Analysis: Aaron Smale puts National’s response to youth crime in the context of our country’s response to trauma

The New York subway train pulled up at the Columbia University stop and I had a sudden bout of imposter syndrome. It was 2019 and I’d somehow been chosen from over 300 applications to be one of the journalists in the university’s Ochberg Fellowship, an intense week focused on reporting on trauma. The other fellows were from CNN, the Wall Street Journal and Reuters. I was a freelancer from Levin.

I’d put in my application on a whim on the encouragement of a friend and then forgot about it because my mother was dying of cancer. The day after she died I got a phone call to tell me I was in. It was a bittersweet moment – Mum would have been chuffed but I’d always known she carried a heavy trauma of her own that I believe contributed to her getting cancer. Her father had been killed in a bulldozer accident when she was 12.

The fellowship was named after Frank Ochberg, one of the psychiatrists in the 1970s who came up with the definition for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) for the DSM, American psychiatry’s standard manual for diagnosis of mental disorders. Frank had worked with Vietnam veterans but he and his colleagues found that many of the symptoms they exhibited were common to other people who had experienced trauma, including violence and sexual abuse as children. Brain science in the years since has only confirmed their observations. 

Trauma is the Greek word for wound and despite our increased understanding of the mechanics, psychological trauma is as old as human history itself. Which suggests we keep repeating that history in new and more sophisticated ways. Technological advance hasn’t improved human nature, it’s just given us more sophisticated weapons to harm each other.

During the week we heard from experts in the field of trauma and trauma reporting. Although I’d done a lot of my own research in this area and had reported on significant trauma, it was still a confronting experience.

Besides hearing from experts, each fellow also gave a presentation on their own work. Hearing from others was one of the most interesting and valuable parts of the week. We all wrestled with how to tell stories of horrendous human experiences while trying to honour survivors and not make their lives worse by recounting their trauma.

I gave a presentation about the work I’d been doing on the abuse of children in state custody – and the other fellows, many of whom had worked in war zones, were flabbergasted by what I was telling them about New Zealand.

One of the examples I gave was Lake Alice, the psychiatric hospital that had an adolescent unit in the 1970s that was filled with kids who were predominantly wards of the state. Most of them were Māori and had been through the state’s welfare homes where they’d already suffered terrible trauma. When they got to Lake Alice, Dr Selwyn Leeks, who ran the adolescent unit, inflicted electric shocks not only on the developing brains of children but also on their limbs and genitals. He tried to justify his actions by calling it behaviour modification, but one expert who gave evidence at the Royal Commission into Abuse in State Care said similar punishments had been used by the Gestapo. It was not medical treatment, it was torture.

My presentation was followed by an indigenous Canadian journalist who started out by thanking me. She said I had also told the story of what had happened to indigenous children in her country in the residential schools, which included her grandparents. Colonisation tends to repeat a pattern of behaviour, even on opposite sides of the globe.

But throughout that week I was exposed to other experts on trauma and everything I learned only reinforced the dreadful harm New Zealand had inflicted on generations of children, most of them Māori. Both Canada and Australia have at least acknowledged the harm done to generations of indigenous children and done so decades ago. We’ve barely started. You know you’re in trouble when you’re behind Australia on indigenous rights.

But it doesn’t appear we’re catching up. Going by the political rhetoric that is increasing as we approach an election year we are actually going backwards.

National leader Christopher Luxon is now talking about children being “reprogrammed”. 

“These are kids who need to be reprogrammed and redirected very strongly, be held to account, and understand there are rights and there are responsibilities to being a New Zealander.”

The UN called out New Zealand for breaching the Convention Against Torture because it never properly investigated the torture at Lake Alice. The New Zealand state had broken international law. Luxon wants to talk about what children and parents should be responsible for. But he has little to say about what responsibility a government he leads would take for the state’s abuse of children in custody.

That is why Lake Alice victims have filed a police complaint against a number of politicians, bureaucrats and lawyers for failing to do their duty and hold criminals to account. They’ve told me they’re sick of the individuals they’ve named helping cover up what happened. Those individuals include prominent politicians, senior public servants and high level members of the legal fraternity. I have seen the complaint and it includes significant but not exhaustive documentary evidence to back up the allegations. Going by the evidence presented and exposed at the Royal Commission I believe its report on Lake Alice will only corroborate the allegations. The police will have little option but to open an investigation.

Luxon wants to introduce military-style camps for youth and kids but this has been tried numerous times before and was a failure. He seems unwilling or unable to learn from that failure. Military-style camps such as Whakapakari and Moerangi Treks have been investigated for severe abuse by the Royal Commission alongside welfare homes like Kohitere and Hokio and psychiatric institutions like Lake Alice. The military trains people to kill other people in war. They have no skills in dealing with children who have probably already suffered severe trauma and are acting out that trauma in their behaviour. 

A 2018 report on youth offending by Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, who had been former Prime Minister John Key’s Chief Science Advisor, found “harsh punishments have little deterrent effect on young people”. From my observation those harsh punishments inflicted on children who have already been traumatised often create angry and resentful adults who have a lifelong hostility towards authority.

Luxon and ACT leader David Seymour are talking about responsibility and consequences, but make no mention of how they will respond to the Royal Commission if they get into government and have to deal with the commission’s findings and recommendations. Will there be any consequences or responsibility taken for the decades of crimes committed against children and the cover-ups that followed? 

National and ACT are also saying parents should be punished for their kids not being at school. But a report found significant percentages weren’t attending because of things like poverty and bullying – will they be addressing those factors? National and ACT like to talk about law and order but supported the police breaking the law by photographing thousands of Māori children who were not committing crime on the premise that they might commit crime.

It was government policy until the late 1960s to prepare Māori for low-paying manual jobs, a policy that had devastating impacts when those jobs disappeared in the 1970s and 80s. That has left an ongoing legacy of poverty and unemployment and all the negative consequences that go with it right up to the present day. 

Take one Māori man I spoke to.

He told me about how when he was a 10-year-old kid in the early 1970s he’d wagged school for one day. His father was not happy about this when he found out and took him to the local police station to give him a fright. His father left him there, expecting the police to give him a talking to and then bring him home. Instead, the police sent him off to a state welfare home which was the start of four years of incarceration in the state welfare system. But it was also the start of the pathway that led him into a gang and prison.

He didn’t go into detail about what had happened but the hurt in his voice spoke volumes. He talked about solitary confinement, one of the most damaging punishments known, as a child for 23 hours a day for weeks on end. The only way he could tell the time of day was in the late afternoon a patch of sunlight from a small, high window would begin moving up the wall. His time in children’s welfare followed him into prison. When he was serving a sentence as an adult he found out he was on a higher security classification because of escape risk. When he questioned this – he’d never escaped from prison – he found out it was because he’d run away when he was a child in one of the welfare homes. He couldn’t bring himself to tell his story on the record – he was in poor health and I think the stress of recounting what had happened was too much to face. “I’ll take it to my grave, bro,” was his response, which I had to respect but which I found immensely sad. The state had silenced him forever. The no-narking culture that was beaten into him and thousands of others as kids has protected the perpetrator, the state. But I’ve run across variations of his story repeatedly, particularly from those who are in gangs and/or have spent significant time in jail. 

Prisons are being used to deal with the symptoms of trauma and creating further trauma. Photo: Aaron Smale

But we didn’t need a Royal Commission or my journalism to tell us all this. It’s been known for decades by the state itself. I once tracked down a report written by the Department of Justice written in the early 1980s about Paremoremo. I couldn’t find it online but I found a copy in the National Library. I flipped it open in the silence of the reading room and the first words I read were a profile of the prisoners locked up in the country’s maximum security prison, which at that stage had been operating for barely a decade. Already a clear pattern had emerged.

The report observed of the inmates that: “Many have spent a large proportion of their lives in state-run institutions and some have experienced the whole gamut of social welfare, penal and psychiatric institutions. A not unfamiliar pattern is for an individual to have progressed through the social welfare system to Kohitere Boys’ Training Centre, from there to borstal, then one or more short prison sentences in lower security prisons before arriving in maximum security having been sentenced to a major term of imprisonment for a serious offence. Along the way he may well have spent time in a psychiatric hospital either for evaluation prior to trial or as a result of a crisis in prison. Many characteristics of the Paremoremo inmate group apply equally to the general prison population.”

There in one paragraph was a description of the failure of the welfare system that had sent thousands down a trajectory they were blamed for over their entire lives. The Royal Commission has found that for Māori children who went through that system up to 40 percent ended up in prison as adults. Prison is about the worst place you could put a person who has suffered childhood trauma.

The anger and aggression that many gang members and prison inmates display is a learned survival habit. After being subjected to relentless abuse and violence as children they soon learned that to show any hint of weakness was to invite more abuse. The only way to deflect the abuse was to meet violence with violence. One way to deter a threat was to project a threat. And for many of them the whole world is a threat. One victim described it to me as masking up. The facial tattoos that many wear are just a physical manifestation of that. Tragically, many have never been able to take those layers of masks down to reveal the hurt child that is hiding behind them, let alone find the support to deal with that hurt. We as a society have never given them a chance or the support to do so. Their perpetrators silenced them with threats and manipulation and our government and the legal system has done the same on a grand scale.

Alf, a former gang member who went through the system including Lake Alice, told me the abuse he suffered as a child in state custody left him with a blinding rage.

“I used to have rages where I’d black out when I had fights. I’d come to after the fights, fuck, what happened? I couldn’t remember myself. I wouldn’t tell people. People would say, ‘Fuck, Alf, you were unreal, you were doing this and doing that,’ but I couldn’t remember a thing. I just went along with it, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, of course’. But really I didn’t remember one thing. It scared me. I could kill someone or get killed and not even know. But I believe that was from the treatment that happened to me. People react differently. Some people become drug addicts or commit suicide. I had rage. I never got it sorted until I was in my 40s.”

He made a complaint to police about that abuse when he was an adult but the police failed to properly investigate.

For many kids who were subjected to abuse and gained little in the way of an education in the welfare homes, gangs were a logical option. The sense of belonging when you were an outcast from society was a natural attraction. The culture of violence they’d learned as kids in state welfare homes allowed them to slot in seamlessly with the culture of gangs and prisons. But then that culture became passed on by osmosis to the next generation who grew up knowing nothing else.

In recent years many in the first generation of gang members have started to desire something else for their mokopuna but are up against a system that is unwilling to give them a chance or the resources to bring about change. Asking them to give up their gang affiliations is like asking them to abandon the only family they know, the only people that have been there when no one else was. Any funding for things like drug rehabilitation is met with histrionics by media and politicians, even though drug addiction is often related to trauma. Many were doped up with drugs by psychiatrists like Dr Selwyn Leeks when they were kids. Before Leeks’ reign of terror in Lake Alice he was a roving consultant for the welfare homes that included Hokio and Kohitere. I’ve seen some of those files and one of the kids he was drugging ended up in Paremoremo where he committed suicide in the most horrific way. He is not the only one.

I’ve also seen a file of one kid who in a two-year period was put in solitary confinement for over 300 days, in one stretch for three months followed by a longer stretch of nearly five months. It is thoroughly documented in numerous studies that solitary confinement physically and psychologically destroys people. Those studies are based on adults and don’t take into account what it would do to a child whose brain is still developing. Some of the symptoms of this psychological torture include paranoia, rage and severe mental illness. But I’ve noticed that most state abuse survivors rarely talk about solitary confinement, not because they didn’t go through it but because it was so normalised. For many, their entry into the system was a week in the pound. That was the easy bit.

In a profile article in the Listener in the 1980s, prison psychiatrist Dr Frank Whittington talked about the two severe breakdowns he’d had because he felt helpless to do anything for the inmates he was dealing with in Mt Eden and Paremoremo prisons. In the story he arrives at Mt Eden for work and the staff give him a list: “This one has hacked his throat, this one has slashed up again, this one has swallowed razor blades.” That was a normal day at the office.

Many of the inmates he was dealing with bounced between the two main prisons and psychiatric units. But the mental health system was often worse. In 1983 Michael Watene – who had been through the welfare homes – was sent to Oakley from Mt Eden. He died in his cell after getting ECT from staff as punishment and being left unattended. A few years later his cousin Manihera died in similar circumstances in Carrington after he was “restrained” by staff in his cell.

But some die a psychological death where they can’t function outside prison because incarceration and institutions is all they have known from childhood. One survivor I’ve got to know went into state custody at 18 months old and spent his entire childhood in the system. He then went straight from there into prison where he spent most of the next 40 years. When he was out of jail he was living on the streets.

Someone from Corrections once told me that the majority of inmates are locked up for offending that is related to trauma.  I asked how he knew this. His answer was that for most of them their offending is directly related to alcohol and drug addiction, but if you dig under this that addiction is rooted in trauma, usually childhood trauma. We’ve effectively incarcerated thousands of traumatised children.

The police, criminal justice system and the psychiatry professions have immense powers and they’ve caused immense damage over a long period of time. Time and time again they have over-reached and abused those powers and yet National and ACT want to extend those powers. For political parties that espouse the idea that the state should get out of people’s lives they both seem to make an exception for poor brown people. Now those powers are including tools like computer algorithms and, if some police and politicians have their way, guns. Police can’t be trusted to exercise the powers they have lawfully now but they want to have the routine right to kill people. In other words, America’s present is our future if they get their way.

If right wing parties are threatening to repeat the mistakes of the past, then the Labour Government has already started by embedding the Crown’s impunity in legislation. The Royal Commission has recommended that the Government should pass legislation that children in state custody should be free from abuse, and that if this right is not upheld then the state should be legally liable. These recommendations were deliberately ignored in legislation passed a couple of months ago by the Labour Government. While there are no consequences for the state harming children in its custody – and there’s certainly consequences for parents that harm their children – then the state will continue to harm children it is supposed to be protecting. Labour has opened the gate for another 50 years of harm without consequences for the perpetrator. The Royal Commission is starting to look like a $150 million PR exercise for the Prime Minister.

That brief conversation with that Māori man had a deep influence on how I viewed and reported on state abuse. Something he said still haunts me, “What did I do to deserve that?” It was a rhetorical question but I felt compelled to say to him, “Nothing bro, you did nothing to deserve that.” It broke my heart that he could even ask that question, like it was somehow his fault. Unfortunately I’ve come across that self-blame mentality amongst a number of victims. They’ve been told they were rubbish repeatedly from a very young age and they’ve ended up believing it. He and others grew up to be damaged men and women through no fault of their own but they often believe it was their fault.

Something that surprised me at the Ochberg Fellowship, although it shouldn’t have, was how poverty is considered by many experts to be a major source of trauma. Which stands to reason. It’s not about how little people have – many of our forebears lived extremely modest material circumstances compared with even the poorest today. Poverty is the struggle to keep up with the cost of living in today’s world. An unexpected bill can throw a poor family – and even many middle class families – into chaos when housing costs are at the very limits of people’s incomes and ability to provide for themselves. That chaos generates all sorts of trauma and stress and escalates very quickly. In those situations people have very little reserves to deal with even minor stresses.

Yet we as a country seem to continue blindly following the United States in economic policies and the way we repeatedly inflict trauma on individuals and communities that already have multiple layers of trauma going back generations. To use a Covid analogy, trauma is like a virus and it is rampant in many Māori communities and much of it is inflicted and perpetuated by the decisions and actions of the state. But unlike Covid we are doing nothing to prevent it or treat it. Instead, we’re unleashing new and more damaging versions of trauma on the same communities in each new generation, while tinkering around or punishing those who exhibit the symptoms. Quarantine and punish is our national response to trauma. 

If you take death as the hard measure then New Zealand’s response to Covid has been ahead of most other countries. But our response to trauma is abysmal and causes further harm. During the Ochberg week one expert put up a chart showing the health outcomes of trauma. The overall impression was that trauma contributed directly and indirectly to illness and death on a massive scale.

Instead of trying to “reprogramme” brown children, maybe we should be reprogramming our politicians, bureaucrats, legal system and state institutions so they don’t continue inflicting and perpetuating trauma on our country’s most vulnerable. Twenty-four percent of the country’s children are Māori. If we don’t look after them then it’s not only them that will be harmed. Our country’s future will be harmed as well.

I started off feeling like an imposter at the start of that week in New York. But by the end of it I realised that the trauma I was witnessing and the victims I was giving a voice to in my reporting deserved to be heard as much as any victim of trauma. Interactions with the people who had selected my application and the other journalists reinforced that.

That trauma was inflicted by the New Zealand state against its own citizens – children – in a time of peace and covered up by successive governments over decades.  It can’t continue doing that.

Aaron Smale is Newsroom's Māori Issues Editor. Twitter: @ikon_media

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