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Carolyn Henwood: Time has come for New Zealanders to clearly state how children should be treated

Serious physical abuse was said to be regularly dished out by foster caregivers, social workers, and staff of both genders.

When Judge Carolyn Henwood explains her job to her three-year-old grandson, she tells him it's about fairness. But, as the former Chair of the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service, she says there is little fairness for the 1,100 New Zealand children who were horrifically abused while in state care until the early 1990s. She says the time has come for New Zealanders to clearly state how our children should be treated.

For the last seven years I have heard reported accounts of children suffering sexual abuse, punchings, kickings, and beatings with jug cords. I heard from children who were locked up in solitary confinement, unable to learn at school because they were so worried about what would happen to them when they got home.

It was as chair of the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service that I travelled from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island, meeting people who told us they had been abused in state care before 1992.

More than half of the people we spoke with said they were sexually abused. A number of girls had to accept that sex with the foster father was part of the deal, otherwise they'd be moved on.

READ MORE: Why Stuff is working with Unicef NZ

Boys were often given to farmers as free labour.


Nothing was theirs, even their state-provided clothing would be given to other children in the family.

A stable home was extraordinarily difficult if, as in one case, you'd been to 40 different homes, and 14 different schools.

Serious physical abuse was said to be regularly dished out by foster caregivers, extended families, social workers, and staff of both genders.

We met more than 1000 children harmed after they'd been left in lock up institutions, or with relatives, because authorities hadn't been checking where they were sleeping.

But telling the public about all this proved difficult. Our findings were embargoed for 15 months - the Government didn't want New Zealanders to know.

Having now heard about 1,100 instances of reported abuse, the failings are easy to identify. The Ministry of Social Development knows this. It has seen the files. I've seen the files. Not everything is on the files and in many cases many files are blacked out an unable to be accessed by the people.

The most shocking thing to me was that much of it was preventable. If people had done their jobs properly and put proper systems in place, much of this abuse could have been avoided.

I didn't originally recommend an inquiry because at the time I didn't think we needed one.

Now I do.

Although we've listened to victims, there's been no investigation of the Ministry, and no staff have been spoken to.

What is the motivation for not having an inquiry? I suspect the Government's worried it might have a moral and financial liability. Instead it wants this finished.

The Ministry considers that because the majority of children in care did not suffer abuse, a universal apology is 'not warranted' to those 1,100 victims. Even though an apology wasn't called for, that attitude is upsetting, harsh and unkind.  

If you are seven years old and being sexually abused, it's not easy to speak out.

These victims have had minimal justice. We've asked the Government to take urgent steps to resolve the cases of abuse and neglect in court, because for too long nothing has been done.

Successive Governments have been too distanced from the quality of care being provided. We do note the current Government is undertaking a huge remodeling of the welfare system. This is significant work that I hope this will bring better outcomes for the next generation.

When New Zealand is trying to reduce abuse against our children, our Government needs to lead, not be on the defensive.

It is estimated that 40 per cent of prisoners grew up in state care. When that care doesn't go well, they run away. They're put into an institution, alienated from their families and whanau. They end up bullied, stealing cars, forced into gangs, and eventually, they end up in jail.

The police have acknowledged that Maori children are arrested more than any other children. That has to stop.

If we keep sending Maori children into care, they'll suffer. It is a destructive, self-fulfilling prophecy.

Many people call them feral families; annoying offenders who deserve harsh punishment. We can still provide punishment, but only if we also address what's going on for that individual. Often it's caused by physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

New Zealanders need to understand that everything is linked.

New Zealand needs an aspirational statement for what we want for our children. 'The Covenant for our Nations Children' is that statement. It is a document endorsed by 68 Maori tribes, and gifted to the Nation at Hopu Hopu last year.

We must have a shared vision for our children, particularly between Maori and the State, because we are still letting Government departments take children into care - the bulk of them Maori - and yet there is no agreed vision or statement as to what that care might be.

Children want a place to stand, to know who they are, to be strong, to have their potential recognised, and to have their needs met.

It's about us being fair to all children, and it's about time we started.

*As told to UNICEF NZ. UNICEF stands for every child, so that every child can have a childhood.

See for a full list of recommendations from the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service