The state and the children
children was widespread. That much has emerged from Judge Carolyn Henwood’s seven-year Confidential Listening and Assistance Service. Last year, Henwood herself recommended an independent inquiry because many had not come forward.
Social Development Minister Anne Tolley has argued that there is no evidence that the abuse was ‘‘systemic.’’ What is ‘‘systemic’’ and what is incidental seems a fine distinction when so many children were clearly abused.
But the independent inquiry called for by the Human Rights Commission and various prominent New Zealanders would determine just how deep the problem went. It could test the claim that there was in effect a ‘‘lost generation’’ of Maori children who were seized for reasons which now seem often trifling and who never returned to their families.
A systematic inquiry would be necessarily open-ended and it would be expensive. About 100,000 children were taken into care during the period from the 1950s to the 1990s. Henwood’s inquiry heard from 1100 people who spent time in children’s homes, borstals and foster care before 1992.
They didn’t include many prisoners or people with intellectual disabilities. We do not know how many more would come forward if a proper public inquiry was to sit.
But there is now plenty of evidence that the state betrayed its responsibility to care for these children. This is an example of neglect or cruelty which is intolerable in a democratic country committed to human rights.
The crime, in other words, is so terrible that the inquiry must be equal to it. Arguably this has not yet happened.
Prime Minister Bill English says the inquiry would be a ‘‘distraction’’. From what, exactly? It is no use Tolley arguing that the Government’s root-and-branch reform of the system of state care means the problem won’t recur. That doesn’t fix the system that blighted the lives of so many.
Politicians don’t want to launch an inquiry likely to lead to even more expense and trouble than has occurred already. But they have no real choice.