Saturday, April 20

‘The gates of hell opened’: after decades, Māori survivors of state abuse are finally heard | Maori

When Tupua Urlich – the first person to take the stand at a landmark Māori hearing on abuse in state care – is asked to talk about his upbringing, he puts his heads to his clasped hands and says he needs to take a minute. “This is an emotional thing to go through,” he says. “I don’t mind people seeing this because this is what we go through every day of our lives.”

Urlich, of Croatian and Ngāti Kahungunu ki Heretaunga descent, was five when he was separated from his mother and seven siblings, and sent to live with a non-whānau [non-family] caregiver chosen by the state. “That’s when the gates of hell opened up,” he says. “I can tell you, I was far safer in those first five years of my life,” he tells the hearing.

Over the next two years, in the early 2000s, he told the commission he was brutally beaten nearly every day. “I was a child at the mercy of a monster,” he says. “Beyond physical abuse, he was cruel. How anyone could deem him safe to take care of me I don’t understand.”

After one beating, Urlich says his caregiver swung open the door to his room where he lay bleeding and said: “Oh yeah, your dad’s dead by the way”, then slammed the door closed.

New Zealand’s royal commission into abuse in state and faith-based care is the largest and most complex royal commission the country has held. The independent investigation put in motion in 2018, is tasked with revealing the extent of abuse within the institutions designed to protect children, and its ongoing effects.

Over the past two weeks, the commission has held its first public hearings dedicated exclusively to Māori, giving survivors an opportunity to highlight the racism and cultural disconnection they also faced at the hands of the state. In total, 25 people – a tiny fraction of the estimated 200,000 Māori survivors of abuse – took to the stand to testify.

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In the 1970s, most children taken into state care were Māori, and over-representation of Māori children in care has continued. According to the royal commission’s report, Māori today make up 69% of children in care and 81% of the children abused in care, despite accounting for only about 16% of the population.

The commission estimates about 655,000 people have been in care settings in New Zealand since the 1950s, and up to 256,000 may have been abused. Their testimony was livestreamed, and transcripts will be published on the commission’s website.

Urlich says being Māori, and raised in a system that separated him from his culture and knowledge is “modern day colonisation”.

“The only time I saw reference to Te Ao Māori [the Māori world] was outside of the education center in a child, youth and family building – there were koru patterns in the glass frostings of the meeting rooms,” Urlich says. “I deserved more than that.”

Cultural separation ‘profoundly abusive’

The trauma of being deliberately separated from whānau, and Māori culture arises time and again during the hearings. Some survivors say it “was profoundly abusive in and of itself”, says Julia Spelman (Ngāti Hikairo), independent legal counsel assisting the commission. “And this challenges us to think about abuse in a broader way.”

“Some survivors described hating being Māori, or of having their chance to be Māori taken away from them; of having experiences so painful that they do not feel able to reconnect with their identity and what it means to be Māori.”

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The pain of severeness has intergenerational effects, some survivors say.

A woman of Sami, Navajo, Aboriginal and Māori descent was adopted by a Pākeha [European] family as a newborn, after doctors told her then-16 year-old mother that her baby was sick and the best thing to do was leave her at the hospital for staff to look after.

The doctors then falsely listed her ethnicity as European on her birth certificate, says the woman, who is acknowledged as Ms AF. “I think they did this because Māori babies were less desirable for adoption.”

“The moment my adoption happened was the minute I lost my legal Treaty rights as a Māori. This is the one thing that broke my heart.”

Ms AF, who had been adopted into a religious household, was sent to a Catholic school, where she was physically abused. “The nuns would use canes, their hands or whatever they could get their hands on to beat us.”

At age 18 when she fell pregnant, she was sent to a Catholic nun’s home for unwed mothers where she was put under duress to adopt her son out. “I had no advice provided to me. The next thing I know my son had disappeared. I returned to New Plymouth that day. I didn’t know that I could keep him.”

‘The beginning of my schooling on being a criminal’

For others, the state’s intervention set them on the path of criminality.

Hohepa Taiaroa, 62, of Tuwharetoa descent, had his first interactions with social services aged 10, while struggling with the separation of his parents, and his mother’s new family. He started running away from home, and was sent to Kohitere boys training center at 14 after he started stealing cars, and then Waikeria Borstal.

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“That was the beginning of my schooling on being a criminal, and the start of learning how to fight,” Taiaroa says. “Instead of learning Māori and other stuff we were supposed to learn, we learned how to steal, how to gamble, how to get ahead of everybody else in the system.”

Taiaroa says he was intimidated and assaulted at the institutions, and reprimanded for speaking Māori. Because he was deemed “a runaway” he would frequently spend up to 23 hours in solitary confinement.

“I never had a voice because my voice was these two things here, my fists. I couldn’t even say a full sentence. It was just yes, no, and that was it. That’s how much mamae [pain] and anger I had inside me.”

Taiaroa spent time in prison during his adult years, and had his own children taken by the state. “I’ve lost three good families because of the violent way I was brought up in the system and the flow on effects on my whānau.”

Towards the end of Urlich’s testimony, he is asked by commissioners what the state should be doing now for Māori children.

“We can stop viewing children in isolation of their family,” he says. “If the whānau are not operating in a way that is safe or sustainable or nurturing for our tamariki [children] then do something about it, don’t just take away the children because guess what, Crown, you don’t have a nurturing, safe, loving environment yourselves.”

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