When enough is enough

How many revelations of and reports into the abuse of vulnerable people in state care have to surface before calls for a formal inquiry are heeded?

The most recent report was into the abuse of people with learning and other disabilities in state care.  It was ordered by the Human Rights Commission and conducted by researchers at the Donald Beasley Institute.

It found evidence that people with learning disabilities were subjected to neglect, deprivation, and emotional, psychological, physical and sexual abuse in institutions, care homes, educational facilities and foster homes in New Zealand from the 1950s to the 1990s.

The abuse often began in childhood and continued into adulthood. Children and adults were physically restrained, controlled, secluded and locked away.

The report found the abuse was systemic, was not taken seriously, there were not enough staff to meet people’s basic needs and staff lacked the training to provide good-quality care. It described the people involved as some of the "stolen generations" and disabled people as the "silent majority" who had less chance of being able to tell their stories.

It found an inquiry was needed to clarify the extent of the problem and that a government apology was necessary.

The report follows a raft of similar ones into the treatment of children in state care.

Given the mounting evidence, it is increasingly concerning to hear the same refrains from the Government: that a formal  inquiry is not necessary, that abuse was not systemic, that only a small proportion of people were affected, that personal apologies and compensation are sufficient for those individuals whose claims are currently being settled. Yet what of the rest? Those whose claims are more complex, those who won’t come forward for a variety of reasons, those who can’t come forward because they have died?  What about what is right?

There has been clear acknowledgement of the failings made by the State in its role as "parent". Some horrendous stories were exposed through the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service. Acknowledging the failings, the Government embarked on a complete overhaul of this country’s child care and protection system.

Only a year ago, though, Disability Rights Commissioner Paul Gibson was challenging the Government’s assertion that there was "no disability perspective involved" in the abuse of those in state care. The report has sadly proved him right.

Is it really safe to believe that such abuse and neglect was sins-of-the-past stuff when it emerged only recently that seclusion rooms were being used in schools, for example?

This newspaper has commended the Government and Social Development Minister Anne Tolley for her willingness to acknowledge the problems,  seek advice and implement change.

Given this, her intransigence on a public apology and  formal independent inquiry — with its extra powers —  does not make sense.

It is bad enough that vulnerable New Zealanders were let down in the past. If authorities do not fully know what mistakes were made, by whom and how they were sanctioned, what can be learned? There is a risk of failing people all over again.

This country has been working hard to right past wrongs. There have been various Crown apologies to Maori for historic injustices. Homosexual male New Zealanders convicted for consensual adult activity received a parliamentary apology only earlier this month.

The wounds of the past must not be allowed to fester. And more people should not have to die before they are given the respect they deserve:  to be financially compensated for their trauma and for the State to acknowledge formally it has done wrong and is committed to learning from its mistakes. If society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable, we have a long way to go yet.

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