Young offenders sent to an isolated Urewera bootcamp were punched in the head on arrival, then threatened and allegedly raped by gun-toting supervisors, and told if they complained "Welcome to hell".

Moerangi Treks was an isolated institution, in a deep valley at the end of a road near Ruatoki, set up as a privately-run venture in 1993 to accept referrals from Youth Courts.

A formal investigation by the Ministry for Social Development in 1998, recommending the facility be suspended, concluded abuse at the camp was "systemic and harsh".

A resident interviewed by investigators said it was difficult to remember specific acts of physical abuse during his time there, because violence "was a way of life at Moerangi".


One former resident claims in the High Court at Wellington that during his time there he was sexually abused and subjected to physical violence, including being struck with spades and dragged behind a horse.

An MSD spokesman said they were unable to comment on Moerangi as the matter was before the courts.

Abuse at Moerangi Treks came to light after the Herald widened its long-running investigation into the Whakapakari facility on Great Barrier Island, described by laywers acting for victims as akin to Lord of the Flies, discovering similar stories of horrific abuse at other government-funded and -supervised wilderness boot camps.

The shocking revelations come as the Ministry of Social Development begins settling claims of abuse at Whakapakari, and pressure builds on the Government to launch a formal inquiry into the wider issue of historic abuse against young people in state care.

Cooper Legal, who represent dozens of former residents of Whakapakari and Moerangi, expressed frustration at the management of claims by the Ministry of Social Development.

The most-advanced case about abuse at Whakapakari had a court date scheduled in July for a claim alleging physical and sexual abuse suffered by the complainant as a 16-year old. Originally filed in 2005, it settled last month for a sum understood to exceed $60,000.

Cooper Legal partner Amanda Hill, left, and principal Sonja Cooper in their Wellington office. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Cooper Legal partner Amanda Hill, left, and principal Sonja Cooper in their Wellington office. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The legal process of achieving settlement was longer than the duration between the alleged abuse occurring and a claim about it being filed with the courts.

A spokesman for MSD rejected any suggestion of unnecessary delays and said their preference was to resolve cases without going to court.


"We do not accept that the way in which the ministry manages its defence of formal court proceedings adds unnecessary delay and costs to those proceedings," the spokesman said.

Sonja Cooper, principal of Cooper Law, said she had nearly 50 clients who had suffered at Whakapakari and Moerangi. The most-progressed batch were still awaiting a trail date despite having been filed as early as 2010.

Cooper said wilderness youth justice facilities had common issues. "If you put kids into a program that's isolated, with no monitoring, and a charismatic leader, that's a recipe for abuse."

Cooper Legal partner Amanda Hill said these facilities were popular with authorities in the 1990s. "They were certainly a fad at the time and used as a dumping ground," she said.

Reports into both Whakapakari and Moerangi obtained by Cooper Legal under the Official Information Act found early allegations of abuse were first dismissed as lies, before their claims were corroborated by multiple witnesses years later.

After being briefed on the allegations against Whakapakari and Moerangi Treks yesterday, Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy renewed her calls for a formal government inquiry into the historic abuse of children in state care.

"New Zealanders deserve to know what happened to our children in all state institutions including these ones. Justice is about highlighting the truth: no matter how uncomfortable it may be," she said.

"We urge our Government to do the right thing and to agree with growing numbers of New Zealanders that these children and vulnerable adults deserve justice."