Disappointingly, when it was revealed this week that there will be an investigation into a historic case of transgression in New Zealand welfare, it was about the Metiria Turei shemozzle.

If all the huffing and puffing around the Green co-leader's admission she cheated the system back in the 90s could be harnessed, it would light up the national grid.

But better still, all that imperious energy would be much better applied to a much more grievous and attention-worthy case of welfare betrayal in New Zealand: the abuse of children in state care.

The latest heart-wrenching chapter in one of our country's most shameful stories was published just yesterday.


Departing disability rights commissioner Paul Gibson released a collection of testimonies from people with intellectual disabilities who lived in the haunted houses of public institutions -places where the state played custodian and tormentor.

Intellectually disabled children were beaten. Tied to their beds. Abandoned in seclusion rooms. Sodomised. Lobotomised.

"A lifetime of abuse and distress, and a life devoid of love and family," is Gibson's summary.

"Their abuse was physical, psychological and sexual." These are, he says, "the stories of New Zealand's stolen generations".

The allusion to the term used to describe the Australian Aboriginal children removed from their families through much of the last century - a hideous stain on our neighbour's reputation - can be no accident.

More than 100,000 NZ children were made state wards in the second half of the 20th century. In some cases they came from homes blighted by parental abuse or neglect. Some had fallen foul of the law.

In other cases the children's parents had died or their families splintered. Placed in foster homes, in borstals and other institutions, many hundreds, if not thousands, were indelibly scarred, a blowtorch taken to their faith in humanity. The effects continue to play out today, strained through generations.

Probably the most insidious impact is on Māori. "The funnelling of Māori children into welfare institutions was the real start of our systematic mass imprisonment in this country," says Elizabeth Stanley, who tells the stories of more than 100 former state wards in her book The Road to Hell: State Violence against Children in Postwar New Zealand. Research shows that Māori in the same circumstances as Pakeha were more likely to be taken into state care - "the very definition of institutional racism or systemic discrimination", says race relations commissioner Susan Devoy.


"Without an inquiry into the abuse suffered in our state run institutions," she adds, "we will never know its true extent."

Judge Carolyn Henwood, who led the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service, which heard from more than 1,000 victims of abuse in state care, puts it like this: "If we keep sending Māori children into care, they'll suffer. It is a destructive, self-fulfilling prophecy."

The wider findings of that Listening Service, which ran for seven years to 2015, like almost every account of these decades of abuse, invoke a mix of gut-churning disgust and awe at the survivors' courage.

Henwood's summary: "A picture was painted for us of a careless, neglectful system which allowed cruelty, sexual abuse, bullying and violence to start and continue. Through their words and tears, we could see the invisible welts and bruises, as well as the deeper hurt and emotional damage ... All the people who came forward to speak to us had struggled to make sense of their lives. All wanted a better outcome for the children of the future."

That Listening Service, however, stopped far short of an inquiry proper. It had " done half the job", said Henwood last year. But, "what we don't know is why it went on. We haven't investigated the department itself, we haven't spoken to staff ... So why wouldn't it happen again? ... We do not know the why of it."

And yet the government has repeatedly and steadfastly batted away appeals for a probe of the why. Their reasons? Among them: the trouble similar efforts have encountered overseas; the cost; the distraction; the claim that everything has been sorted in the overhaul of what is now the Ministry for Vulnerable Children.

Social development minister Anne Tolley has even asserted, "there's no evidence that it was a systemic problem". Even if you accept that curious statement to be true, it is a kind of nonsense: evidence is precisely what an inquiry would pursue.

And there's this, from Tolley: "The question I ask is what would we gain from an inquiry that revictimises the victims for whom we are trying to get some compensation and some settlement. It is appalling that we would put those people through that again."

A fair question. But while numerous victims have come forward to call for an inquiry, I've yet to see so much as a single victim arguing to the contrary.

The government has stressed that settlements have been reached with more than 700 victims, with direct apologies offered where sought. But still there has been no blanket apology - presumably at lawyers' advising.

Late last year Tolley, meanwhile, pointed out that "in some cases they've had an apology from me, and I was only a child at the time" - as if anyone was ever suggesting she was personally responsible.

Around the same time, John Key offered as one reason he wouldn't back an inquiry the fact that "you can never right the wrongs" of what happened - as if anyone was ever suggesting you could.

In recent weeks, Key's successor, Bill English, has perceptibly softened the government position, saying he's prepared to listen to representations from those affected. That's something.

But what's to hear? The Human Rights Commission has poured its energy into calling for a formal independent inquiry.

Carolyn Henwood agrees. So does Unicef. So does the Maori Women's Welfare League. So do a host of other experts.

Most importantly of all, victim after victim has come forward to demand the same.

On leaving his post as disabilities commissioner Paul Gibson exhorted the government to take action, to "restore the mana of the state". That is one hell of a chorus, and it is time to crack on.