Thirty-eight victims of state and church abuse died before getting compensation, apologies, lawyer says

Warning: This article discusses suicide. 

A lawyer who specialises in helping survivors of state and church abuse says 38 of her recent clients died of ill health or suicide before they could receive compensation and get apologies. 

And survivors believe that figure is just the tip of the iceberg.  

Scott Carr was abused at the Social Welfare-approved camp Whakapakari on Aotea/Great Barrier Island as a 14-year-old.  

During his time there, he said he was head-butted and pushed off a balcony bank by a supervisor. He was knocked unconscious.  

After eight years of legal wrangling, he was finally paid compensation by the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) in March 2023. 

Carr told Newshub he never intended to speak publicly about what happened and the wait for recognition was painful.  

"Making us wait and just sort of road blocking us. It's... traumatic," he said. 

Carr knows many didn't survive to reach settlement, adding some have taken their own lives.  

"I've thought about it. It's been... hard," he said. "That's part of my journey, to speak for them." 

Lawyer Sonja Cooper has settled about 2500 claims since she started representing abuse survivors in 1995. 

"I would estimate that on average it takes between six to seven years for a claim to settle from start to finish," she told Newshub. 

Cooper said even getting records from Government departments on behalf of clients is an arduous and frustrating process.  

"It is certainly like wading through treacle. In the course of the years that I've been doing this work, there would be hundreds of clients who died." 

Thirty-eight of Cooper's clients who have current, active claims with Government departments have died.  

"These are clients, some of whom had already waited years for an outcome, and died before that outcome," she revealed. 

Keith Wiffin, who was abused at Epuni Boys' Home, believes the real number is much greater. 

"That is potentially the tip of an iceberg. For example, I personally know 12 people who have passed on in the past three years," he said. 

MSD's general manager of historic claims, Linda Hrstich-Meyer, acknowledged the issue.  

"We absolutely agree people have been waiting too long for settlement and that any delay is difficult for survivors." 

MSD currently has 3050 open claims but said it is processing claims quicker. 

The Ministry of Education (MoE) has 368 open claims. The average time these claimants have been waiting is just less than two years and 10 months. 

However, for 52 of these claims, the average wait has been 6.5 years. 

MoE's operations and integration leader, Sean Teddy, said there are a range of reasons for delays. 

This includes concurrent police investigations into related criminal allegations and losing contact with the claimant for periods of time, he told Newshub. 

Claimants may also have to wait while another claim is assessed for someone who has been prioritised due to illness or age. 

But Wiffin said the delays have been a part of the system for decades and called them a "disgrace". 

A recommendation for a dedicated independent redress unit was made in 2021. 

Labour's Chris Hipkins said at the time it would happen, but nothing took place. 

"They (survivors) deserve to be treated fairly and that's exactly what we want to do," then-Public Service Minister Hipkins said in 2021. 

A Labour Party spokesperson told Newshub on Thursday the commitment remained. 

"Work was underway to ensure a unit could be quickly set up once the final report and recommendations were published, however it is complex and sensitive work and it’s important that process was completed first," the spokesperson said. 

Wiffin is frustrated and feels survivors have been brushed aside.  

"It is part of our catastrophe - that this hasn't been addressed," he said. 

The final report from the Royal Commission will be made public in July. 

Erica Stanford, a senior minister, said the Government will ensure its response is coherent and comprehensive.

Where to find help and support:

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 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