Opinion: State care abuse robbed thousands of their futures

OPINION: I'm not the same person I was a couple of weeks ago. After meeting four men who have to be some of the bravest people I've ever met and hearing their tragic stories of violence and abuse in state care, there's no way I could be.

If you saw The Hui's special episode 'Ngā Mōrehu' on Sunday you'll know what I mean. The blanket of blissful ignorance has been ripped from me, replaced instead by terrifying stories of boys being beaten until they lost control of their bowels during a welcoming ceremony euphemistically called 'The Blanket Show'. 

I can't un-hear the horrific stories of the sodomy, abuse and despair they endured while they were in state-run boys' homes. 

But as horrible as their stories are, I wouldn't want to either. Everybody should know about what happened to the 100,000 kids who were removed from their families and taken into 'state care' between the 1950s and 1980s. 

A mate of mine texted me on Sunday after the show had aired asking incredulously, "Was this in New Zealand?" Many on social media echoed the same sentiment. 

As we started filming the interviews with these men I kept wondering how offending so ugly and so destructive could have happened on such a massive scale, yet hardly anybody knew about it.

When you hear Riwhi Toi Whenua tell his story of belonging to a loving home and family, and how he nursed his dying mother through cancer as a 12-year-old, you get the sense that he was a good, wholesome kid. Then you hear how, only two months after his mother died, he was taken from his family and put into state care, thrust into a life filled with violence, abuse and fear - and you can see that wholesome boy fading away.

What kind of life could he have had if the state-run homes he entered truly cared after him, instead of allowing him to be bashed and abused? More importantly, how would his life have turned out if he had been allowed to stay with his whānau who loved and nurtured him? 

"I'd be Prime Minister" says Toi Whenua. I believe him. And even if he fell short of that, I'm damn sure he would have been a successful, caring member of society in his 20s and 30s and not locked up in jail. Instead, his time in the state homes made him angry and violent and turned him into something he never chose to be. 

Toi Whenua said that when he looked back, the whole experience was just getting him ready for jail. That's when the penny dropped for me. If 80 percent of those who were in state run facilities were Māori, experiencing the same horrors, the same abuse, it's no wonder so many Māori have ended up in jail.

I started to consider the ripple effect that this abuse has had on our country. Tens of thousands of young New Zealanders suffered the same fate. 

Toi Whenua went on to say: "I feel like our children, they're suffering from this shit you know, they're the victims...our children, our partners, our brothers, our sisters, our mothers, our fathers."

How the hell do you quantify the damage that has been done to 100,000+ people and their wider families? What effect has that had on our nation?

I know I'm not the only one who's asked these exact same questions. The thing is, we will never really know the answers unless we have an inquiry. Isn't that the thing to do when you find out that you've messed up catastrophically? You find out what went wrong, how it went wrong, figure out the effect it's had and then you try and make things right the best you can.

Yes, an inquiry might be expensive, but weighed against the damage that was inflicted on tens of thousands of young lives, I think it's worth the cost. What the four brave men we spoke to want, is to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to the generation of children currently being cared for by the state. 

There have been payouts made in nearly 1400 cases, and the Government has said it will apologise to any of the victims that would like one. The thing about saying sorry is that it only means something if it's heartfelt. 

A generation of New Zealanders had their childhood innocence and their future promise stolen. An inquiry and a heartfelt apology seems the very least we can do.  

Adrian Stevanon is The Hui's associate producer.