Young people sent to a state-run boot camp on Great Barrier Island were made to dig what they were told would be their own graves and concerned staff blowing the whistle were ignored, according to a Weekend Herald investigation.
Residents of the camp were allegedly subjected to a culture described as akin to Lord of the Flies that resulted in one boy circumcising himself with a blunt knife in order to leave the island.
The incidents have come to light following long-delayed High Court claims by nearly 40 residents of Whakapakari Youth Trust alleging horrific mistreatment between 1988 and 2004 at the Child, Youth and Family-contracted facility.
The claims, brought by Wellington law firm Cooper Legal, have languished for nearly ten years in the legal system and are still without a court date, sparking claims the Government is trying to cover up the serious mistreatment of children.
Sonja Cooper, the principal of Cooper Legal, said the first tranche of her clients' claims were filed in 2006. She blamed government lawyers for a series of delays that saw an April hearing date vacated and day in court unlikely until 2017.
"The Ministry is actively trying to bury information about what happened in the past," Ms Cooper said. "It has become a grim, hang-in process for our clients."
Judge Carolyn Henwood, speaking in her capacity as the chairwoman of the recently concluded Confidential Listening Service, said the situation was concerning and raised the prospect of vulnerable people being denied access to justice.
"As far as I can tell, throughout the entire seven years the service was operating, some of that litigation has not made any further traction. It's concerning that nothing has been resolved," Judge Henwood said.
She said a recent report exposing ongoing failures in the state care of children showed lessons from the past needed to be learned.
Minister for Social Development Anne Tolley agreed the legal log-jam was unacceptable.
"There is no doubt that some cases are taking far too long to settle through the court system and I acknowledge that this process can be emotional and difficult for claimants," she said.
Mrs Tolley said she had recently introduced a fast-track process, leading to 940 settled claims and $14 million paid out in compensation.