The experiences of Pacific people in care are also framed by the broader colonial context, and accompanying racism, discrimination, and power inequalities.
Pacific migrants came to Aotearoa New Zealand throughout the colonial period, but larger-scale migrations began in the 1950s, occurring in a series of waves which continued through the rest of the century. Most Pacific migrants to Aotearoa New Zealand have come from Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Niue and Tokelau, but some have come from others of the many Pacific nations. People brought distinct languages, cultures, belief systems to their new homes. One report to the Ministry of Education stated that “there is no generic ‘Pacific community’ but rather Pacific peoples who align themselves variously, and at different times, along ethnic, geographic, church, family, school [and other] lines.”
Pacific migration to Aotearoa New Zealand was often economically motivated. For much of the post-war period, New Zealand’s government and industries viewed Pacific peoples as a source of cheap labour for a growing economy – an attitude that reflected New Zealand’s colonial relationship with the Pacific and with nations such as Samoa and the Cook Islands. People from Pacific nations saw migration as a source of jobs, money, and education, all of which could be used to support families and villages at home.
Migrants from Pacific nations settled in cities where they and their children faced cultural and language barriers; racism at personal, cultural and institutional levels; and social and economic deprivation, including inequities in incomes, health, education and employment. Pacific churches grew and became important centres for social life and community support, holding considerable social influence.
In the eyes of the Palagi majority, migrants from Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands, Fiji, Niue, Tokelau and other places were all regarded as homogenous ‘Pacific Islanders’ instead of the diverse group of Pacific peoples that they were. This new identity was created by Palagi and forced onto Pacific peoples, and contributed to their subsequent treatment by government agencies. It obscured the fact that many Pacific people had New Zealand citizenship.
By the early 1970s, as New Zealand’s economy declined, political and public attitudes turned against Pacific migration, leading to increased incidence of overt racism and racial hostility. Police and immigration authorities targeted Pacific peoples for immigration checks while largely ignoring European migrant communities; and their actions culminated in the infamous dawn raids in which Pacific peoples’ homes were invaded as Police sought ‘overstayers’ for deportation. When computerised immigration records were introduced in 1977, the first accurate picture of overstaying patterns showed that 40 per cent of overstayers were actually British and American, despite these groups never being targets of Police attention.
Against this context, Pacific people have been placed in State and faith-based care in Aotearoa New Zealand. Inadequate and inconsistent approaches to recording ethnicity have meant that there is no clear picture of the number of Pacific peoples who were in care between 1950 and 1999, or the abuse they experienced. For much of this period, Pacific people in care were mis-recorded either as Māori or in an ambiguous ‘Polynesian’ category that also included Māori. Pacific people with mixed ethnic identities were often reported and recorded under their other ethnicity and their Pacific identity was ignored.
There are very few, if any, records that distinguish different Pacific ethnicities. We also heard from survivors that staff at residences discouraged them from acknowledging their Pacific heritage, which may have led to further underreporting. This absence of data makes it very difficult to build an accurate picture of the harm experienced by Pacific communities.
This is made even more difficult by the fact that for survivors from Pacific communities, disclosing abuse could be particularly difficult, sometimes because of language barriers, or because of cultural barriers such as respect for the church and authority. As Dr Sam Manuela explained, the power relationships between young people and older or authority figures meant that speaking out could be difficult.
Spending time in care, and being abused in care, could also be a deep source of shame for survivors and their families, also making these experiences very difficult to speak about. Survivor Fa’amoana Luafutu told us that he carried his father’s pain and shame at seeing his family name associated with the courts during his time in care. Others told us that they wanted to remain anonymous when giving evidence to us so they would not bring shame on their family by disclosing that they had been in State care.
Survivors found it particularly difficult to disclose abuse that occurred in faith-based institutions. Many Pacific people have a deep respect for their churches and faith leaders. To challenge the church was also to challenge the family’s faith, core beliefs, way of life and community.
One survivor told us how difficult it was to discuss her sexual abuse by a Catholic brother. It was “shameful that I had gone through that terrible trauma and experience, and that it was related to sex which is a taboo”. In particular, this experience could not be discussed between a daughter and father.
The Catholic faith was “a cultural way of life” for her family, and the brother had been able to abuse her because of the family’s contact with the church. Disclosure under those circumstances “would be calling into question my parents’ faith”, and would also leave them questioning their parenting choices. “The respect one feels for their parents is very strong in my culture, so it would cause me emotional turmoil to think about how they might take it.”
Another witness told us that, when she disclosed the abuse of her niece by a Catholic priest: “Members of my family were the most brutal and hateful. They felt we shamed the family name and challenged divine authority; hence we will be cursed.” This witness asked: “How do you come back from that?”
These barriers mean it is particularly difficult to build a clear picture of abuse of Pacific peoples in care. However, we do know that Pacific peoples have been over-represented in the youth justice and child welfare systems, and therefore in those pathways into care. There is also evidence that Pacific peoples have been over-represented in schools for people with learning disability, and in health camps.
Discriminatory and culturally ignorant attitudes have also contributed to these placements. Some were placed in care after experiencing violence or neglect in their communities or homes.
From those who have come forward we know that Pacific children and young people suffered serious physical, sexual, emotional and cultural violence while in care, leading to a legacy of physical, mental and emotional pain; lost opportunities and potential; and cultural dislocation, for them as individuals and for their wider families and communities.
Pacific survivors have told us that, in institutional environments where violence was already common, young Pacific peoples were targeted for particularly brutal treatment. One survivor recalled:
“The racism was another thing … if you were an Islander you were dog shit. They would step all over you. Staff used to tell me nobody wanted me and other things like ‘you’re useless, you should go and kill yourself”.
Survivors recalled that Palagi staff members targeted young Pacific peoples for sexual abuse. Survivors also reported that the physical and sexual violence they experience was often accompanied by racism and cultural denigration. Dr Oliver Sutherland records that young Pacific peoples in care were called “savages” and other racist slurs, and staff attempted to force them to conform to Palagi ways.
This abuse compounded the hurt arising from separation from their families and communities, which often resulted in young Pacific people losing their support networks, and their language, culture and sense of identity.
We heard from several survivors that they were never told of their Pacific identity and heritage. One survivor believed throughout his time in care that he was Māori, when in fact he was Samoan: “I was denied any knowledge of my Samoan family, culture and identity. I am covered in Māori tattoos because I believed that was who I was”. Another said that because of his time in care he had “forgotten a lot of the fa’a samoa and how to do things the Samoan way.” When he saw his family again, “I felt very lost with them.”
Fa’afete Taito told us that guards at Owairaka refused to acknowledge that he was Samoan, and insisted that he call himself a New Zealander:
“By removing me from my family, I lost part of my identity. To be taken away from my mother at such a young age had a profound and lifelong impact on me. My mother was everything to me in terms of being Samoan, being Christian, being my family. The impact was even greater as there was no family meeting or explanation of why I was being removed.”
Mr Taito also told us of another enduring legacy of his time in care:
“[T]he world of State care and gangs takes away your ability to love and care. My mother loved me but I lost the protective power of that love when I was removed and made a State ward. I learned that interactions with others should be aggressive, antagonistic, violent, and focused on trying to get one over the other person. As I was developing, having lost the ability to love, I began to create my own versions of love. I grew to love violence.”
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