Abuse in care: Department of Social Development faces royal commission as first witnesses speak out

Decades later, technology has improved, but the Department of Development is still making the same mistakes, the Royal Commission has heard.

Since the Abuse in Care Commission was established in 2019, there have been 117 days of public hearings. Thousands of witnesses have come forward and over a million documents have been found.

Over the next two weeks, 43 witnesses from 14 Crown agencies responsible for state care will answer the commission’s questions, but for survivors and the commission’s Survivor Advisory Group, the burning question on their minds is why.

Why were so many people abused, sexually, physically, mentally and spiritually, in the custody of the Crown? Why were they ignored when raising concerns? Why have so many people been neglected, placed in care institutions and forgotten? Why were they removed from their homes, stripped of their cultural ties and their whānau?

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Keith Wiffin, a member of the advisory group and a survivor himself, said he wanted answers for the treatment of his fellow survivors, then and now.

“The question I always ask is, how could this have happened? This is a question that all survivors deserve to hear answered.

Survivor Advisory Group member Keith Wiffin wants answers from the agencies that let him down and countless others.

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Survivor Advisory Group member Keith Wiffin wants answers from the agencies that let him down and countless others.

“I want to hear openness, transparency and honesty.”

In her opening statement, Crown Attorney Rachael Schmidt-McCleave told the commission that witnesses before their agencies would answer these and all other questions posed by the panel to the best of their abilities.

“We heard, we listened and we believed,” Schmidt-McCleave said.

But when witnesses representing the Department of Social Development spoke, historical and contemporary issues of listening to and believing abuse allegations were criticized.

Rachael Schmidt-McCleave, Crown counsel for the Royal Commission into Custody Abuse, said agency officials would be open and honest throughout the hearing.

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Rachael Schmidt-McCleave, Crown counsel for the Royal Commission into Custody Abuse, said agency officials would be open and honest throughout the hearing.

A list of alleged abusers held by commission lawyer Anne Toohey showed how failing the agency’s oversight of the facilities had been.

At the Kohitere Boys Training Center in Horowhenua, 228 complaints were filed with the ministry covering 812 allegations of abuse including sexual, physical and emotional abuse.

These numbers were similar at nearby Hokio Beach School and Epuni Boys’ Home.

It spans decades, Toohey said, and those named have pages of allegations against them.

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The department’s chief executive, Debbie Power, told the commission there were better policies in place today designed to deal with the complaints that arose.

However, Toohey challenged Power to explain how someone who has numerous allegations against their name could work in a juvenile justice facility today if the policies worked.

Person A, who continues to work in state care, had 26 abuse allegations that began being reported to the department in 2006, Toohey said.

The department attempted to investigate the allegations, but “for various reasons was unable to proceed further at the time”.

“The allegations are summarized in this table as being physically abusive. This person beat the boys while they were doing physical training, kicked, punched and clotheslined the boys, organized fights between boys.

Debbie Power, chief executive of the Department of Social Development, told the royal commission that in some cases the department could do better.

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Debbie Power, chief executive of the Department of Social Development, told the royal commission that in some cases the department could do better.

Although the man had three upheld complaints against him, he was again employed in 2009 and moved to another juvenile justice facility in 2015 where he remains a staff member.

Toohey asked Power, “Would the ministry agree that this represents a major failure?”

Power didn’t say it was a failure, but rather a situation where “we didn’t do our best at the time to address this particular complaint and that’s extremely unfortunate.” .

Power said that when allegations are made, two prongs begin, one being an employment issue and the other being custody of the child. As the man worked for another organization, his hands were tied.

“What I can say is that we made references regarding Person A… general information in 2019 in 2020 and 2021.”

The chair of the Royal Commission into Care Abuse, Justice Coral Shaw, has challenged the centrality of children to Department of Social Development processes.

LAWRENCE SMITH / Stuff

The chair of the Royal Commission into Care Abuse, Justice Coral Shaw, has challenged the centrality of children to Department of Social Development processes.

However, Judge Coral Shaw questioned who the process was protecting, the plaintiff or the alleged perpetrator.

“What prevails here? Does the protection of the child prevail or does the protection of employment status prevail? »

In short, it’s complicated, says Power.

“Absolutely, we would like child protection to be front and center, all I’m saying is that we also have an employment process that we have to go through.”

The hearing continues.

Joel C. Hicks