A year after it was announced – and more than a month after it was scheduled to begin – there has been little action.
Abuse survivors are beginning to lose faith in New Zealand’s nascent royal commission after months of poor communication, delay, at least one privacy breach and one survivor’s details being lost twice.
In February 2018 the New Zealand government announced it would hold a royal commission or judicial inquiry into abuse in state care, which it said would begin in January 2019.
Published in The Guardian
More than 100,000 New Zealand children and adults were held in state institutions between the 1950 and 1990s, and many suffered serious sexual, physical and psychological abuse. In November prime minister Jacinda Ardern said the scope of the commission would be widened to include faith-based organisations.
But more than a month after it was scheduled to begin, there has been little action, and survivors claim they no longer trust the commission or expect to see justice.
New Zealand child abuse inquiry widened to include religious institutions
“It’s a fiasco. It has made me really disillusioned,” said Terry King. The 66-year-old was abused in state care in the 1960s and by Catholic priests.
“I’ve registered three times and they lost my details twice, then someone told me I had to tone down my account of what happened because it was too ‘graphic’. They are cocking things up left, right and centre. It’s put me into a great depression. I don’t trust them now, simple as that,” he said.
When asked about the allegation that a staff member advised King to change his evidence, the royal commission said it would not comment on individual cases.
In a formal update on 1 February, the royal commission said “the inquiry is beginning to take shape”. The commissioners had “established a vision for the inquiry”.
But survivor advocates say no care plans are in place for vulnerable survivors who are registering their cases, and the lack of support is taking its toll on their mental and physical health, and that of the wider whanau [family].
Ken Clearwater is the manager of Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Aotearoa, and a survivor himself. He said the group was being treated as “second-class citizens”, and members were being re-traumatised before the commission had begun formally hearing evidence.
Many survivors had severe mental, educational and emotional challenges, Clearwater said, and the commission’s bureaucratic, “chilly” approach was isolating people who have already spent decades suspicious of the state and its apparatus.
“There is huge frustration. This was supposed to start in January, we’re now in February, they still haven’t got the terms of reference sorted out in layman’s language,” said Clearwater.
If you don’t hurry this up some will die before you hear their stories. Partner of an abuse survivior
Liz Tonks from the Network of Survivors of Faith-based Institutional Abuse was involved in the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and praised the Australian commission for its immediate and comprehensive support for survivors.
By comparison, Tonks said the New Zealand royal commission was failing.
There has been at least one privacy breach Tonks is aware of, when the commission released the name and email address of a survivor to different survivor with the same first name. The commission apologised for the breach, promising it was an isolated incident.
The survivor received two sessions of counselling with a psychologist as compensation for the breach, paid for by the commission.
The survivor said he remained in two minds as to whether he would further engage with the commission. “The whole thing has left me with little trust in the royal commission and has left me in a vulnerable place,” he said. “It goes right back to my childhood when I was placed in the care of people that I was supposed to trust to protect me but didn’t.”
The survivor has yet to hear back from the commission about what measures they have put in place to ensure a privacy breach does not happen again.
Tonks said: “There are no safeguards being put in place for vulnerable survivors, it’s all very ad-hoc, and communication with survivors is being led by comms people – not experts. It is turning them [the survivors] off the process and making them scared.”
A partner of a survivor recently implored the commission to better support and understand the needs of the people they were dealing with.
“I think you have forgotten, already, that mistrust of those in authority is real for those abused, as is the thinking that when things get too hard it is easier to just give up than to keep hitting a brick wall,” the woman wrote.
The royal commission said in a statement “expectations have been high among survivors” for swift progress, and careful planning was underway to provide a safe and secure environment for survivors before hearings began. Support services for survivors were being identified and recruited, but were not yet in place, the commission said.
To date, the commission had received 700 pre-registrations from people or organisations with an interest in the inquiry.
By Eleanor Ainge Roy
Published in The Guardian
20 February 2019