Rainbow rangatahi share stories of abuse, dicrimination in state care - Oranga Tamariki report

"There was a lot of physical abuse."
"There was a lot of physical abuse." Photo credit: Via RNZ

By Soumya Bhamidipati for RNZ

Warning: This story contains detail of abuse. 

Young rainbow and takatāpui people in state care have described being abused because of their gender and sexual identities.

Nine young people shared their experiences for the new Making Ourselves Visible report, commissioned by Oranga Tamariki (OT) and released on Wednesday.

Several of the interviewees spoke about physical and emotional abuse, with some who lived in a youth residence confined to their rooms when they tried to discuss their sexuality and gender identities.

One trans participant, who lived with a family for more than a decade, said they experienced "intense abuse".

"There was a lot of physical abuse and sexual abuse, verbal, emotional, a whole lot. When I came out it doubled-down because they were shocked at how someone that they had raised could be, in their words, 'such a disgusting sinner in the world'."

Another said they could not be open about their trans and queer identity with social workers, because the people assigned to them changed so often. Many said staff and caregivers struggled with, or refused to use, their preferred pronouns, names and genders.

"I have met a few social workers and people that work with OT that have zero respect for people that are in the queer community," one young person said.

"Anytime I tried to tell them [residence staff] hey, you are using the wrong pronouns'' or 'you are using the wrong name', they would get really angry and say 'you weren't born with those pronouns' or 'you weren't born with that name'."

Another described carers in a group-home whispering about a transgender young person after they left the room.

Access to gender-affirming and rainbow-responsive healthcare varied and was largely dependent on the social worker. One person waited for more than a year to be seen by a psychologist so they could begin hormone therapy, and two others said social workers or group-home staff did not allow them to get the puberty blockers they were eligible for.

A social worker told one participant they "didn't have the right account to buy that sort of stuff", when the young person asked about gender-affirming products such as binders.

Participants also spoke of a lack of mental health support after they came out - and several felt unsafe because of their caregivers' reactions. One was told not to tell their social worker they were questioning their gender identity because "OT will put you in a mental hospital", the report said. Another was isolated from other young people in the house after they came out, "in case I do something to them".

Some rangatahi faced religious indoctrination in their foster homes, and most did not bring up issues with their social worker because they did not know their rights.

"One young person, who was told every Sunday in church that they were going to hell for being attracted to the same sex, didn't think they could ask to leave as this wasn't 'technically' abuse," the report said.

Oranga Tamariki accepts report's recommendations

It made a number of recommendations, including setting up an external advisory body to make sure OT looked after takatāpui and rainbow rangatahi in line with care standards and human rights expectations.

It suggested better training and resources for all social workers and staff, and that they undergo screening for their attitudes towards people with minority sexuality, gender and sex characteristic identities.

Takatāpui and rainbow rangatahi should not be placed with caregivers who required them to participate in activities that went against their beliefs, the report said.

OT chief social worker Peter Whitcombe said the agency acknowledged the harm experienced by takatāpui and rainbow young people in state care, and its failure to look after them appropriately.

"Oranga Tamariki strives to ensure all tamariki and rangatahi we work with are heard, understood and above all else safe. From the findings of this report, it is apparent for some members of the takatāpui and rainbow youth communities this was not the case," he said, noting participants were offered support if they wished to make a further complaint about anything they had disclosed during the interviews.

"The report also shares examples of rangatahi who had positive experiences with social workers, caregivers and peers. These rangatahi describe that feeling understood, respected, and loved for who they are was life-changing for them."

OT accepted all of the recommendations.

"Some require a cross-agency response and work is underway to progress this," Whitcombe said.

"The next step is to create a work plan, but firstly we hope to work with external advisors from the takatāpui and rainbow communities to establish an external advisory function that will help shape the work plan and oversee its delivery."

OT would recruit three new staff to lead the work.

Where to find help and support: 

Shine (domestic violence) - 0508 744 633

Women's Refuge - 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE)

Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737

What's Up - 0800 WHATS UP (0800 942 8787)

Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat

Samaritans - 0800 726 666

Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757

Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Shakti Community Council - 0800 742 584