Why can’t the Government just say “Sorry”?

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Aaron Smale from RNZ wrote this.  I want you to read it.

Between the 1950s and 1980s more than 100,000 children were taken from their families and put into state institutions. Many suffered abuse and neglect while in state care.

Jimmy McLaughlin (pictured above) steps off his back verandah in Papatoetoe making a brief flicker of eye contact with a half-smile.

His face brightens when I mention the eel hanging from the clothesline, almost touching the ground. We walk over to study it. The distraction seems to calm him.

“Caught it out by the airport. I rubbed salt on it to keep the flies off. I need to get the nephew to bone it. I’ll get my smoker out later.”

We adjourn to the verandah. He offers a cup of tea but seems puzzled as he pours it.

“I got a letter from the lawyer,” he says. A long pause.

“I don’t know what it’s talking about.” Another pause.

“You wanna read it? You might be able to explain it.”

I glance over it. The letter, from Sonja Cooper, reads like the template that it is. It outlines an offer of compensation from the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) for abuse that McLaughlin suffered while in state care as a child. There is an offer of money, with an explanation of what accepting it means. With some emphasis the letter says the alternative of not accepting the offer – of proceeding to court – is deeply uncertain.

The letter is several pages long with a form attached. McLaughlin didn’t get past the first page.

“I don’t know what they’re talking about. So I just put it in my folder.”

The folder is a bulging mass of papers and envelopes he has barely read. His literacy is scratchy, largely learnt in prison.

Scooped up by police at the age of 10 for wagging school, McLaughlin spent the next five years in welfare institutions. It is difficult for him to talk about that time in his life. When the conversation comes round to it, for the first 10 minutes his voice is a disjointed stutter. He appears oblivious to the person he is talking to, making virtually no eye contact. He seems horrified that anyone would want to know the details of what went on and only refers obliquely to the sexual abuse. He bears remarkably little malice but wonders vaguely what his life would have been like had he had even a basic education.

“I found it hard at school. I wagged school all the time. I was walking the streets one day and I got picked up by the cops. They took me home and nobody was there because my mother was working. So he took me to Ōwairaka Boys’ Home. I thought I was only going to be there a night or maybe until my mother got home from work. But I ended up being a state ward and I was a state ward for five years going from boys’ home to boys’ home.

“I don’t think I had any education in those five years. There was a school there but I don’t remember doing any schoolwork.”

The separation also badly affected his mother.

“She didn’t have a vehicle in those days but she used to come and visit me at the boys’ home twice a week.

“It was pretty hard on her, just because I was wagging school she had to go through all that. They didn’t expect me to be in there that long. Then I was moved down the line. They just had to wait until I was released, which was five years later.”

His memory of his 10-year-old self is centred on one emotion – fear.

“It was just the fear of the other boys. It was real military style. There was physical abuse from the older boys and sometimes from staff members. Just for simple things like not keeping in time with the star-jumps we’d get hit in the face.”

McLaughlin remembers that after about a week a hearing decided he would stay in state care.

“I don’t really want to talk about other things that went on there. But the psychological damage when I did get released, I found it really hard. I found it really hard to fit in with guys my own age. I was afraid of authority. I had a poor education. I couldn’t read or write, I had to teach myself when I got a lot older.

“My escape from all of that was I drunk a lot of alcohol. I couldn’t get on with other people because I didn’t know how to. I ended up turning to drugs and alcohol.

“I found it good when I had a drink. I was only happy when I had a drink. I could have sat there in sackcloth and ashes but having a beer was a bit better.”

He speculates on what path his life might have taken but for his time in welfare.

“Maybe I would have went another way if I didn’t have those five years of what I went through. But I was institutionalised. I kept going to jail for drinking and driving.

“Because of the abuse that I went through in welfare care – the sexual abuse, the physical abuse and the psychological abuse – it put me on the path that led me to my life of imprisonments and broken relationships.

“I brought this mentality out with me that you’ve got to be tough. Which wasn’t sort of right when it comes to relationships.”

McLaughlin’s story is not unique.

Between the 1950s and 1980s more than 100,000 children like him were taken from their parents for various reasons and put into state institutions. Many were abused and neglected while in state care. How many and to what extent is unknown. The state has made no serious attempt to find out.

The form letters and repetitive updates McLaughlin constantly gets span the nine years since he first went down a legal path. The government’s approach during that time has a long and convoluted back-story.

Admitting liability comes with the drawback of having to pay compensation.  This is why so many people never get to hear “Sorry”.

The surgeon that made that mistake is told he can not admit he made a mistake.  His insurance will not pay out if he does.  Yes he may feel deeply and genuinely sorry.

The people in our armed forces that were deliberately parked close to a nuclear bomb going off to see how it would affect them also didn’t get to hear “Sorry”.

Those exposed to Agent Orange, the ones handling asbestos, and the huge dump of DDT poisoning the Mapua children due to the Fruitgrowers’ Chemical Company poisoning their environment… all have lived without a “Sorry”.

Eventually, the liability to the company, industry or government reduces through the people involved dying off.  And then, and only then, will someone in Government make some kind of belated apology to people who are also mostly dead by then.

Anne Tolley didn’t do this to those children.  But she does have the opportunity to tell these people that, on behalf of the current government and in loco of governments who made these decisions, she is deeply, deeply sorry.

Just do it.

 

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