The demands of justice for survivors of abuse and neglect in care are too important to let this opportunity pass, writes Stephen Winter

Kirihimete’s respite is likely to prove short for those working with the Abuse in Care Royal Commission. The Royal Commission held its final round of public hearings in October and is now entering the last phases of its investigation into the systemic abuse and neglect characteristic of Aotearoa’s out-of-home care. The commission ends in June 2023, and too much work remains for staff to enjoy much of a summer holiday.

First on the to-do list are the Lake Alice and Marylands reports. The commission held hearings into those two notorious institutions in June 2021 and February 2022 respectively. 

While we wait for those two interim reports, the Government is slowly progressing the Commission’s redress recommendations. When I last wrote about this issue for Newsroom in August 2022, I worried that slow implementation was dissipating the impetus for radical change. Little has happened since, and I remain apprehensive.

Nevertheless, in December, Cabinet will be asked to approve: a new listening service, improvements to records services, and a rapid payments scheme for elderly and infirm survivors. The rapid payment programme may also help clear the backlog of unpaid claims held by the Ministry of Social Development and other ministries. However, it seems unlikely to include survivors of faith-based institutions. One of the commission’s firmest hopes – that Aotearoa would have a single redress programme for all survivors of abuse – appears to be diminishing.

Those interim measures anticipate the participatory process of designing a new redress programme, with recruitment now underway to fill positions in the Design and Advisory Groups. Those groups will start work in the new year, building on the commission’s 2021 report on redress – He Purapura Ora, he Māra Tipu.

Hopefully, those groups will work quickly to write the blueprints for a comprehensive, accessible, tikanga-based, trauma-informed, and independent redress programme. But I’m not holding my breath. Redress for survivors of injurious care is a complex policy field, with many stakeholders making lots of critical decisions.

The commission’s vision of a Māori-designed, Māori-led redress process was always going to be challenging. But the imperative of Māori participation in design, development and delivery, flows from the need for redress to be accessible for survivors. Making redress accessible also means enabling and supporting survivors throughout a complex and holistic process. That process will, inevitably, involve complex and intersecting psychological, archival, legal and cultural components.

Whether we can realise the commission’s ambitious plan is uncertain. For example, Aotearoa’s churches have not yet demonstrated that they are keen to participate. Yet, religious institutions ran (and continue to run) much of our care infrastructure. It would be unfair to exclude faith-based survivors from the forthcoming redress programme. Moreover, many survivors spent time in both state and church care. If survivors must seek redress from every institution that injured them, the process will be more costly and more traumatising, and less accessible.

In this context, the Royal Commission must play a critical role in holding the Government and churches to account. The commission’s final report in June 2023 will likely occasion a public apology to all survivors by the Prime Minister. The opportunity to announce the new redress programme is too good to miss. The blueprints for the new redress programme must be ready by June 2023. The election campaign will begin very shortly afterwards. When electioneering dominates the headlines, I worry that political conflict will obscure the commission’s important work and erode the bipartisan support it has enjoyed so far.

At the same time, the commission must continue to work with survivors during the tricky wind-down process. The current plan is for the new listening service to support survivors as a transitional device until the new redress programme is up and running. However, if that is to be so, the listening service will need to do more than ‘listen’ to the needs and rights of survivors. It will also need to include survivors who were in care after 1999, whom the commission’s terms of reference marginalised.

In summary, we have a short half year to develop a series of critical policies. For that to happen, survivors will need effective advocates, both in and of the commission and beyond it. The demands of justice for survivors of abuse and neglect in care are too important to let this opportunity pass.

Stephen Winter recently published Monetary Redress for Abuse in State Care (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

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