Prominent Kiwis have banded together to demand an independent inquiry into the claims of sexual and physical abuse of children in state care.

The Human Rights Commission has spearheaded an open letter to the Government, published in today's Herald, calling for a comprehensive inquiry and a public apology to those who were abused, and their families, in what is described as a dark chapter of our history.

Among the 29 signatories of what now underpins the "Never Again" petition to the Government are Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy, Chief Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford, Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner and former National MP Jackie Blue, former Mental Health Foundation chief executive Judi Clements, and the Otago University dean of law, Professor Mark Henaghan.

The background to their call is:

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• In 2001 the Government issued an apology and compensation to a group of former patients of the former Lake Alice psychiatric hospital, after a report by a retired judge who had interviewed them and found their claims credible.

• The issue spread to former patients of other asylums and the Government set up a confidential listening service for them to speak of the abuse they had suffered.

• Former state wards made claims for abuse in state care and a listening service was created for them.

• The head of that service, Judge Carolyn Henwood, recommended creating an independent body to resolve historic and current complaints.

• The Government last year rejected that recommendation.

READ THE OPEN LETTER HERE:

In support of the commission's call, Disability Rights Commissioner Paul Gibson said "thousands of people were abused by their own government".

"More than 100,000 new Zealanders were taken from their families and put into state institutions from the 1950s to the 1990s, where many suffered serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect over several years.

"The extent of the abuse is unknown. We believe this painful and shocking chapter of New Zealand history is one that needs to be opened. If we do not openly talk about the mistakes we made, then we cannot ensure they are never repeated."

Indigenous Rights Commissioner Karen Johansen said Maori children were more likely to be taken from their families than other children were. At some institutions, at least 80 per cent of the young people were from Maori homes.

"We know more than 40 per cent of prison inmates spent their childhood in state care. This is a dark chapter in New Zealand history that must be opened up, understood and never repeated."

The open letter is signed by iwi leaders, child advocates and disability sector representatives.

The Ministry of Social Development says that, to last September, it had directly received 1370 claims for abuse before 1993, of which 910 had been closed. It had made 728 payments "to acknowledge failings" and the average amount was $19,036.

Claims filed in court numbered 589, of which 224 were resolved out of court and none in court. Payments, averaging $20,958, had been made to 165 claimants.

An inquiry into abuse at facilities such as Epuni Boys' Home would benefit the next generation, the letter says. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
An inquiry into abuse at facilities such as Epuni Boys' Home would benefit the next generation, the letter says. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

Forty-two direct claims for 1993 to 2007 had been paid out at, on average, $15,430. One court claim had been resolved, out of court, and the payment was $6000.

Individual claimants have received personal written apologies from senior officials at the ministry or in some cases, according to the commission, statements of regret, but there has been no universal public apology from the Government.

Yesterday, Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said only individual apologies would be offered.

"I'm more than happy to apologise to anyone who had to go through this traumatic experience for the impact it has had on their lives.''

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She said the listening service had provided valid information that helped those involved.

"The service provided more in the way of help than an inquiry would - helping people access their old records, funding counselling sessions and referring them to agencies for investigation.''

She had led an overhaul of the state-care system which would result in a new child-centred operating model led by the Ministry for Vulnerable Children.

"An independent youth advocacy service will ensure that the voices of young people and children are heard in policies and decisions that affect them."