Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy believes Kiwi kids who are Maori were more likely to be taken from their families and placed in state homes.

The Human Rights Commissioner and other prominent New Zealanders have called on Prime Minister Bill English to agree to an inquiry into the abuse of children and vulnerable adults held in state institutions over 40 years. They also called on the Government to apologise.

Devoy called the period "Aotearoa's lost generation".

"It is the very definition of institutional racism or systemic discrimination: but without an inquiry into the abuse suffered in our state-run institutions we will never know its true extent," Devoy said in a letter to the editor.

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"We know more than 100,000 children and vulnerable adults were put into care over 40 years. The first homes opened in the 50s and by the 70s, almost half of all kids in state care were Maori."

She said those children deserved justice, and fellow New Zealanders "deserve to know what went on".

"This is the right thing to do and we need to urge our Government to do the right thing.

"By the 70 almost half of all kids in state care were Maori and a generation later more than half of our prison population are Maori adults: many of whom are former wards of the state," she said.

She also said people like to believe justice needs to be colour blind, but "the reality is that when you look at our prisons: ethnicity is its defining factor".

"Today Maori New Zealanders make up more than half of our total prison population, a damning indictment on a system that is many times more likely to arrest a young person if he is Maori. Maori girls and women are even more over-represented."