Guest post by Carole Adamson
I am writing this blog post to assist my own comprehension of the current debates over the extension of the inquiry into the abuse of children in state care into the realm of those abused whilst in the care of faith-based organisations.
To all those abused in state care, I acknowledge you and the truth of your experiences
To all those abused in faith-based care, I acknowledge the lifting of the silences that have added to the damage done
To all of us with a history of abuse, may we continue on a journey of healing
I celebrate this extension, which for me represents the lifting of denials and obfuscations that have characterised the churches’ refusal to shoulder responsibilities for crimes committed. For me, it denotes a further lifting of the inappropriate cloaks of secrecy and power, mantles so easily placed on the shoulders of people whom society has taught us to respect: teachers, priests, youth workers and sports coaches. With great power comes great responsibility, and the inquiry is, after all, a call for the assumption of responsibility for wrongs committed.
But I also take on board te Tiriti-based critique mounted by Paora Moyle and others, who rightly argue that removing the focus from the responsibility of the state will defuse and deflect the generationally-experienced impact of state processes on iwi Māori , and will wrongfully remove the spotlight from the impact of colonisation in Aotearoa. Aaron Smale, in his insightful Newsroom article, raises an equally valid concern that the extension of the inquiry into the actions of the churches will result in a dilution of intent and a loss of momentum, if not a deliberate sidestepping by both church and state.
So how do I, as a Pākehā social work educator, born British outside of any Treaty framework, practising now in what I hope is a politically-informed and Treaty-aware context, make sense of this? My answers to myself and others come out of my own experience of institutional abuses.
I started off my practice life in England, to where I had returned after finishing high school and university in Aotearoa New Zealand. Armed with a psychology degree, I rocked on up to the County Hall in the British city to which I was moving, and asked about getting a social work job. No, they said, in this country, you need a social work qualification to work with vulnerable children – but you can, if you like, work in residential work, 24/7, with such kids, without such a qualification. (As an aside, this was back in the late 1970s – but how much has changed in New Zealand since then? What qualifications do the state and NGO residences require?)
So, for three years I worked in a local authority assessment centre before moving on to get a social work qualification. During that time, the warden (i.e. the boss) was Keith Laverack. I can mention Laverack by name, as any Google search will identify both his background, and his crimes. All the time that I and my untrained colleagues worked with these young people, Laverack was grooming and abusing many of the young boys. There are suspicions that he did not act alone. But his offending – over a quarter century in youth residences and special schools – was not uncovered and punished for another ten years. He then was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment. I could talk about layers of ‘not knowing/maybe suspecting’, of boundary and role confusions, of ignorance about the dynamics of abuse and paedophilia, of the costs of whistle-blowing. All of those things fuel my personal commitment in my own practice. But essentially, people like Laverack were enabled by the dynamics of power.
In the British context, the power dynamic was, and is still, largely constructed by class. Very few of the children admitted to local authority care were middle class; maybe 1% were not white: the abuses that most of them experienced were made visible by poverty, by the reach of the state into the lives of struggling people. Those with power – social workers, teachers, local authority managers and psychiatrists in the Laverack scenario – were enabled and protected from exposure by their positions of power. The processes used are familiar to our experience in Aotearoa: the silencing of alternative voices, the preference for cover-up over the assumption of responsibility by the organisations mandated with the protection of the vulnerable. When concerns over Laverack’s behaviour began to surface, his local authority employer moved him sideways into a position of greater responsibility. We hear of similar tactics used by the churches here – and perhaps also within state institutions – to sidestep publicity and the legal assumption of responsibility.
So the news of the extension of our own inquiry into institutional abuses against children and young people represents to me a challenge to the entrenched misuse of power. In Aotearoa New Zealand, our social work debates are so often shaped by the dynamics of colonisation, the hegemonic power of one set of peoples over those of another culture, the tools of which may be either muskets, economics, religion or imported models of education and welfare.
How do we contribute to the debate over the extension of the inquiry? As I commented at the beginning of this post, I applaud the spotlight’s wider focus on the abuses of power within both state and faith-based institutions. I think the victims and survivors deserve that. But we also need to recognise the dynamics of power in our country and in this inquiry, which continue to play out according to ground rules established by the state. To construct the inquiry without explicit mention and support for te Tiriti-based processes of inquiry and resolution is to further perpetuate the injustices done to generations of young people, their whanau and the generations to come.
Image credit : The Naked Ape