This inquiry was set up to examine, effectively and impartially, the abuse and neglect of the country’s youngest and most vulnerable individuals while in State and faith-based care primarily between 1950 and 1999. The terms of reference encompass a broader range of care settings and types of abuse and neglect than any other similar inquiry in the world. They require us to examine, among other things, the nature and extent of abuse in all of these settings and how different groups, such as Māori, Pacific people and disabled people, have been harmed. Despite the comprehensiveness of the terms of reference, we can reduce them to four essential questions:

  • How and why have people ended up in care?
  • What abuse has taken place, why, and with what effects?
  • What changes have already been, and can be made to prevent and respond to abuse?
  • How should State and faith- based institutions provide redress and rehabilitation to survivors?

This interim report is an overview of what we have learned so far about these questions. There is much more work to do to answer the questions fully, which will follow in the form of a series of reports arising out of individual investigations and informed by private sessions with survivors, culminating in a final report.

Our approach

In carrying out our work, we are guided by a set of values, principles and strategic pillars. One of our prime concerns is to do no harm to survivors while investigating abuse. To that end, we have a dedicated team looking after the health, wellbeing and safety of all survivors who contact us. We register every survivor who contacts us, and the total currently stands at more than 1,900 survivors and about 350 witnesses or other interested people. We expect that thousands more will eventually contact us.

For a survivor perspective on our work, we draw on the advice of a survivor advisory group. We have also recently established a Māori advisory group, Te Taumata, for advice on ensuring an effective Te Tiriti o Waitangi-based approach, incorporating tikanga in our activities, and strengthening Māori partnerships and engagement.

The success of the inquiry depends to a great extent on survivors and others coming forward to help us with our work, and we reach out to the community to encourage survivors, their families and others to participate in our activities. Building relationships and trust is a big part of this work. We have focused our efforts on reaching Māori, Pacific people, disabled people (especially those with learning disabilities), the Deaf community, homeless people, those with mental health difficulties, the LGBTQIA+ community, young people, seniors and women. Our work with these groups, and others, will continue throughout the inquiry.

Gathering information and evidence

We are steadily building up a more detailed picture of abuse through three principal means:

Survivor accounts

In confidential, one-on-one private sessions (in person or by video), survivors talk to a commissioner about their experiences of abuse. Some survivors derive therapeutic benefit from talking – sometimes for the first time – about their abuse. Importantly, we collate anonymised information from these sessions to feed into our investigations work. To date, we have held more than 550 such sessions in 27 towns and cities and in seven prisons. We plan to eventually hold about 2,700 private sessions. Some survivors also give their accounts in group sessions, or in writing. We expect to collect about 500 written accounts over the course of the inquiry.

Investigations and public hearings

We have nine major investigations under way and may eventually start as many as 11 more to ensure we can respond to all aspects of the terms of reference. Five are examining abuse in specific settings: psychiatric institutions, State-run children’s residential care, disability care, and Catholic and Anglican Church institutions. Three are examining abuse and its impact on specific groups, namely Māori, Pacific people and disabled people. The ninth is looking at redress available to those abused while in State or faith-based care.

To date, we have issued close to 100 information requests to the Crown and faith-based institutions and received more than 370,000 documents. We estimate that we may receive more than two million documents and several thousand witness statements by the time the inquiry ends. Investigations will also use roundtables, kaupapa-based hui, fono, and wānanga to gather information in more informal or culturally appropriate ways.

We have so far held two public hearings: a contextual hearing and a hearing into State redress processes, and have begun a third, into the redress processes of faith-based institutions. We have heard evidence from survivors, academic and legal experts, government officials, and others. By the end of 2020, we expect to have held about 45 days of hearings. Public hearings allow the public, survivors and others to see, hear and understand the work we are doing. They also enable individuals and institutions to respond to allegations of wrongdoing and, where appropriate, to be publicly held to account for their actions.

Research and policy

We carry out and commission research to help with our investigation work. We have been reviewing literature about abuse, studies and records from the past 70 years, as well as conducting analysis of information we have received, such as survivor accounts. We are planning research projects to fill the gaps in existing data, in particular trying to get a clearer picture of the impact of abuse in care on Māori, Pacific people and disabled people. We also carry out policy analysis to help understand previous policy contexts and inform recommendations for change.

What we have learned about abuse

Despite the limited information currently available to us, it is clear the extent of abuse in care is significant. A report we have commissioned has estimated that about 655,000 people went through some of the care settings covered by the terms of reference and that up to about 250,000 may have been abused. It will never be possible to determine the precise number of people abused in care because of large gaps and deficiencies in the data available. But this work indicates that even on conservative estimates, there has been more abuse in care than previously thought. It is likely these figures are an underestimate of the problem, for reasons outlined in the report itself. Another point to stress is that abuse in care continues to this day.

The people who have been abused in care come from all backgrounds and situations. A distinctive feature of our inquiry is that many come from the most disadvantaged or marginalised segments of the community – children, young people and vulnerable adults, particularly from Māori whānau, Pacific families, children from impoverished backgrounds, disabled people and women and girls.

Children were often placed in care for reasons other than bad behaviour, in many cases because authorities deemed their home life unsafe or inadequate to care for them. Yet as bad as their home life may have been, many left in worse shape than when they arrived, often with devastating and long-lasting consequences.

Two of the most common routes into State care are through the criminal courts and through the social welfare system. Māori have been overrepresented in both, and unsurprisingly  are overrepresented among those taken into care. There is evidence that the discriminatory attitudes of officials, members of police and the public towards Māori contributed to this overrepresentation. Pacific people are also overrepresented in care today, though not to the same extent as Māori. A large proportion of disabled people have experienced some form of care during their lives and disabled people are likely to be overrepresented among abuse victims.

Survivors have told us about a wide and disturbing range of abusive behaviour ranging from, at the most common end, physical assaults and sexual abuse through to unreasonable physical restraint, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, use of medication and medical procedures such as electro-convulsive therapy as punishment, unjustified solitary confinement and isolation, improper strip searches and vaginal examinations, verbal abuse and racial slurs.

Survivors have also described physical, emotional and psychological, medical, educational, spiritual and cultural neglect. The last of these is particularly relevant to Māori, who struggled to find and reconnect with whānau, hapū and iwi, and build a sense of Māori identity. Pacific children were encouraged to abandon their Pacific identity while in care. Survivors with a disability reported feeling abandoned, invisible and excluded from their family and wider community.

The information gathered so far suggests there are some common factors in abuse cases, including a lack of vetting, training and oversight of those in positions of authority, the absence of clear or safe processes for making complaints of abuse, and failures to respond to disclosures of abuse adequately.

Survivors, especially those with disabilities or from Pacific families whose English was limited or who found it particularly difficult to challenge authority, described formidable barriers to disclosing abuse. We heard many examples of inadequate or harmful responses to reports of abuse. Survivors who reported abuse in psychiatric care settings felt at a particular disadvantage because psychiatrists, doctors and nurses were highly regarded figures whose word was seldom doubted. Rarely was action taken against the alleged perpetrator. Sometimes victims were punished for reporting abuse or placed back in abusive families or settings after their disclosure. We heard about active attempts to cover up abuse and/or transfer the abuser or abusers after victims made allegations.

We have also learned about some of the economic costs of abuse. A report we commissioned has estimated the cost of abuse in care to individuals and society between 1950 and 2019 at up to $217 billion.

Redress processes and outcomes are unsatisfactory

The State’s redress processes, including the Crown’s approach to civil claims, have been overly focused on the financial implications to the State, rather than on providing satisfactory compensation to survivors and ensuring their wellbeing. The Crown has vigorously defended claims in court, while government agencies have developed alternative, out-of-court claims processes that survivors describe as protracted, lacking transparency, inconsistent and full of hurdles. The resulting financial settlements are inadequate and also inconsistent. Rehabilitation, such as counselling, medical treatment and employment training, is inadequate.

Government agencies have full control of the claims processes. Survivors who make claims are frequently disbelieved and forced to retell their experiences again and again, which they find traumatising. Information and guidance on claims processes are poor. Many survivors are unaware they can even make a claim.

Finally, settlement processes have not sufficiently considered the Crown’s obligations to Māori under Te Tiriti.

Looking ahead

We will continue our existing investigations and begin new ones into other care settings, such as youth justice facilities, schools and foster care. Some investigations will span several settings. Public hearings, roundtables, hui and wānanga will supplement these investigations, helping us build a more complete picture of what happened and why. Private sessions, a valuable source of first-hand information, will continue, along with the collection of written statements. We will be issuing more information requests, which will produce a steady flow of documents to examine.

We have much work to do to get a firmer estimate of how many people were abused in care. We need more information on how abuse affected particular groups, such as Māori, Pacific people and those with disabilities. We will need to conduct or commission more research, and the results of this work and the information we collect will all need to be evaluated, tested, synthesised and transformed into practical recommendations for change.

We are conscious of the need to produce a fair, accurate and comprehensive account of abuse in care. The terms of reference demand it, but equally importantly, the survivors of abuse demand it, the interests of justice demand it, and the public deserve it.


Next: Part One - Why we are here