Dark past not so long ago

It is comforting to imagine that some of society's worst systemic abuses against its most vulnerable members, such as children, are behind us.

It is easy to imagine we live in more enlightened times where state cruelty is a thing of the past.

But the latest in Prime Presents NZ: Little Criminals raises questions about those assumptions, and shows in the quite recent past the New Zealand state housed a very dark side.

Little Criminals is a New Zealand on Air-funded documentary that looks at the treatment of children in state care between the 1960s and the 1990s.

A remarkable 100,000 boys and girls passed through the doors of the country's institutional homes in that time, including, of course, in Dunedin.

Little Criminals takes its name and subject from David Cohen's 2011 book, and interviews former inmates of the most infamous of those institutions, the Epuni Boys' Home in Lower Hutt.

Cohen's book gave the issue an airing on its release in 2011, but the stories of the boys - many of whom were in the facility because of dysfunctional home lives rather than criminal behaviour - make for compelling watching.

The men the show features ended up at Epuni as boys of just 10 or 11 years old, already struggling with chaotic home environments.

As one former inmate Karl says: ''You think of it, as a kid, you're going to jail, or you're going to prison. That's the concept. Hell, yeah, it was frightening.''

The induction system included throwing children in a cell for two or three days alone, with no radio, television or reading material.

Once out of the cell, they suffered beatings at the hands of other boys.

''I always remember walking into the place and feeling fear,'' Karl says.

The result, unsurprisingly, is a whole cohort of men locked into crime, violence and the prison system years after the institutions were closed.

Little Criminals is not just a harrowing account of a shamefully recent past, it also questions how we deal with children in difficult circumstances now.

As Karl asks: ''Has state care really improved?''

Through interviews with psychologists, criminologists and Child Youth and Family staff, we get some answers to that question.

Meanwhile, for lighter relief, internet streaming services offer a great opportunity to re-watch shows you loved in the past, to see how they fare up to 26 years later.

Seinfeld's first episode, on Lightbox, looks strangely clunky after 26 years, though it is still brilliant.

And joyfully, I found I have forgotten most of Tina Fey's 30 Rock, meaning it can be watched all over again, from the excellent series one.

It makes me cry with laughter.

There is no higher honour one can bestow on a comedy.

• Charles Loughrey 

Add a Comment