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New Zealand public hearings highlight dark history of child abuse

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By Praveen Menon

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Public hearings in New Zealand on abuse of young people in state and faith-based care have exposed a horrific history of neglect and exploitation as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern seeks to make the country the best place in the world to be a child.

Ardern last year announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry into historic abuse of children in state care between 1950 and 1999, and later expanded it to include churches and other faith-based institutions.

Ardern said New Zealand needed to confront “a dark chapter” in its history to improve conditions for its children.

The first round of public hearings concluded on Friday, after two weeks of testimonies from about 30 people including survivors, experts, lawyers and state officials.

Beverley Wardle-Jackson said she was exposed to sexual and physical abuse from the age of seven at state homes and religious institutions for several years from around 1960.

“I was one of the many children caught up in a welfare system that was meant to protect us, but ultimately served only to damage us,” she said in written testimony published by the commission on its website.

“While this was a different time, many of the things that happened to me and those I went through care with, would not be acceptable in any era.”

Another survivor, Keith Wiffin, who was sent to state care when he was 10 years old, said last week that abuse at state care had a “devastating effect” on him that continued throughout his life.

Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft said figures from Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry for Children, showed state abuse of children still continues.

Approximately 7-10% of all children in state care were abused annually, although the true figure could be much higher, he said. Some 103 children were abused from January to March 2019, up 97% from the previous quarter.

“The State must listen, apologise, make reparations and make transformational change,” Becroft said.

Neighbouring Australia delivered a national apology in 2017, after a five-year inquiry into child sexual abuse revealed thousands of cases of sexual misconduct largely committed at religious and state-run institutions.

Oranga Tamarki figures show 76% of children abused in state care were Maori, said Becroft.

Thousands of Maori people protested across New Zealand in July calling for an end to the practice of taking at-risk children away from their families and placing them in state care.

Critics of the practice have said the process is racially skewed against the Maori, and is a legacy of colonisation.

Two reports will be created for the government based on the evidence gathered from the hearings – one at the end of 2020 and the second in 2023.

(Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

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