Access by Various artists

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The stories the Royal Commission needs to hear about state care abuse and disability

by Hilary Stace

In the 1960s a New Zealand woman gave birth to a baby boy with Down Syndrome. There was no celebration at the birth and the family GP told the parents that the best thing would be to put the baby into an institution where he would be looked after, to forget about him, and try for a "normal" baby as soon as possible. He warned that the family would be shamed by the baby as it indicated faulty genes and other family members might not find partners if there was a risk of producing a "mentally defective" child. That was the insidious conspiracy theory of eugenics.

The mother loved her son and wanted to keep him. But one day the family doctor and a staff member from an institution came to take the baby. The mother was instructed not to visit for at least two years to help her forget about him. Of course she never did, but visiting him was difficult and several years later she heard that he had died. 

That child was one of thousands of children coerced from their families and communities and sent to one of several psychopaedic or psychiatric institutions across New Zealand in the middle decades of the 20th century. There were so many that the profession of specialist psychopaedic nurse (nurses for children with intellectual or learning disability or other impairments in the institutions) was a New Zealand invention in the 1960s. 

Survivor stories such as in Robert Martin’s 2014 biography, Becoming a Person recall various types of physical, emotional, sexual, medical, spiritual, cultural abuse and neglect. The 2017 report for the Human Rights Commission called Institutions are places of abuse: the experiences of disabled children and adults in State carewidens the picture. Although there were some kind staff, clothing, housing and routines were communal and individual identities denied. Children were sometimes shifted around institutions or in or out of foster care without understanding why. 

Documentary-maker Gerard Smyth talked to several former residents of Templeton Hospital for his 2004 documentary, Out of Sight out of Mind who were trying to make sense of their decades of institutionalisation. Their crime was having a disability or learning impairment or just being poor. Some were bussed there as pre-schoolers and didn’t leave until they were in their 60s. 

When the institutions started to empty – the last was Kimberley in 2004 –some families discovered a new or missing member. Other survivors shifted into residential care in the community without family or identity apart from sparse notes in their institutional files.

This historic abuse by the State and its agencies affected thousands of individuals and families. There are several categories of victims: the disabled children; the mothers and fathers; family members who were denied a sibling; clinicians, staff and policy people who believed they were doing their best (or just following rules); a New Zealand which let it happen.

A Royal Commission was the last of the 100 day promises of the new Government. Ten months later the Royal Commission and its secretariat  is established and preparing to start hearings in the New Year. My initial impression is that, although full of good will, it is heavy on legal representation and light on lived experience of disability or understanding of the toxicity of eugenics, or its lighter prejudice ableism. However, it is a victory to see former Disability Rights Commissioner (and sometime Access author) Paul Gibson as one of the Commissioners 

Will that elderly mother of that stolen child know to register with the Commission and get a chance to be heard? I’m not sure how the old lost men in their group homes will find their way to the flash offices in Lambton Quay to tell their stories. But I hope they do.

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