Dame Susan Devoy: State child care may explain why so many Maori are in prison

“If for nothing else we need to remember that to this day, that boy has received no justice in terms of the brutality he received at the hands of his own Government.” Dame Susan Devoy

March 2, 2017

Years ago in a small town a Maori boy was caught stealing lollies at the local four square. A report labelled him a ‘thug” and he was made a state ward. He was ten years old. Put in a boy’s home where he was physically and sexually abused, he ended up doing very long stretches in isolation. He’d spend months at a time in a single cell. While there his parents died. When he was let out he was sent to live with a series of strangers, some of whom sexually and physically abused him. He was to spend time in and out of prison. He was an old man by the time he made meaningful contact with his whanau again. By then he’d lost so many things: language, whakapapa, whanau, childhood.

The late Dr Ranginui Walker once told me: “Whatever you do: don’t give up. We need New Zealanders to talk about race relations.”

And he was right. And so I am retelling the sad story of this small boy’s life because my suspicion is that children like him were more likely to be put into state institutions if they were Maori.

It’s something that experts have been saying for years. It is the very definition of institutional racism or systemic discrimination: but without an inquiry into the abuse suffered in our state run institutions we will ever know its true extent.

We know more than 100,000 children and vulnerable adults were put into care over forty years. The first homes opened in the fifties and by the seventies, almost half of all kids in state care were Maori. In 1978, 89% of admissions to Hokio were Maori and Pasifika. In 1985, Maori boys made up 78% of all youngsters held in six Social Welfare homes across Auckland.  Boys sought the protection of gang affiliations while in care, many of those lost boys tell us the gangs themselves began in boys homes.

By the time they left – many shown the door before their eighteenth birthday –  many had mental health problems and were more likely to offend than if they’d never entered state care.  We know of scores of young men in prison whose parents and sometimes grandparents, like him, spent some, or all, of their childhoods in state homes.

More recently the Ministry of Social Development tracked the lives of more than 58,000 people born in 1989 in a retrospective study. Of those who were in prison by the time they were 20: 83% had a previous “Child, Youth and Family” record. The ministry itself found they were 15 times more likely to end up with a Corrections record by the time they were 20, 107 times more likely to be imprisoned before they turned 20. This tells us that those children who progress across care and justice services fare poorly and we know Maori children are particularly highly represented here.

So often people will want to say we need to be colour blind about justice but the reality is that when you look at our prisons: ethnicity is its defining factor.  Today Maori New Zealanders make up more than half of our total prison population, a damning indictment on a system that is many times more likely to arrest a young person if he is Maori.  Maori girls and women are even more over-represented.

Even the United Nations recognises the systemic causes that are at play, regularly urging our Government to search for “solutions to the root causes” which lead to disproportionate incarceration rates for Maori.  Hundreds of witnesses gave evidence to Judge Carolyn Henwood’s Confidential Listening and Assistance Service about the abuse they suffered while children in state care: a large number of Maori men interviewed did so from their prison cells.

We need an inquiry into what went on in our state run institutions because it is the right thing to do. History will always be on the side of those children who were abused not the people who abused them or who allowed them to be abused. It is disturbing that many people have yet to be held to account. One survivor has told us he walked past one of his abusers from his boys’ home days a few years ago. The man who’d tortured him and other youngsters has never been brought to trial, he was walking his dog and seemed pretty happy when his horrified victim saw him stroll past.

But as well as the moral thing, having an inquiry is the rational thing to do.

If we are logical about fixing a broken system we need to look at all of the underlying causes and factors, not just the ones we or the Government feel comfortable talking about. If we don’t then we are kidding ourselves. Would you feel safe if an air crash investigation only looked into things the airline felt comfortable talking about like weather conditions but refused to consider pilot error? No. Neither would I.

If we want our welfare and justice system to have dignity and mana: then we must look at it thoroughly and investigate those things that went on in the past.

An apology and an acknowledgement of what happened is a fundamental part of justice. The other part is learning from the past so that we don’t make those same mistakes in our present.

As Race Relations Commissioner, if I’m to understand why more than half of our prison inmates are Maori then I need to be clear about how they got there in the first place. And like many others, I suspect that part of this story began many years ago in our state run institutions. But until we have an inquiry, we will never know for sure.

If for nothing else we need to remember that to this day, that boy has received no justice in terms of the brutality he received at the hands of his own Government.  He and all the other children who suffered in our state institutions deserve justice.