Keith Wiffin's story: 'He laid into me with fists flying'

Keith Wiffin says an independent inquiry would involve questioning those who carried out the abuse. Photo / Supplied
Keith Wiffin says an independent inquiry would involve questioning those who carried out the abuse. Photo / Supplied

Keith Wiffin says the horrific abuse he suffered at a state-owned boys' home has blighted much of his adult life.

Only as years have turned into decades has the 57-year-old Wellington cleaning contractor managed to turn his life around, learning to read and going through counselling.

He supports the campaign spearheaded by the Human Rights Commission for an independent inquiry, to work out what went wrong in state care of children and to avoid its being repeated.

In an open letter to the Government, published in today's Herald, 29 prominent New Zealanders are 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.

Read more: Prominent Kiwis call for independent inquiry into claims of abuse of children in state care

Wiffin clearly remembers his violent introduction, at age 10, to the culture of the Epuni Boys' Home in Lower Hutt.

"In the van on the way out there I had a guitar smashed over my head by another boy."

"It was a physically, sexually and psychologically abusive place to find yourself in. It was totally foreign to anything I had come across."

One of four children in his family, he says he was made a ward of the state because his mother was struggling following the death of his father at age 38.

Wiffin developed some behavioural problems - "just being disruptive, throwing tantrums at home and I ran away from home once".

He had two stints at Epuni - the first was eight months and the second, three months - with several years in between spent at "family homes", large foster homes with more than a dozen children.

At Epuni, staff would hit the boys with their fists.

"I remember one occasion a staff member introduced me to trying to use an industrial [floor] polisher. They're not easy to use. The polishing machine took off and put a hole in the wall. He laid into me with fists flying. That's one occasion. There were others. It wasn't uncommon to be slapped around the head by them."

One of his abusers was much later convicted in court of his crimes at Epuni.

Wiffin says he received no schooling and entered the workforce at 14, moving from one menial job to the next, living in a succession of boarding houses, and developing some anti-social attitudes. He drank too much and got into trouble with the law, but managed to avoid jail.

"I didn't talk about it until I had counselling about eight years ago. I had four years of pretty intense counselling."

He was reconciled with his mother, who has since died, and is close to a sister, but has no family of his own.

He began suing the Government, but the case did not go to court. He has received a $20,000 payment from the Ministry for Social Development and a written apology from two senior officials.

The apology lifted his sense of guilt and of being a "second-class individual", even though the ministry had mishandled its investigation into his case.

Wiffin says that is why an independent inquiry is needed, and an apology from the Prime Minister, Bill English.

"They are investigating themselves; the fox is looking after the hen house. In my case, they did not go to [the convicted man] and ask him questions. An independent inquiry would have done that."

- NZ Herald

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