few protections and nowhere else to go, too many children started to repeat the normalised violence around them. They hardened up. Attacked first. They also ran away, sometimes stealing as they made their escape.
Some found solace and protection within gangs. Many found comfort at the bottom of a bottle or with other knock-out substances. Their victimisation – systematically infused through our care and justice residences – directly led them to getting into trouble.
For many decades, their victimisation has been vehemently denied by officials. And, unlike the impunity enjoyed by those state workers who violently abused children in residences or those who have protected these savages, authorities have been all too ready to condemn and criminalise children who stepped out of line.
Above all else, residential care normalises the policing, surveillance and incarceration of children. For example, these children are generally already known to police. If picked up, they are accompanied by long files documenting the alleged deficits of their short lives. Despite most children being placed in residences for ‘care’ reasons, officials deem them imprisonable.
Officials, including those who hand down sentences, can readily normalise prison for those who have already been locked down. Incarceration can be cast as an educative process (‘teaching them a lesson’) or even as a place for restoration (‘to allow them to access services and give them a break from surviving on their own’).
At the centre of this state-driven cycle of incarceration is the institutionalised racism that fortifies our care and justice agencies. There is no getting away from that, despite recent official claims otherwise. Māori children are far more likely to be sent to residential care in the first place (as opposed to being placed into whānau care, foster care, family homes or other community care settings).
And the data show that Māori who have been in residential care are about four to seven times more likely to be given a custodial sentence than their matched cohort from residential care. Māori have been imprisoned for being Māori.
These outcomes demonstrate the racism and discrimination that underpins policies, decisions and actions about who is put into residential care, who is victimised, who is criminalised, who is policed, who is surveilled, who is regarded as risky or vulnerable, and who is incarcerated.
We have to break this cycle from care into custody. A crucial step is to be far more honest about the long-term risks of placing any child into residential care (something our government seems to have forgotten in its recent passing of the Oranga Tamariki Oversight Bill that disestablishes independent monitoring of this key agency). Residential institutions can bring damaging consequences, not least in widening the pathways into crime.
Beyond that, we need a catalogue of shifts, including: that decisions about Māori children’s lives are taken by Māori; that increased resources are directed to carers; that strategies of decriminalisation are prioritised; and that continued efforts are made to reduce poverty, double down on education efforts and give equitable access to sports, arts, theatre, kapa haka, and recreation that allows all children to connect, dream and positively develop.
In a period where politicians talk all too frequently about coming down hard on offending, the days of crime-producing institutions have got to be numbered.