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The Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry and Centrepoint

Updated: Mar 14

The Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry has opened a file on Centrepoint. Any person who would like to make a submission to the commissioner regarding abuse that they experienced at Centrepoint as a child is able to access funded legal support to do so, but they need to do so before the submission deadline of March 2023.

I have been trying to understand what the role of the Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry is, what it hopes to achieve, and how it might be relevant for Centrepoint child abuse survivors.

The official Abuse In Care website is a beast to navigate, and after several hours of scrolling and clicking and reading long documents of hearing evidence, I am none-the-wiser. Where is the one pager about what it is, what a survivor needs to do, and why I should participate? Frustratingly, I do not find it. After my fruitless reading I am still asking, why should a person who has had their life devastated by childhood abuse or neglect step back into the pain of the past, and make a submission? Particularly if they have never been heard, understood, or supported, or if they were let down by agencies who should have protected them. Why would this be any different? Or, for those who feel they have already given enough through providing evidence in legal cases, in advocacy work to close the community, through speaking to the media or telling their story in detail to researchers; for those who feel they have already done enough, why should they go back there again?

For a long time I thought that Centrepoint was outside the remit of the Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry. I heard about the Commission in the news, was vaguely conscious that it was going on, but without any understanding of the scope of the Commission, or its purpose or magnitude. The penny dropped that it could also apply to child survivors of abuse at Centrepoint when a colleague who works closely with the Commission contacted me and encouraged me to look closer.

I spoke to Liz Gregory from the Gloriavale Leavers Support Trust a few weeks ago about the experience that the leavers she works with had with the Commission. During our conversation she told me about the legal team that worked with the leavers. Liz emphasised the flexibility of the lawyers and the sensitivity with which they interacted with the Gloriavale survivors. In the end over fifty Gloriavale leavers made submissions.

Liz explained to me that the Commission does not ask for proof of the truth of anyone’s story, and unlike in a court of law, the lawyer will not grill the survivor or require any evidence that what they are claiming happened. The survivor is simply believed; this is where the Commission differs from a criminal trial. If a survivor has already told their story before - through previous interviews with police, for instance - the transcripts can be reviewed by their lawyer as background information. This may reduce the distress for the survivor in re-telling a story which they have already been over before, and which they may find challenging to recount again. I learned from Liz that the submission process is a survivor-lead one, and where memory is sketchy, that is ok. The Commission is able to pull stories together, and if one person’s recall has a gap, perhaps another person’s story can fill in the details.

Ultimately after seeing the large group of Gloriavale leavers go through the process of sharing their experiences of abuse with the commission, Liz is able to say to me,

“The purpose of the commission is quite different from a criminal trial, or a research paper. It’s about redress and bringing agencies to account.”

Over the course of our conversations I decide that I will take the bull by the horns, and give it a go. I will make a submission to the inquiry about the abuse I experienced while I lived at Centrepoint as a young child.

I meet my lawyer, Rebecca Murphy, for the first time via video-conferencing on a Monday morning during school time. She has a twenty-two year history as a barrister, with a large amount of her work having being in family law, and acting as the lawyer for the child, many who have experienced abuse or neglect. She owns her own legal practice in Christchurch. She is on a panel of lawyers that are contracted to do work to submit to the Commission, and has recently worked with the Gloriavale survivors.

Rebecca knows intimately what abuse can look like for children in care, for children who are vulnerable. She looks off into the distance, measuring her words carefully.

“I wish I could say New Zealand has learnt from what happened at Centrepoint, but I don’t think anything has changed. The greatest power of the Commission is to uncover the systems that allowed it to happen, and allowed it to continue. To then state, these were the failings. Now, what have we learnt? Internationally, other countries are looking at these issues too. No other countries have looked at this issue in this expansive way. Internationally New Zealand is being watched to see what we will do with the information that the commission is gathering. The Royal Commission of Inquiry could change legislation. It has the power to really change things.”

I talk to Rebecca for over an hour.

I learn from her that making a submission starts with being assigned a lawyer and then having an interview or series of interviews with the lawyer in a setting of the survivors choice, for the purpose of legally recording the story of abuse. As I am soon to discover for myself, survivors are able to tell their story however they wish, with a focus on whatever aspects of the events that were important or significant to them. Many people, Rebecca tells me, prefer not to talk about the actual abuse itself, and stop at that point. Many prefer to focus on how they were let down, what should have been done to protect them, or the need to hold organisations that failed them to account.

She tells me that lawyers that work with survivors to create their submissions are able to access records from organisations such as the Ministry of Education, or the former Department of Social Welfare (now Oranga Tamariki), to gather documentation from the past which may shed objective light on the history for survivors, that they didn’t know, were never told, or have forgotten. This gathering of information can help people to pull together the strings of their past.

She is not a counsellor, she says, and cannot offer the psychological support that talking to a therapist would achieve, but the purpose of telling the story for the Commission is different from seeing a therapist. The conversation does not circle around, focussing on feelings or attempting to make sense of the events like may happen with a therapist.