Requesting records is usually the first action survivors or their legal representatives take when making a claim. For some survivors, access to records may be the only redress they want.
“I distinctly remember the day sitting … by myself looking at those records and just how confronting that was. It was a very lonely, painful experience reading those records by myself. Records are a very big part of our lives obviously. It’s the first time that you sit down there and read them and you’re reading about your life. And sometimes that can take a long, long time to come about. That is because, in part, in great part, the authorities do not make it easy for you.”
Keith Wiffin, said records “form[ed] a very important part of redress”. Advocacy group CLAN NZ said records were “of the utmost importance” for survivors, observing that “being able to access their personal files and records usually represents their only hope in finding answers to the many questions that they have carried with them for a lifetime”.
Survivors described a variety of obstacles to getting hold of their records. No information was publicly available about where to go and who to ask for records. Organisations offered very limited guidance, advice or support during their searches. Records were spread across numerous agencies, some of which had ceased to exist. Institutions held different types of records in different locations. Institutions were themselves sometimes unable to find information.
Some institutions took unreasonable lengths of time to hand over information and conducted their own searches of records and decided what to release, creating a power imbalance in their favour. They misplaced – and sometimes destroyed – records as part of poor record management processes. Other records were legally destroyed consistently with policy. Many disabled survivors are unable to access their records, contributing to feelings of invisibility.
Organisations may even have hidden or destroyed records to hide evidence of abuse – a suspicion that, although often unproven, led to distrust of government agencies and faith-based institutions among those survivors whose records arrived incomplete or not at all. Some records were damaged or lost through flooding or fire. Records turned up with large sections redacted or blacked out. Information could be conflicting, offensive, missing or inaccurate. Names were misspelled and dates of birth were wrong.
All these barriers are stressful for survivors, and many are traumatic. The barriers are particularly difficult for survivors in prison, those unable to read, those with limited access to community support services, or survivors with a disability. A survivor described her first impression after opening her records as “horrific”:
“I mean, I opened it up and I read probably about six pages and I thought to myself: ‘This is bull.’ I became so angry, I sealed them back up again.”
The barriers to accessing records can affect survivors’ ability to heal. Limited records can affect their ability to make a claim for redress, but it can also bar survivors from understanding their own experiences and understanding the tūkino, or abuse, harm and trauma,) they experienced.
“The records I have received through my OIA request are very valuable to me because they give me a place to start when trying to understand what happened in my childhood and where I have been. Other children have photos … all I have is my records.”
Access to records and connection with whakapapa and culture
Opportunities to connect or reconnect to whakapapa and culture is an important element of redress processes for many survivors and access to accurate records facilitates this process. Personal records can help survivors understand their experience more fully and connect or reconnect with their whakapapa, whānau and sense of identity.
Access to records can logically facilitate connection to whakapapa. We will say more in relation to this in our report on Māori experiences of abuse in care. Our report on Pacific experiences will also be looking at accessing records as an element of cultural restoration.
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