The Pacific hearing of the Royal Commission of Abuse in Care is in its second and final week at the Fale o Sāmoa in Māngere, Auckland. Survivors and their loved ones have detailed experiences of abuse and ongoing trauma caused by a range of institutions and authorities. Researchers and workers also gave evidence around state-sanctioned structures and policies that facilitated illegal and abusive treatment.
Here are some of the key themes which emerged:
Coming forward is about making sure history doesn't repeat
In the first week, six of the 13 witnesses were direct survivors of institutions like boys' homes. One woman detailed the serious challenges and ongoing stigmatisation related to reporting of a Catholic priest in 2018 for abuse of her then-15-year-old niece. Two witnesses gave evidence about the dawn raids era, including Tesimoni Fuavao, whose family were the target of a dawn raid in 1976. Another outlined what he saw as a "watchman" at Ōwairaka Boys' Home (his evidence was presented by his daughter as he was unable to appear for health reasons). The remaining three appeared as "expert" witnesses. Each had their own insight into abuse, trauma, and racism and all said coming before the commission was about stopping further harm.
Fuavao: "I believe what happened really affected me. The other reason why I wanted to share with you is because I wish it to end there."
Erasure of culture often starts in the NZ school system
Fa'amoana Luafutu is a survivor of New Zealand's state care system and a successful creative and musician. At 12, he was sent to Ōwairaka Boys' Home, and as an adult, he's been in and out of prison. His experiences form the basis of many of his creative works, including plays A boy called Piano and The White Guitar. The first survivor to give evidence at the Pacific hearing, Luafutu recalled how he found life in New Zealand confusing and unkind as an 8-year-old from Sāmoa. He struggled at school because he did not speak English well. Teachers also decided he would be called "John" because they could not pronounce his name - one inherited from his grandfather.
"You take your name away and then it's almost like saying, that culture's not good - this is the new way, it's the English way, this is the proper way," Luafutu told the commission.
"As a kid, I really couldn't say anything."
Several survivors also recounted how their time in state care institutions resulted in the loss of their mother language and culture. For them, it resulted in a loss of identity and further disconnect from family and community.
Shame and lack of knowledge around rights makes it difficult to stand up
From original Polynesian Panther member Tigilau Ness to state care survivor Mr CE - a man of Sāmoan descent who gave evidence anonymously - "shame" came up repeatedly. Witnesses talked about how their migrant parents felt a lot of shame when their children became involved with authorities. That in turn made it difficult to challenge wrongful decisions and behaviour from agencies like the Department of Social Welfare.
Ness, who gave evidence around anti-Pacific racism in the 1970s and 1980s, discussed how that deep-rooted respect for authority worked.
"They [parents] had the feeling that the white law was right and they had to be subservient to that, putting aside all that they know and their heritage and their proud history," Ness said.
Witnesses, particularly those sent to institutions as children, also described how this played out in their families and communities.
Mr CE: "He [father] was a very proud man in terms of his Sāmoan heritage and he tried to instil that in us and always reminding us not to bring shame to the family name."
Mr CE's time in institutions was never really discussed among his family, who he remains estranged from. It was also kept secret from their wider community.
"I think it would bring him [father] a lot of shame if people found out one of his children had gone through all these places and brought shame upon the family name."
More must be done for young people in need of care and help today
Several witnesses touched on the ongoing abuse of young people in state care today. Recent footage published in the media of Oranga Tamariki staff using unapproved techniques to restrain young people at a care and protection facility was highlighted. In his evidence, Luafutu also described the reaction of a group of young people in state care to his play The White Guitar.
"Some of them were crying because they identified with what we were saying even though for them it was in the present. They realised . . . nothing had changed."
Pulotu Solomon, who left his job in 1962 at Ōwairaka Boys' Home after four weeks because of the violent and abusive culture, summed up many of the witnesses' sentiments.
"I choose to provide information to the commission because I know this will have far-reaching effects and produce results for better services to those in state care."
Pacific communities must have a say in decisions that affect them if things are to improve
Dr Seini Taufa, a Pacific health researcher of Tongan descent, gave evidence on day three of the hearing. Taufa gave an overview of the shortfalls in population data collection and classification, and how that systematically disadvantaged Pacific communities. She outlined problematic use of the terms "Polynesian" and "Pacific", and related that to her own work, and the need to collect data in a way that accurately showed what was going on in communities. It's essential to getting fairer and more effective funding for resources in areas like health, education and welfare, Dr Taufa said.
The Pacific hearing of the Royal Commission of Abuse in Care is due to conclude at the end of the week.