New Zealand Royal Commission reveals extent of historic hospital abuse

Up to a quarter of a million children and vulnerable adults were physically and sexually abused in New Zealand’s psychiatric and state care facilities from the 1960s to early 2000s, a public inquiry has revealed.

An interim report by the Royal Commission of Inquiry found children, some from as young as nine months old, suffered years of abuse.

The abuse included rape and electric shock treatment by staff at psychiatric and state care facilities.

The report estimated that up to 256,000 people were abused, accounting for almost 40% of the 655,000 people in care during the period, with most abuse occurring in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The hurt and anguish that has been caused in New Zealand’s history is inexcusable,” said New Zealand’s minister for the Public Service Chris Hipkins, who described the report as a “difficult read”.

“All children in the care of the state should be safe from harm, but as the testimony sets out all too often the opposite was true.”

The report said most abuse survivors were aged between 5 and 17. Most were abused over a five to 10 year period.

The abuse included physical assault and sexual abuse, with staff in some psychiatric institutions forcing male patients to rape female patients.

It also included the improper use of medical procedures including electric shocks on genitals and legs, improper strip searches and vaginal examinations, and verbal abuse and racial slurs.

“Sometimes I’d have shock treatment twice a day,” said Anne, who at 17 was placed in a psychiatric institution in 1979.

“The records (said) I went blind, then they gave me shock treatment again that night,” she told the inquiry.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the Royal Commission in 2018 saying the country needed to confront “a dark chapter” in its history, and later expanded it to include churches and other faith-based institutions.

The report also said the likelihood of children and young people abused in faith-based or religious homes ranges from 21% to 42%.

It found the number of people passing through care institutions was six times higher than previously estimated.

“On any assessment this is a serious and long-standing social problem that needs to be addressed,” the report said, adding there was evidence that abuse continued today.

The Royal Commission will make recommendations to the government in its final report. It is one of longest and most complex commissions of inquiry undertaken in New Zealand.

Hipkins said the New Zealand government would decide on an apology once the Commission hands over its final report.