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.
“In making a statement with a lawyer you move through it in a really active way,” Rebecca explains. She records the interview that she has with a survivor so that she does not need to rely solely on her memory. Later she uses her notes and the sound recording to make a written statement, and once finished, she sends the report back to the survivor, who can make adjustments, such as deleting names, or details which feel too difficult to include. Afterwards Rebecca deletes the audio file, and when the survivor is happy with the statement, Rebecca submits the written statement to the Commission. Because the statement was made with the support of a lawyer, it is thereafter treated as a legal document, and has the legal power that any statement before a court has.
She explains to me, that for many people, the experience is very therapeutic.
“One person I interviewed wished to write her history of abuse down for her adult children to read one day. To explain why she had made the parenting choices that she made.”
For many people, seeing the details of their story in black and white is very confronting - it makes it real, and for those who have had their experiences diminished or denied, this can be powerful affirmation.
For some, the document with their written testimony of the events that they experienced becomes the solid proof that it did happen. In addition, the statement becomes the property of the survivor and can be used in the future for any legal action that they may wish to take, or simply as evidence that they keep for themselves of their story.
The Commission of Inquiry has already collected over 2100 stories, and had over 115 days of public hearings over the four years that it has been underway, and despite the fact that the deadline for submissions is set at March 2023, and the report to the government has been set at June 2023, submissions are still flooding in. The collection of these stories of childhood abuse in state or faith-based care, with the combined analysis of the submissions, allows the commissioners to notice themes, hear the recommendations of survivors, and come to conclusions which together form the lessons for the future. In the case of Centrepoint, the commissioners would seek to understand how large the scale of the abuse of children there was, the factors that contributed to the abuse happening, and where any accountability may lie for future redress. Without this in-depth understanding of what went wrong, and significant change in response, there is no learning. Without recognising and correcting system failures, there is nothing to stop other children becoming victims.
“The end goal is to make things better for children who are in care right now,” Rebecca says.
I think of what I have gained personally already from telling my story to date. Done in the right way, at the right time, and with the right people to support me, it has made me brave, it is made me feel strong, and it has helped me to feel differently about my history. As Rebecca is talking, I think that this Commission of Inquiry is also about recording the truth of what happened, and about giving survivors who had no choice, a voice.
“So, are the commissioners interested in Centrepoint then?” I ask Rebecca nervously. I am not sure. Centrepoint was not a state-based care facility, nor was it technically ‘care’ for most children that lived there. I was ‘in care’ when I lived there, living as a foster child with a family in the community, but most children were not. It was their home.
“Yes,” she says, “they are. The terms of the Commission do stretch to include communities like Centrepoint. And I think that Centrepoint is important, because it is quite different from the religious institutions and state-based care facilities that have been examined so far. Exploring the extent of the abuse that happened at Centrepoint gives the commissioners an opportunity to see another way that abuse can hide. Centrepoint is interesting because it was in plain site, it was not hiding what it was doing, and it was not closed. Outside ideas and influences were able to come in. It was quite different from other organisations the Commission have investigated. The survivor stories from Centrepoint can teach the Commission a lot.”
The commissioners are very interested in stories from Centrepoint survivors. As a result, Rebecca is able to confirm to me that the commissioner has already pre-approved legal support for any survivor who wishes to make a statement about Centrepoint. Anyone who has a story of abuse that they experienced at Centrepoint as a child which they wish to submit, will automatically be granted paid legal representation for the submission, whether they have financial hardship or not.
“I would ask with Centrepoint,” she goes on to say, “has there been any redress?”
I tell Rebecca about the 2010 Massey study paid for by the NZ Community Growth Trust which showed that as many as one in three children may have been abused at Centrepoint, and many experienced long term damaging effects. The study researchers made recommendations about how best to support the needs of the children after analysis of the data. Despite the recommendations, there was no meaningful redress to follow. There has also been large amounts of media coverage over the years, but this has also not lead to any redress either.
There is no Centrepoint anymore though. The official community ended in 2000, and there is no formal legal entity that remains. There is no community to legally ask redress from, just rag-tag bunch of elderly hippies who cycle and barbecue together. The remaining Centrepoint funds are held in a charitable trust which has strict and fairly narrow criteria for accessing financial support.
“I am also interested in the system failures which allowed the abuse to happen. What about the schools Centrepoint children went to? What about social services? The police? What did they all do about it?” she asks, concern written across her face.
“Yes,” I reply, “and what about the doctors who treated the children?”
I am a doctor, and I have a special anger towards the doctors in Albany, and those who lived in or treated children at the community, or those who treated children at the speciality sexual health and abortion clinics. These health professionals failed to intervene and stop the abuse that was in plain sight, and they should be held to account for this failure in their duty of care. These are the medical ethics that I practice by, and which these colleagues of mine should also be held to.
There were other children placed at Centrepoint as foster children like I was. I don’t know if these were formal placements, but there were certainly others like me who were in informal foster care arrangements. Plenty of children were left by themselves at the community when their parents left, to be ‘cared for’ by the community. These children should have been under the eye of the child welfare service.
“Whether you were in formal foster care or not, these organisations had an obligation to you. The Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry has the power to hold organisations to account for their failure to act. We can ask questions about the schools, the police, the social services, and the medical providers who were involved.”
There has been so much media attention on the Commission, and many organisations have had hearings, with survivors making statements which have made it to national news sites. This attention will be a barrier for many, I say.
Rebecca shakes her head.
“This process is survivor-led,” she emphasises. “The public hearings have finished, and ongoing it will be much less public. Survivors have complete control and anonymity over what they contribute and share, and how that is done. I always ask, what parts are important for you to tell? If you want, you can just talk about the context that allowed the abuse to happen. You can go into as much of the details, or as little as you want. Some people write their submission down instead of being interviewed. They don’t have to name names, though for many that is a powerful step. For a lot of people the most powerful thing is to be able to state what redress would look like for them; what would they like to see changed in society? That is a very powerful statement to make, and extremely empowering.”
Her words are powerful words, imbued with hope, and they challenge me.
Encouraged and inspired by Liz and Rebecca I am starting to think about how my story may contribute to change. There are children in Gloriavale right now who are not safe, children in care settings around Aotearoa New Zealand who are not being protected by the agencies who should be looking out for them. There are children who need our system to be different and need change to happen right now. In the fallout from Gloriavale, the adult children of Centrepoint are in a position to inform a better approach to preventing and responding to child abuse in a high-demand or cult group setting. They are in a position to participate in and influence real and meaningful change.
Change? For a moment I imagine real systemic change across New Zealand. I think about an opening up of the national shame we carry around what we allow to happen to our children. I imagine a society that notices, intervenes and prevents children from being neglected, abused, and murdered. I imagine a society that deeply cares about what happens to our children.
I feel a tingle run over my skin. The hairs stand up on my arms. Real change? I let a deep breath out, and my shoulders, which have become tight over the last hour, relax.
Oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful?
If you were a child at Centrepoint, and you were abused while you lived there, I invite you to consider (quickly, because the deadline of March 2023 is rapidly approaching) making a submission, and becoming a part of the change. You can also read more about the Inquiry on this page. If you would like a conversation to help with your thinking, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org