Was the abuse systemic?

Media reports detailing the abuse of those in State care have appeared frequently over the last decade or two. At various times there have been claims the abuse was systemic, with denials by the Government. Having known several people who were put into State care, and who were abused, I took a keen interest in this story. I wanted to answer the question for myself, was the abuse systemic?

What we know is that more than 100,000 New Zealand children were put into State institutions from the 1950s to the 1980s. Social Development Minister Anne Tolley has said that about 3.5 percent of children have made claims of abuse, which amounts to at least 3,500 people. About 900 have so far received an apology and compensation under the Government’s fast-track process.

A panel was setup in 2008 – the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service, chaired by Judge Carolyn Henwood, with the purpose of hearing from people who wanted to tell of their experiences and concerns. Over seven years the panel heard from 1,100 people, and produced a report in 2015. The report make for harrowing reading.

Minister Tolley has said there is no evidence that the abuse was systemic, however in response, Judge Henwood told RNZ, “What is that based on? There has been no inquiry.”

The term systemic means ‘part of the system’, or ‘built into the system’. The question to ask when considering such problems, put in analytic terms, is, “did the abuse occur because of the usual operation of system, that is, could it be classed as within the range of ‘normal’ outcomes for that system?” (I should note that I use ‘normal’ here as a technical term. Abuse is not normal, and should not be expected.)

Statistically speaking, systemic problems will be evenly spread out over time, people involved, and locations.Outliers on the other hand are rare occurrences, to be expected to occur at random. So, what inferences can we draw from the information we have?

The appendices of the Henwood report contains a section covering the locations of panel meetings, but it does not say where or when the abuse occurred. Assuming that this is a fair but very rough proxy for location, we might say that the abuse was not confined to one location. The report also documents the range of institutions where the abuse occurred, suggesting it was not one type of care that was at fault.

In regard to the people involved, Judge Henwood’s report notes that the abuse came from ‘a wide range of people and from both genders’. It went on to list foster caregivers, extended families, social workers and staff, teachers, the clergy, cooks, gardeners, night watchmen, and even other children and patients.

Lastly, we know that the abuse happened over a long period of time – from the 50s to the 80s, and since.

All of this suggests to me that the probability of abuse occurring was equally distributed across all aspects of the system. This equal distribution is one of the key hallmarks of systemic problems.

After hearing the stories of abuse first-hand, Judge Hendwood formed the same view, “As the numbers grew and more voices were heard, a picture was painted for us of a careless, neglectful system which allowed cruelty, sexual abuse, bullying and violence to start and continue.”

In 2011 Chief Human Rights Commissioner at the time, Rosslyn Noonan, wrote to Attorney-General Chris Finlayson. She stated, “The absence of a comprehensive, independent review leaves unanswered the question of the extent of systemic or institutional failure of the State’s duty to those in its care”.

In a letter to Grant West, Minister Tolley wrote, “The Government recognises that in the past the care system failed some of the children and young people in its care. We are working hard to change that system…”

How can you change a system if you have no understanding of how or why it has failed?

Based on what has been published to date, all the markers of systemic problems are clearly evident, and I firmly believe that the public is entitled to a full review of State care, as recommended by Judge Henwood.

Sign the petition calling for an enquiry. 


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