Former Stanmore Boys' Home resident recounts 'positive' experience while in care

Stewart Best.
Stewart Best. Photo credit: RNZ

A man who first ended up in the Stanmore Boys' Home in Christchurch at the age of 8 after smashing every window in his mother's house says his time in the home, which was run by the then Department of Social Welfare, was terrifying at first, but soon became a very positive experience.

Stewart Best, who is 52, grew up in the suburb of Hoon Hay in Christchurch with his mother who had five children from two different men.

Best was the oldest boy and says he was the natural candidate to be the victim of beatings from his mother.

He said physical and sexual abuse runs right through his family history.

"I wasn't the only one to be abused. My two older sisters and potentially my younger sister were as well.

"It was systemic in our family."

At one stage a social worker came to his home after a neighbour who found him in a garden shed beaten with an electrical cord by his mother until he was bleeding.

Best said his Social Welfare file records that the social worker visited the house and interviewed his mother on the doorstep and went away without seeing any of the children.

"The welfare officer was assured by my mother that things had settled down and everything was now ok. That was my first interaction with the state."

He said one day he was accused of breaking a window he did not break.

"Out of a fit of rage I broke every window in the house and then four big, burly policemen came and carted me off to the Stanmore Boys' Home.

"It was something my mum had threatened for years to put it bluntly and then it came true. It was a terrifying experience," he said.

"I was tiny, malnourished, not fed probably, the whole physical and sexual abuse, the whole drama that had gone on before and here was this little ball of enraged energy and these four coppers grabbed me and put me in a finger lock, put me in the back of a police car, where a guy held me from my mother's house in Hoon Hay all the way to Stanmore Road Boys' Home."

Best said on arrival a woman working at the home picked him up and held him.

"She saw what was going on. I was this broken, traumatised little boy. I wasn't a thug or a criminal or any risk to anybody other than myself."

He said the woman gently and very carefully walked him through the process.

The first few weeks at Stanmore was terrifying but it did not take long for him to get the feel of how the place worked.

"At the bottom of the rung you have no privileges, you sleep in a dormitory but I soon progressed to the next level where you have your own room but the whole process was really positive."

He said the level of love and respect from staff was second to none.

"There were staff there who were jerks, goes with the territory, but for the most part they were cool. They would sit and talk with you and they would listen and encourage you and interact like parents.

"When you look at my upbringing where parenting was not a strong thing and then you go into an institution like this where they actually cared about the people they were working with, they treated us very, very well.

"They were pretty tough, they were old school and I felt cared for."

He admits there was violence amongst the boys.

"When you put a bunch of feral young men in a communal space there is going to be a punch up but it wasn't a constant. I had a few punch ups myself. I was the smallest boy there so punch ups were a fact of life."

He said the boys were kept busy playing sport.

"When you have boys expending that much energy there isn't a lot left to fight."

Best said he never experienced any violence from staff.

He ended up back at Stanmore Boys' Home a while later after a foster family placement did not work out.

He said life at the boys' home was just the same as before.

His life took a turn for the worse after leaving the home and being put in a family foster home.

"It was the one bad foster experience I had. The foster parents were unfortunately mongrels and they treated the boys in their care very poorly."

He said in the following years he grew up as an angry young man, violent and taking drugs but managed to stay out of prison.

"I survived without getting a criminal record by the grace of God I suspect."

Best said in subsequent years through a pathway of therapy and self reflection life turned out "pretty good really".

He said looking back over his young life he has difficulty blaming anyone.

"There is causality in everything. If you look at my mother's background I know enough to know it was particularly traumatic and her role models weren't that great either. So she grew up stuck in that spiral.

"She was a terrible mum but I can't hold that against her because quite frankly she didn't know any better."

He said he used to be bitter about how the system worked back then.

"I used to be quite vocal about it but as I have been a social worker for a lot of years myself I begin to realise that actually social workers in New Zealand are an under-valued resource.

"They are under-valued by the people who use their services and by the government that employs them."

Best now works for Male Support Services, Awhina Tane Waikato, sharing his experiences and helping other men who have been abused.

"I tell people quite comfortably that my experiences make me good at what I do now."