Survivors of all backgrounds have suffered significant trauma and ongoing harm from their experiences in care. Many experienced emotional and psychological strain when they were removed from or otherwise left their kāinga, or homes, and whānau, and placed in care settings. Some experienced frequent changes of placement and lengthy periods in care. For many, being placed in care meant they lost contact with family, community, culture, language, identity and whakapapa, which many later struggled to regain.
The experiences of abuse and neglect in care have had profound and lasting impacts for survivors.
Consistently, survivors have described the impacts of abuse in holistic terms. That is, abuse has affected everything about their lives. It has harmed their physical health, their psychological and emotional wellbeing, their education and economic prospects, their relationships with family and others, their cultural and spiritual lives, and much more, leaving a legacy of harm that has spanned generations.
One survivor told us that all of the children and young people who passed through Lake Alice received life sentences; another spoke about the abuse being always with her, a “huge and dark” presence that had remained throughout her life. They told us that any redress process will therefore need to support them to rebuild lives that have been deeply and profoundly affected by the abuse they experienced, and account for the lifetime impacts on them, their whānau, hapū, iwi and hapori or communities.
The impacts include serious physical injuries from abuse, such as head injuries, internal injuries, and broken bones. Treatment was not always provided, and, for some, these injuries have had lifelong consequences, for example from impaired brain functioning, memory loss, and other consequences of traumatic brain injury. Many survivors also developed longer-term medical conditions associated with trauma and abuse, including cardiovascular problems, diabetes, malnourishment, sexually transmitted diseases, chronic pain, and incontinence.
Mental health issues, including psychiatric disorders, are also common. Many survivors struggle with daily life. For example, many survivors have experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress such as flashbacks, nightmares, emotional distress and trouble sleeping. Many have also experienced anxiety and depression, along with feelings of shame, guilt, hopelessness, and anger, often in response to triggering memories or events. It is common for survivors to have turned to drugs and alcohol or other addictive coping mechanisms in attempts to numb their distress, and not uncommon for them to have attempted suicide.
Abuse also has a profound impact on the relationships survivors need to navigate in their everyday lives. Some continue to mistrust people in authority, and to fear hospitals, schools, churches, and other institutions that remind them of their abuse. Some have found it difficult to trust people or to form close relationships, including with their own families. Some find it difficult to socialise or interact with people generally, due to low self-worth and anxiety about how they are perceived or might react in certain situations. Some relationships were destroyed as the result of the abuse.
Abuse has affected survivors’ education and ability to be employed. Survivors have told us of their sense of lost potential and wasted opportunity because of the impacts of their abuse, and also because they received limited education while in care. For some, education was not provided, or for some it was interrupted by regular changes in school or care settings or was cut short when they left school after being abused. Some, particularly those with learning disability or impairment, were unable to develop basic life skills. Some have been unable to work due to their injuries or impacts of post-traumatic stress disorder. The loss of economic opportunity has ongoing consequences, including financial insecurity and loss of self-worth for generations.
Some survivors have turned to crime and gangs, as ways to survive and belong. They told us their paths in life had been fixed from a young age, giving them few options or ways to determine their own futures. Many carry a burden of fear and anger, which in some cases has turned to violence. For many survivors, being taken into care, and then abused, became a pathway into other institutions including prison. As mentioned above, Waitangi Tribunal documents estimate that more than 80 per cent of current prisoners and between 80 and 90 per cent of members of Black Power and the Mongrel Mob have spent time in State care.
Abuse has also caused harm to survivors’ families and has had intergenerational effects. Family members told us they felt powerless or guilty for having failed to protect their loved ones. Partners and children live with the survivors’ hurt, depression, loss, and anger. Some survivors struggle to show affection or care for their children, and some have gone on to inflict violence and other harm on the next generation.
“One way or another the abuse is always with me.”
Impacts of abuse in religious settings
Those that suffered abuse in religious settings often suffered particular harm due to the religious dimension to their abuse. This religious abuse typically co-occurs with other forms of abuse, including physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse, and neglect. Dr Thomas Doyle, who is a former priest and a leading expert in abuse in the Catholic Church, refers to it as “soul murder”.
Institutions forcing religion onto non-religious individuals can also result in harm. Many children housed in Salvation Army homes did not come from religious backgrounds but “were not given any choice about what to believe”. “I was put down and made to feel like a sinner. I was told that the punishment for not accepting Jesus and God into my life was the depths of burning hell ... In my view, being subjected to this as a child easily amounts to emotional abuse. The torment that is brought was overwhelming as it made me extremely fearful of non-compliance.”
The impact of religious abuse can be compounded at an individual level by an inadequate response to abuse, particularly if the faith-based institution is seen to hide and even facilitate harm through inaction.
Many of the survivors we heard from told us that they had been sexually abused. Victims of religious abuse may believe that any form of sexual expression, whether thought, word or deed, is sinful. This leads to moral confusion when a religious figure leads the survivor into a forbidden sexual act. The survivor may experience shock, confusion, guilt and shame. People in some faiths are taught that homosexuality is unnatural, and that homosexual people are “fundamentally disordered”. If the abuser is the same sex as the victim, this is likely to lead to further distress and harm.
An abuser’s perceived closeness to God intensifies the emotional, psychological and spiritual impacts of the abuse, and can make disclosure extremely challenging. Survivor Jacinda Thompson highlighted this when she told the Commission she “viewed clergy as doing God’s work” and therefore trusted the Anglican priest, who subsequently abused her, “as [she] would trust God”.
Some survivors were left dealing not only with their own trauma and spiritual harm, but also feeling responsible for the spiritual downfall of their abusers, “I felt dirty, ashamed and shocked and told no one. I was convinced it was my fault. My mental health deteriorated, and I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.”
Survivors who experience religious or spiritual abuse can have a shaken sense or complete loss of faith and spirituality – things that are sometimes central to the survivor’s sense of identity prior to the abuse. They may stop participating in religious observances and practices all together. This can contribute to an intense sense of loss of the spiritual dimension of identity, which previously provided a source of strength, support and meaning. They may not be able to attend the wedding, funerals and tangihanga, baptisms or other family or whānau gatherings if those events take place in a religious setting or with religious influence and direction. The signs, symbols, rituals and persons that represented spiritual security become enduring reminders of the betrayal and trauma suffered. Like survivors, whānau and wider communities can feel betrayal, resentment, despair, anger, guilt and loss of connection and confidence in religious leaders, and therefore loss of faith. Survivors also face damaged relationships and some are ostracised from their family and whānau and wider religious communities as a consequence of disclosing abuse.
This may be compounded where the survivor’s relationship with their faith is deeply linked to their cultural worldview and identity. Survivor Frances Tagaloa said her family’s faith, and taboo in the Samoan culture, worsened her concerns around disclosing the abuse:
“... my parents’ strength of faith in the Catholic Church was significant. Catholicism for my family is a cultural way of life.”
Next: 1.3 Concepts of harm and restoration and framing principles