Inside story

In the lead-up to the of­fi­cial in­quiry into the treat­ment of chil­dren in state care, David Co­hen gives a first-hand ac­count of life at Epuni Boys’ Home.

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In the lead-up to the of­fi­cial in­quiry into the treat­ment of chil­dren in state care, David Co­hen gives a first-hand ac­count of life at Epuni Boys’ Home.

The faded yel­low struc­ture looks so un­in­ter­est­ing, so un­invit­ing and so for­got­ten that for a mo­ment you think you’ve ar­rived at the wrong place. Turn­ing into the drive­way, how­ever, you re­alise that im­pres­sion was mis­lead­ing.

Though the cold, over­cast day is only just break­ing, this cu­ri­ous lit­tle res­i­dence al­ready buzzes with ac­tiv­ity as dozens of boys rouse them­selves un­der the watch of var­i­ous su­per­vi­sors, one of whom care­fully un­locks the front door and waves you in with a grunt. Far from be­ing the ne­glected in­sti­tu­tion it ap­peared from the road, the in­te­rior of the build­ing re­sem­bles noth­ing so much as a venue busy­ing it­self for an im­por­tant event.

Wel­come to 441 River­side Drive, Lower Hutt, known to a gen­er­a­tion of boys and teenagers as Epuni Boys’ Home, a 1.6ha Min­istry of Works-de­signed in­sti­tu­tion for “short-term train­ing”. The res­i­dence is charged with as­sess­ing and clas­si­fy­ing the es­ti­mated 350 chil­dren aged between seven and 16 who are pushed through its doors each year. It is not far­ing ter­ri­bly well.

The year is 1975, but the ul­ti­mate event that these kids will play a part in takes place in New Zealand this year, as the Gov­ern­ment con­venes what will be the most far-reach­ing

in­quiry of this par­lia­men­tary term.

A royal com­mis­sion of in­quiry will re­con­struct what did and didn’t hap­pen here and in the 25 other sim­i­lar in­sti­tu­tions that were dot­ted around the coun­try from the 1950s un­til the late 1980s. It will be chaired by former Gov­er­nor-Gen­eral Sir Anand Satyanand.

The sys­tem that will be looked at dates back to 1954, when the Gov­ern­ment opened its first “fam­ily home”, the name of choice for the large res­i­den­tial houses owned, fur­nished and main­tained by the state and run by a cou­ple of foster par­ents who re­ceived a spe­cial board rate for the chil­dren in care. Things did not go to plan. Soon, the res­i­dences were pro­cess­ing thou­sands of state wards.

“Any abuse of chil­dren is a tragedy, and for those most vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren in state care, it is un­con­scionable,” Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern said when she an­nounced the in­quiry’s es­tab­lish­ment. It will be com­pleted within her first par­lia­men­tary term.

“This is a chance to con­front our his­tory and make sure we don’t make the same mis­takes again. It is a sig­nif­i­cant step to­wards ac­knowl­edg­ing and learn­ing from the ex­pe­ri­ences of those who have been abused in state care.”

The Satyanand in­quiry, which has an ini­tial bud­get of $12 mil­lion, will need to find some way of recre­at­ing how life was for the thou­sands of young­sters who were pro­cessed through Epuni and the other homes. One thing it won’t be dis­cov­er­ing in a hurry is what these now-de­funct places ac­tu­ally looked and felt like.

I know a bit about this be­cause I spent two years re­search­ing a book about Epuni. The broad sto­ries of those who worked and lived there were rel­a­tively easy to come by – es­pe­cially in re­la­tion to the more lurid episodes of sex­ual and phys­i­cal abuse. But the deeper sense of what these places were like be­comes in­creas­ingly elu­sive, and harder still to re­cap­ture as each year passes and mem­o­ries fade.

I also know about this be­cause I was one of the kids who lived at Epuni.


Among the more strik­ing things that a vis­i­tor to 441 River­side Drive would have no­ticed is the si­lence of the 40 or so young­sters typ­i­cally housed here. It’s all the more no­table be­cause their oddly monas­tic morn­ing rou­tine is set against the jaunty sounds of a ra­dio sys­tem whose wiring runs through­out the build­ings’ three wings and the var­i­ous pas­sage­ways.

In def­er­ence to the chill, per­haps, or more likely out of se­cu­rity con­cerns, all the doors and win­dows will be locked, as the ra­di­a­tor pipes along the main hall­ways gur­gle and the first of the silent hu­man traf­fic be­gins to move. A vis­i­tor would also no­tice the warmth, and the odours: the reek of over­ripe veg­eta­bles, salty male ado­les­cence and chem­i­cal clean­ers.

Epuni Boys’ Home; be­low, David Co­hen.

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