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David Slack: Hard to say but it must be said

Tens of thousands of children were taken into state care in the decades following World War II, with many of them suffering appalling abuse.

OPINION: This is a public apology, given in the name of the people who feel unable to make it.

From the end of World War II until the 1980s, the government took more than 100,000 children into state care: into foster homes, health camps, special education homes and psychiatric hospitals; into welfare care, and into borstals.

It took them in to protect them: from neglect and poverty, from family violence. But for some of those 100,000 children it was the worst thing that could have happened. People charged with their care were not fit for the task.

If you were one of those children, this is for you.

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Some of you have had compensation and an apology, and yes, Minister Anne Tolley is more than happy to apologise to you personally. But you want more and you have a right to expect it. You want to hear from the state in loud, clear terms that it failed you. You want to hear it fully acknowledge what happened to you.

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This apology is for you, and to you.

If you were one of those children, your experience was wretched: physical, sexual and psychological violence, misery and brutality. You suffered abuse at the hands of staff, social workers, caregivers, teachers, clergy, cooks, gardeners, night watchmen and even other children and patients.

The state was supposed to protect you, and it failed you utterly. You have our unreserved apology.

The Kohitere boys home had a welcoming committee that would throw a blanket over you so you couldn't see who was bashing you. We apologise for that, and for all the bashings that followed, and the violence that became your life and led you into prison where you spent most of the following 20 years.

You were a healthy child who was given sedatives, put in mental health institutions, given electroconvulsive therapy.  You were wronged in the most dreadful way.

You were put into a girls' home and spent long days and weeks alone. You were put in an isolation cell for months.  You suffered damaging gynaecological examinations. You lived in  degrading conditions. While the rest of us got a warm bed and primary school, intermediate and high school, you got almost no schooling.  We say now, for all New Zealand: you were wronged and you have our unreserved apology.

You were alone and scared in the children's home we sent you to. You couldn't sleep. You would wet  the bed and for that, adults would strip you and belt you across the buttocks, force you into cold baths and nappies, and parade you as a dirty creature. You were done a deep and traumatising harm and injustice, and you have our unreserved apology.

You were made, with your bare hands, to clean out blocked toilets filled with excrement and we apologise to you for that, with regret and shame.

In the homes and the borstals, to fit in with the other kids, you learned how to break the law: substance use, stealing cars, violence, armed robberies. We apologise unreservedly for abandoning you.

The state's neglect drove you to self-harm and delinquent behaviour. It made you bitter and angry. Who would not be? Your feelings of despair poisoned the way you saw the world. We give you our deepest apology for the harm you were done. And we acknowledge the children already gone, at their own hands, who will never hear this apology.

We offer an apology, too, to you who are the children or the grandchildren of those young people and have been affected by the harm the state did to your parents and grandparents.

Judge Henwood, who chaired the panel that heard from more than 1100 people abused in state care, says she does not accept that just 3.5 per cent of those children suffered abuse and neglect. She rightly says you cannot know the true number in the absence of an inquiry.

So we declare now: an inquiry will be held.

A child's eyes show their emotions to the world in vivid, honest clarity: their hopes, joys and delights, their fear and caution and worry. Above all, their trust. When we betray that trust, we fail in the worst way.

Today we look you in the eye to say: we failed you. You have our unreserved apology.

Sunday Star Times

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