Children, Social Welfare and State Violence in New Zealand

Lizzie Stanley from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand speaks today in Queen’s University Belfast, on the institutional abuse of children in New Zealand. Stanley has previously undertaken research in transitional justice regimes in South Africa and Chile. Her latest book Torture, Truth and Justice documents the experiences of people who had been  subjected to torture in Timor Leste. Introducing Lizzy Stanley, Professor Phil Scraton described her work as ‘telling the stories of people from below’.

Her previous work has focussed on how victims of human rights abuses have coped in the context of their pursual of truth and justice and she has taken forward this theme in her work in New Zealand. She describes these outcomes of non-recognition, exclusion and inequality as replicated in other regimes. Using this lens, she explores the experiences of young people who were placed in institutional care in New Zealand. Currently, there are approximately 400 former residents of child welfare institutions seeking redress from the State following their treatment in these institutions.  She has managed to access more than half of these claimants’ records, and she has conducted interviews and examined the archive of the personal information of sixty-five, all of whom are men. Her ongoing research highlights parallels with child abuse in institutions in other countries. She describes characteristics that will be familiar to readers in the Irish context – including institutional isolation, inexperienced staff and the ‘stripping of young people’s identity’ on their reception into the institution. Staff violence against children was built into daily life, sexual attacks were also regular occurrences, both by staff and other children in care. An interesting divergence is noted between the official manuals that proscribed practice and the lived reality of life in these institutions. As one former resident and respondent (Rangi) remarked – ‘life was just hell’. The culture was one in which violence was ‘normalised’ – through the administration of violence by proxy, the use of collective punishments and the accrual of ‘benefits’  for being violent. A further practice of dislocation involved the movement or ‘ghosting’ of young people between institutions, some were flown to their new institution (some believed that they had in fact left New Zealand). The erosion of the rights of these once children, now claimants,  has occurred along a continuum – from their denial of rights as children, the vilification of their families, their lived context of poverty and their status as Maori. Nonetheless, they  have worked hard to resist.

However, as Bree Carlton’s work demonstrates, types of resistance against authority work to confirm the raison d’etre of the institution. Resistance confirms the disorderly behaviour of the residents and underlines the ‘need’ for their institutionalisation in the first instance. The repetition of instances of disorder on case files ‘creates’ the subject of the institution. Notably, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the violence perpetrated on the children themselves receives no such administrative attention – it is simply not documented. And on departure, entry into another circuitry in which rights are denied – the prison.  64 of the 65 people Stanley has thus far interviewed have spent time in prison. These men now occupy a marginalised status – but resistance is exercised through their attempts at litigation. Here another story, one of neutralisation emerges – through the juridical process, and the systems put in place to contain their story. Stanley, therefore argues that State has continually facilitated their non-recognition, exclusion and inequality – in this manner the ‘victims’ of state violence are made ‘rightless’.

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