Widespread reports suggest that during the mid-20th century more than 100,000 children were put into state institutions, where many suffered abuse and neglect. In response, between 2008-2015, New Zealand operated a Confidential Listening and Assistance Service, chaired by Judge Carolyn Henwood. This was a low-profile process in which 1100 survivors of state care could describe their experience and some received financial and psychological support. Judge Henwood’s 2015 report found that New Zealand’s care institutions were pervaded by a culture of ill-treatment. However, that report is limited by the narrow purpose of the listening service and the fact the service did not accept new registrations after 2013. It is very likely that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of survivors did not participate. A comprehensive inquiry is necessary to understand the full character of abuse in New Zealand care institutions. Despite significant criticism, the government appears, as yet, disinclined to agree.
New Zealand’s low profile approach is out of step with developments elsewhere. In recent years, Australia, Canada, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England have all launched large-scale public inquiries, which, alongside public apologies and monetary redress, have focused public attention on the issue of abuse in care.
The call for an independent inquiry is designed to push New Zealand further towards that international norm. However, if New Zealand is to follow overseas examples, it would be beneficial to learn from their experiences. Over the past two years, I have been researching responses to institutional abuse in Ireland, Australia and (last month) in Canada and I believe that international practice offers important lessons for New Zealand.
Firstly, there are issues of sequencing. In addition to a public inquiry, responses to abuse in care include; public apologies, monetary payments, and memorials. It is plausible to think that those other responses should follow after the report of the inquiry. For only once the report is published would the government know to whom it should apologise, who it should pay, and who should be memorialised. However, that logic is in tension with the fact that survivor-populations are ageing and tend to have relatively high average morbidity rates. Delays in rectificatory responses mean that some survivors will die before they receive redress.
Second, it is necessary to determine the nature of the inquiry. There are real advantages to a full-dress Royal Commission. Such a commission has the legal powers, including those of subpoena, necessary to a comprehensive inquiry and the status of a Royal Commission responds to the survivors’ demand that New Zealand take the issues of abuse in care very seriously. That status also gives Commissioners the mana necessary to obtain alacritous assistance from officials who might otherwise obstruct access to information in state archives.
Third, it is necessary to consider the scope of the inquiry. The terms of reference must balance two conflicting concerns. If the scope of the inquiry is too narrow, then relevant survivors are excluded. The restrictive example of Canada’s TRC serves as a lesson. However, it is also possible for the inquiry’s scope to be too broad. For example, the present Australian inquiry’s remit to investigate sexual abuse in all institutional settings has meant that inquiry has risked losing focus as it attends to a variety of abusive environments ranging from boys homes to ballet schools.
Fourth, an inquiry needs a generous timeframe, guaranteed funding and excellent staff. The size of the task involved has meant that every commission to date has run over time. Further, a strong Chair is essential to manage the administration and develop the necessary rapport with both government and survivors. In nearly every overseas commission, the founding Chair and/or other Commissioners has stepped down before completing the inquiry. In Britain, Justice Lowell Goddard was the third Chair to step down before the inquiry really started. A good Chair needs to have a command of the relevant law and the confidence of both survivors and government. Retired judges are often good choices as they can combine the necessary gravitas, reputation for independence and experience with dealing with victims of crime.
Fifth, survivors need ‘wraparound’ support. Testifying to abuse puts survivors at a very high risk of re-traumatization. Therefore, not only do the commissioners, lawyers, and psychologists need to be trauma-informed, survivors need ongoing support. Time-limited counselling is unlikely to be sufficient.
Sixth, the inquiry must bridge two tasks that are in an inevitable tension. On one hand, the job of a public inquiry is to investigate a pattern of behaviour or events and provide the government with public report detailing their findings and making appropriate recommendations. This task is necessarily public. However, these inquiries also enable survivors to tell their story. This process of truth-telling can be searingly private. To manage the tension between these public and private demands, overseas inquiries often operate two different forums, one private and one public. In the first, private forum, a survivor can tell their story to a commissioner in confidence. This forum offers survivors a safe and non-judgmental space. At the same time, the inquiry’s legalistic public hearings aim to weigh evidence. Both processes are important as survivors need a safe space to relate their experiences and the opportunity to see those responsible, church and state officials, made publicly accountable.
In sum, the development of a public inquiry into abusive institutions is fraught with potential difficulties and tensions. Competing demands of survivors and government can close down the effective space these inquiries need to operate. Keeping that space open requires both governmental and survivor ‘buy-in’. To that end, survivor-involvement in the development of the inquiry and its operation can be key to its success. My research emphasises the benefits of survivor agency and control: the process of inquiry must not become another thing being-done-to survivors. Yet at the same time, the government must not see the inquiry as hostile, for it will then have an incentive to starve the inquiry of necessary information and funding. Finding and occupying the middle ground will be key to a successful New Zealand inquiry.
Dr. Stephen Winter is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland.
Featured image found at http://www.listening.govt.nz