When the Chief Human Rights Commissioner and fellow commissioners for disability rights, indigenous rights, race relations and equal employment opportunities, plus several previous commissioners and many others, put their names to a call for an independent inquiry into the abuse of children and others in state care, they deserve to be heard.
They are concerned for people taken from their families as children or mentally disturbed adults and put into state care. More than 100,000 were taken into institutions from the 1950s to 1992 when institutional care was largely abandoned. An unknown number are thought to have suffered physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect. About 1100 came forward when a confidential "Listening and Assistance Service" was set up in 2008 and sat for seven years.
Of those, 629 were advised to make a claim on the departments responsible for their care, 514 to the Ministry of Social Development, 87 to the Ministry of Health and 28 to the Ministry of Education that ran residential schools. The Health Ministry settled its cases quickly, as did the Education Ministry. But MSD settlements were held up by an application for judicial review of its procedures which was not resolved until the middle of last year.
So it seems much has been done to make amends to the 1 per cent or so of state wards known to have suffered abuse or neglect. But Disability Rights Commissioner Paul Gibson believes only an independent inquiry can reveal the full extent of abuse in what he calls a "painful and shocking chapter of New Zealand history".
The commissioners also want the Government to make a public apology for the historic abuse, as recommended in 2015 by the report of the listening service chaired by Judge Carolyn Henwood. Social Development Minister Anne Tolley last year declined to make a general apology since only a tiny minority of those in state care have said they were mistreated. They have had individual expressions of "regret" from a departmental official.
The fact that the minister has steadfastly refused to issue a general apology suggests her advisers fear there are many more claimants who might come forward to take advantage of an implicit admission of fault. Those taken into institutional or foster care over the period will now be in their 50s. Some will have been in prison. More than 40 per cent of prisoners are said to have been in children's homes or other state care.
And disproportionately they are Maori. The Human Rights Commission says even today, 61 per cent of children in state care are Maori, some of them grandchildren of those placed in institutions half a century ago. The commission has been joined in its call for an inquiry by members of the Iwi Leaders Forum and the president of the Maori Women's Welfare League. It may be no co-incidence the Iwi Leaders Forum is trying to persuade the Government not to remove from law a preference for whanau placements for Maori children taken from their parents.
An inquiry designed to ensure the mistakes of the past are not being repeated would surely do no harm.