Nobody’s child: A state abuse story

I stand and claim the right to ‘define’ what it means for me to be Indigenous in Aotearoa. It begins with who I am and where I came from. This is my story…

Ko Wai Ahau

My father, of Celtic/Welsh ancestory was raised in a little town called Tapanui in Southland. In 1958, working for the Merchant Navy between New Zealand and Australia he met and fell in love with my mother.

My mother Mia is of Ngāti Porou (Karawhata & Campbell) whakapapa. She grew up in a little town on the East Coast of the North Island called Te Araroa with her eleven siblings who all moved to the cities post WWII to find work. Times were tough in rural areas as government policy prevented them from being able to build new homes on their own whenua. Mia went to Christchurch for the remainder of her nursing training where she met my father at a dance hall. They were quite the rock in roll pair and very quickly my mother became hapū with my older sister.

At the time the social expectation for young women was that they keep themselves for marriage and until then it was the women’s responsibility to say no to sex. Consequently, if she became hapū the responsibility for an ‘illegitimate’ child was hers. It was very difficult for single mothers to keep their babies as there was no long term state financial assistance. Even the family benefit was given only to married women as the Social Security Act (1938) would not recognise a child born out of wedlock. Many women (post WWII) were having babies they could not afford to keep and thus were forced to give them up at birth. “The Adoption Act of 1955 legalised the secrecy surrounding adoption and a baby could be legally adopted at ten days old with neither the birth mother or child knowing anything about one another” (Coney, 1993: 78).

There was not much of a choice for Mia. She either married my father who was drinking and womanising or the state would take her baby. This was also a time when interracial marriages were frowned upon in Aotearoa. My Pākeha grandmother being a moral Christian woman was not happy at the prospect of having a Māori daughter in law. My Māori grandmother was just as disappointed to hear that her daughter was hapū to a Pākeha man. As a result of the animosity between the families about their union, my parents eloped and married in secret.

My parents went to live with my Pākeha grandparents until they could save enough money to buy their own home. My grandmother was particular about how to raise children and was quick to remind Mia of her shortcomings as a new mother. Mia did not have the immediate support of her whānau and with the pressures of living with her in-laws, opposing worldviews and a new baby; it meant she became increasingly unwell. My parents eventually moved into their new home, however their marriage continued to deteriorate. One day Mia smacked my sister and left red welt hand marks on her. When our Pākeha grandmother saw the marks she reported it to Social Welfare (Crawford I. 1998: oral source).

As a result of the report of child abuse our home had to be regularly monitored by a social worker. On the 28th of October 1965, my grandmother made a further complaint of “a detrimental physical environment” to the DSW and our family was placed under a 12 month supervision order (DSW records, 1965). These orders being the most common intervention by the state with families at this time. The notes in these reports described my mum and dad as less than competent as parents because of their interracial union (likely fueled by my grandmother). The notes could also be describing the inside of any home occupied by a mother and very young children. Nowhere did these reports talk about the love that was given to us as babies by our mother. I still remember her funny faces and embraces.

The pressure of being at home alone with four small children and no whānau support took its toll in the form of Mia attempting to take her life. She was referred to a psychiatric doctor, who advised her that she was having a nervous breakdown and to voluntarily commit herself for a stay in Cherry Farm Psychiatric Unit. Further, if she did not he would commit her which meant she would not be able to leave voluntarily (Crawford I. 1998: oral source). Again my mother had no choice. Mira Szaszy (1973) states, “After thirty years of urban living…Māori women are now exhibiting the same symptoms as their Pākeha sisters. The total disorientation of rural born women, the cultural deprivation of the city born, plus the continuing traditional customs of subordinate status as well as lower socio-economic status…has taken its toll on Māori women and children. Māori women have the highest rate of mental breakdown” (Szaszy, M. cited in McDonald 1993: 178).

Mia was deemed to be unstable and cultural factors that contributed to her presenting state were ignored by Pākeha social workers handling the custody of my siblings and myself. The single source of strength Mia had at the time was her babies, who were taken. I believe the fact she was Māori and a woman acted against her and this discrimination can be seen throughout the records attained from DSW. Mia continued to be miserable and unwell. Her choice was either to sink or swim. She chose survival, which meant having to leave her children. Our mother left because she loved her children, not because she was abandoning them. She believed we needed to be without the abuse we were being exposed to (my father’s alcoholism and abuse towards our mother). To remove herself was to protect her children (Crawford I. 1998: oral source).

Entering State Care

In 1968, a Family Court Judge awarded my father legal custody of us. At the same sitting, and without her being present, my mother was judged as “having abandoned her children Mrs Moyle is failing and unwilling to exercise the duty of parenthood.” My father then applied to Social Welfare to have us temporarily placed in its care as he was unable to work and care for us at the same time. On the 31 March 1968 my siblings and I were admitted to a state children’s home. I remember this date vividly because it was my 5th birthday and my father delivered us there (rather than social workers) to ease our transition. I was so concerned for my father’s distress that I wrapped myself around him tight. He had to peel me away from him. He whispered “keep your bag packed my girl, I will come back for you.” I waited every day for weeks and months but it would be many years before I saw him again. He had only said that to make me let go. So as a child love to me meant being left alone and waiting without end.

After a year of being in state care I was told by a social worker that my father was not coming back for us. Up until then I remember being a really happy kid. My child hope died and I stopped crying. Like a shadow of myself the ‘emptiness’ set in. The social worker who told us that our mother was unstable also said that our mother had started a new family and no longer cared for us. Not great things to tell very young children about their parents. However, from the DSW notes I gather the social worker had wanted us to settle into the placement and forget our past.

Over the years other children came and went but my siblings and I stayed in those homes. To everyone who came to visit and view the ‘underprivileged’ children we looked well adjusted and Social Welfare was doing a wonderful job. However, often our experience contradicted appearances and we suffered things children are not supposed to. The house father in that first state home was a well respected church attending man. He was also super skilled at grooming little girls to become part of his harem. The narcissistic showering of fatherly attention making a vulnerable child feel special and wanted. Followed closely by the confusing withdrawal of that attention. So that a child craves for it back, not understanding that they have not done wrong; they were just being cruelly manipulated. And when a small child tried to tell, she was deemed to be attention seeking. However, not all of our caregivers were unkind; some were very loving people but just not good at believing a child’s plea. We lived in a time where adults were infallible and children from broken homes, particularly those of Māori decent, were not to be trusted.

We were made to attend Sunday school and I heard about the power of talking to Jesus. So one night I did. The response I got was like when you are starving hungry and you finally get to eat that delicious hāngī. The way the ‘warm full’ feeling rises up from your belly and envelops your whole being. In that moment for the first time I heard a primal call of “e tū my girl” and I did. From that time on I never stopped trying to whistle blow about the abuse I was witnessing from the stream of caregivers. That all too familiar creeping of cold fat fingers that slide across your mouth and lock onto a small jaw, stifling the cry, the breath and the voice. The finger stabbing at the air in front of you, the being incensed at your audacity to tell and the angry responses of “you’re a little shit stirrer…a naughty girl who just wants to hurt good people” or when trying to be heard “it might help if you say it nicely” or “be more polite you little inbred.” It did not make an ounce of difference if I was sweet or polite. These adults were always ‘hard’ because it was not about correcting the child; it was about silencing her to cover their guilt.

It was a difficult and lonely navigation for us in state care. The perpetual emptiness was a feeling we all experienced. As property of the state, the effects of separation and abuse manifested in many ways. Some were immediate and obvious (e.g. disruptive behaviour, bed wetting) and some were repressed and long term (e.g. the inability to form trusting and lasting relationships with healthy living people). Again a common experience expressed by ex-care leavers.

One day my brother Tīpene’s leg was broken. He does not remember it but I do; the crack of the bone pinging the air and my sick gut feeling. He was not attended to straight away and consequently when it was finally set in plaster, his leg mended shorter than the other. The boy had to wear a built-up shoe so that he could walk without limping. Around this time (1970’s) there was a lot of public focus on Christianity, faith marches and faith healers visiting communities. I remember Tīpene being taken to our church where he was prayed over by a faith healer. I felt the warm full feeling say “e tū girl” so I did and prayed for my brother. My eyes shut tight and face all tensed to show Jesus that I meant business. When all was done, Tīpene a little blonde haired boy limped from the stage because his built-up shoe now made one leg longer than the other. He took off his shoes, stared in wonderment at his feet squarely side by side and then skipped in circles.

The impact of being separated from his mother was so obviously more pronounced in Tīpene. I describe his condition over the years as one of perpetual grief. My brother’s broken heart caused him to behave violently at school as well as in the state home. His violence was also his way of drawing attention to the fact that he was being abused by adults charged with his care. The psychiatric doctor (ironically the same on who had committed our mother) diagnosed Tīpene as having a mental health disorder requiring treatment through Cherry Farm. My brother was nine years old and the state incarcerated him to an adult psychiatric unit where he was further abused by adult patients. He described himself as a “rag-doll.” We also believe he was submitted to electric shock therapy, however this is harder to discern from his DSW records due to the thick black lines throughout most of his file. Incarcerating children who displayed difficult behaviours into psychiatric units was a common practice at the time. Just as we see today our youth being held in Motels with Armoguard minders and in Police cells for days on end because there are no suitable placements for them.

Rescuing Tīpene

I next saw my father when he found out that Tīpene had been committed to Cherry Farm. My father was furious and fought to have his boy released but to no avail. Although not a great husband or carer of his children, my father loved us. One day he picked us up from school in his new two toned Ford Prefect (without DSW consent) and we drove to Otepoti (Dunedin). We pulled up outside the Cherry Farm Unit and whilst Dad spoke to the day staff, I found the fire alarm in the foyer and set it off. (It was the kind of alarm where you break the glass and press the black button. I had always hankered to do it and I got to). Whilst chaos reigned my father located Tīpene, wrapped him in a blanket and we all piled into the car. Booting it, then coasting down the hills to save our petrol and laughing all the way; Tīpene’s eyes wide with delight watching his dad be a white knight. We were located a couple of days later and returned to the state home, Tīpene too. I was not able to ascertain the circumstances surrounding the change to my brother’s so-called treatment but I rather think it had something to do with our father’s vehement protest and threat to go to the media. Our father got into a lot of trouble with the authorities over the rescue of his boy and ended up fleeing to Melbourne.

In 1975, under section 27 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1974 my sister, two brothers and myself were made Wards of the New Zealand State and incarcerated into another state home (DSW records: 1975). In this place the house father supported by his teenage sons subjected children to varying abuses. Such as pitting (like dogs) children against one another to entertain drinking adults. We were all like brothers and sister in state care so this forcing us to fight each other added another layer of cruelty. Like some intentional means of keeping us from being close and finding comfort in one another. I usually felt no pain because of the fight or flight response. One time I did feel the pain and heard the “e tū ” call. With a fractured knee cap I stood up and put myself in between my brother and his adult abuser.

Tīpene resumed his violent behaviour at school and in the home. This was exploited and used as entertainment by the house father and his sons. They would bail him up into a bedroom, taunt and hit him until he was in such frenzy that the Police and/or Social Worker were called. DSW then took my brother (separating us again) and placed him in a youth offenders residence; convinced that they “had made the correct decision and that the new environment was controlling Tipene’s emotional state” (DSW records: 1976). However they neglected to consider that the boy was relieved to be free from the likely post traumatic stress disorder he was experiencing, a child’s equivalent of battered wife’s syndrome. There were many abuses over the years. This house father’s specialty with me was to bail me up on my own, accuse me all sorts of sexual perversions and beat me about my body (never my face). The last time he hit me was when the e tū call came. I stood up, looked this sad man directly in the eye and said, “You will never hit me again.” He never did, nor did he go after the boys. The house father died a few years later of complications due to alcohol related brain damage.

Report on Cruelty of Children in Social Welfare Homes

DSW was responsible for placing my siblings and I into a culturally isolated and abusive environment. Through studying our records I concluded that no attempt was made by social workers to place us with members of either our Pākeha or Māori whānau. We were never asked as children what we wanted, nor were we included into any decision making in our best interests. This caused my siblings and I to be alienated from our whakapapa and spiritual identity, which I believe impeded our ability to grow up as more fully intact, relational adults.

Our years in state care were finally brought to light in 1978, when an inquiry on the treatment of Māori children in Social Welfare homes was called for because of the refusal by DSW to investigate public allegations of cruel and inhumane treatment towards children in their care. The inquiry was organised by Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination and their report revealed that children were receiving cruel and inhumane treatment by staff members (i.e. violence and assaults of children and sexual violation of young women). They also revealed “Pakeha girls were treated better than Māori girls who were seen as stereotypically bad, and troublemakers” (ACORD 1978). One ex-staff member noted that Social Workers in the homes “Seemed drawn from the bottom of the heap and made ethnocentric, monocultural judgments in their reports of the kids, such as mistaking whakama for sullenness. There was a lot of cultural arrogance…and Māori’s were put down and treated with contempt” (Mitchell, I. in ACORD 1978). (This report along with a number of others, including Puao-te-ata-tu went on to be instrumental in bringing about the 1989 Children Young Persons and Their Families [CYP&F] Act).

The institutions we were placed in were racist and monocultural in their beliefs and practice. The caregivers and staff were most often Pākeha and I believe we were subjected to this abuse because we were of Māori decent and the state made us vulnerable through isolating us from the strength and support of our whānau. As long term care children, we were less likely to be visited regularly by social workers or family members. “By stripping children of all their support systems and identifications and making them dependent on the internal system within the home… the institution makes the child obey in order to survive” (ACORD 1978). It is recorded in DSW documents (in between the large blacked out lines) that as children we often made complaints about the treatment we were receiving (DSW records 1976 –1979). I was labelled as a “troublemaker” and any complaints I made were ignored. (Many of these homes were closed down when the CYP&F Act 1989 came in and the newly released Rebstock report (2016) is proposing to return to these group homes under the new child protection model).

Leaving State Care

In 1980, I got to leave state care. Under the Children and Young Persons Act 1974 we could only be released when we turned eighteen or had the means to support ourselves. I had been really good in the last couple of years at school showing my aptitude for the work. I excelled in English and Art and where I had always occupied the lower form classes and in my final year I was catapulted to the highest form. This flare was showcased when my 6th form folder Art mysteriously disappeared after exam time and later when revisiting the school, I discovered two of my paintings beautifully framed and hanging in the school foyer. Despite my aptitude, I forfeited my final school year of school so that I didn’t have to stay another year in state care. I always felt so ripped off by this. It was also hard leaving the boys but we would meet in secret after school and go play space invaders at the local arcade. This way we were able to safely stay in touch until they too were old enough to leave. Within three years we were all living together in our own whare. Eventually the boys with our older sister moved to Melbourne to begin new lives with our father. I stayed around our mother and my new half siblings and tried to have a connection to them.

I got into an art course and later lead lighting, leather carving, weaving and making piupiu. However I also got into drugs, alcohol and toxic relationships. In fact anything that would fill the emptiness. Then one day the e tū call came again and like a magnet pulled me towards the East Coast. So I packed a bag and I hitched all the way North for the first time on my own. As soon as I hit the road I felt a huge sense of elation and freedom. I have a vivid memory of leaving and arriving but the time in between was fleeting and blurred, like being carried by a force unknown. I was heading to where I knew my Māori grandmother NannyMa lived.

Nanny Ma

Before I even found her, Nanny Ma was already on her way to greet me. She knew I coming long before I did and upon reaching me wrapped me up in those big arms of hers. I melted into her ample bosom and for the first time in years I felt the deep sobs of my childhood surface. I let it come. I got to know Nanny Ma who shared much with me. This included our extensive whakapapa which goes all the back to Ruawaipu who lived about the same time as Toi. I became immersed in my whakapapa on both my Ngāti Porou and Welsh sides. I also went home to Whales and met my father’s relations. When I told Nanny Ma about the e tū call she said to me “Your tīpuna listen to your thoughts and speak to you through them. They will tell that you were born complete from your greater spiritual self. Never part this or that. No one can define your right to be here in the world or who you are, based upon who you are not. That is your right through whakapapa, of which you are the sum total of all of your tīpuna before you. E tū, reclaim what was taken from you.”

I used Nanny Ma’s whakapapa manuscript, interviewed older whānau members (all but one have since passed away) and I researched local colonial history to build upon the more recent lines of whakapapa. I had no idea at the time that this piece of work would later contribute to my PhD. Nanny Ma died in 1990. I am forever grateful for the brief time we got spend together. She still appears to me sometimes in dreams or through matakite (seer) friends who tell me “your grandmother is here and she has her arms crossed…and she just pushed right through your bouncers.” Meaning she has my back in all that I do and nothing will stop her from being around me.

In my early twenties I got together with a mongrel mob affiliate. Although he was a beautiful man to look at and came from prominent Kahungunu whakapapa, he too was damaged by his childhood. Ours was not a good union. We were both adults needing to be mothered and all we did was trigger each other’s emptiness. My saving grace was our son. I remember being shocked when my doctor proudly announced (like it was his baby), “Paora you are pregnant.” However, that little boy like a gift from the Atua became my waka Maui stone, my trajectory, my grounding and saved my life on numerous occasions. Many a time I was at the door of just wanting to go home to my tīpuna, to the bosom of my grandmother because the world around me felt like wading through a perpetual sea of malaises. But my son would gently take my hand, look intently up at me and whisper, “please stay mama, I need you.” I miscarried at least two other babies because of the stress of existing like a shadow inside a toxic relationship. Had those babies come into the world they would most likely have witnessed the violence and ended up in state care. I am always aware of a boy and a girl with the Crawford eyes visiting me in my dreams. I often feel them close and listen to their laughter and play. Sometimes they appear when I am at a conference talking about decolonising social work and telling my back story. I miss my babies but I know that they will come into this world (soon) as my son’s children.

E tū

As the years passed the e tū call began to make sense. Also what Nanny Ma had explained to me started to come into view. I recognised the emptiness as a response to childhood trauma and state imposed accumulative trauma that impacted a child’s soul. My relationship with drugs, alcohol and toxic violence were coping mechanisms. By engaging in activities that made the emptiness feel better, it seemed like I was controlling my circumstances. These were mechanisms that both fed and numbed the deep seated feeling that there is no reliable safety in the world to be found. It manifested as a form of self harm and led all the way back to a child whose world had undergone a massive destabilisation.

The e tū call was the embrace of my tīpuna willing me to stand up, to be resilient and free, so that I could do the job I came into this life to do. I heeded and Women’s Refuge in all their wisdom helped relocate me to a new city. I raised my only child whom I love with a fiery passion inside the strength and support of the rainbow community; men, women, transgendered, straight, queer, takataapui, and the whole spectrum of whom many also had children. It was a good and vibrant life where we were loved up and safe. Each of these people are as much my whānau as anybody. Consequently my son grew up loving women, diversity and being comfortable in many non-straight settings.

I got involved in volunteer work through Refuge, Rape Crisis and Kohanga Reo whilst a single parent on the Domestic Purposes Benefit. At the same time I trained to be a teacher of women’s self-defence and worked as a ‘chippie’ with the intention of helping rebuild our marae after it burned down in 1996. I went on to become a self-employed carpenter. The culmination of these experiences led me to Victoria University where I earned a Diploma of Social Work. In the years following I worked for Child Youth and Family (CYF) initially as a social worker navigating rangatahi through the youth justice system and later as a family group conference (FGC) coordinator. I was very good at it and I loved the potential of the FGC model.

In 2005, I accepted a senior management position in the UK developing the FGC as a decision-making tool for vulnerable adults (older adults and adults with moderate to profound learning disabilities) who were at risk of going into institutional care. The FGC project was successful and went on to be used as a social work intervention in adult services across Kent, England. Managing teams of social workers in the UK gave me an appreciation for effective supervision for practitioners. After a number of years of social work in the UK and missing my boy, I returned home to Aotearoa. From 2010 onwards I went on to formalise my supervision experience by completing a Post Graduate Diploma in Social Services Supervision. This developed into a Master of Social Work (with first class honours) that researched the care and protection FGC from the perspective of long serving Māori practitioners. The findings of which led me to want to explore whānau experiences of the FGC and related child protection processes, including the way Māori children are targeted and incarcerated into the care of the state.

Particularly right now when we hear that children are not being listened to or included into decision-making that could make a difference in their lives. Where we have 61% of the total kids in care are Māori and 72% of the total in youth justice residences (Office of Children’s Commissioner, 2016). These statistics are unprecedented and are directly related to structural racism and white supremacy in Aotearoa. Which includes the silencing of the Māori experience by mainstream mixing them into monocultural research. We are told that children are no safer in the care of the state than they are with the whānau they are taken from (Office of Children’s Commissioner, 2015). We are told that CYF do not know what child centered practice is (Office of Children’s Commissioner, 2016). It takes these reports to confirm what whānau Maori have been saying their experience is for more than 30 years. And the proposed CYF reform that cannot even utter the word ‘colonisation’ or address the chronic family violence that we have in Aotearoa.

And like the child who tries to whistle blow about her abuse, there are many in social work who intentionally silence Māori voices speaking up against oppressive practice. This is a familiar story for Māori women who start out being polite, only to be shut down until we demand to be heard. Often, if you are both Maori and a woman your marginalisation is layered like stacks on the mill. We hear that non-Māori would listen if we just changed the words or the tone we use. As if the way a person talks about the racism they experience is much more important than the actual racism they experience. It can make non-Māori uncomfortable and they want to deflect the attention away from their racist actions and refocus on the Māori and how they are wrong for pointing out racism. The e tū call is the stepping up of a warrior, who will not be silenced so that others can remain comfortable. It is ridiculous to expect a person who as a child was abused in state care to then come out and speak ‘nicely’ about their experiences.

You see it wasn’t enough that I do this Phd, in order for it to reclaim the mana that was taken from my mother and my siblings, it had to have our story woven through out the text. I have come to realise that everything that I have ever done in this lifetime has intentionally prepared me for this work. In essence I chose this journey, this life and my purpose, just as I chose my parents. Ko wai ahau? I am not just the physical body I occupy, I am she who breathes life into all that is. I am the sun, the moon, the stars, the awa, the maunga, the whenua. I come from the love of thousands of my tīpuna. I am the reason they lived and to them I will return. We are here in this life by divine choice, divine right; we are divinity itself. That is what whakapapa is and why it is precious for our mokopuna. Quite simply, if you do not understand the celestial infiniteness of whakapapa, and the healing knowledge contained within it, then you are not qualified to work with our people. So it is important to know who you are, why you are here, doing what you do; what ever it is, it is not enough to just do it. You cannot help others find their light until you know your own light. That is how it works. When you know your own greatness you have all the tools you need to change and heal anything.

This is why my siblings, my son and I share our beginnings. We are not interested in holding anyone to account for our experiences in state care. Tīpene said recently, “Our stories have to be told. How would anyone know what it’s like for a child to go through state care unless we all tell our story? Go hard my sissy.” Like me, he sees vulnerability as a privileged position when offering an opportunity to wake up New Zealand to the state imposed accumulative trauma on children in care. The ‘what NOT to do’ to our mokopuna is the key purpose of this PhD.

(The research will then go into the introductory chapter).

See Paora at


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8 thoughts on “Nobody’s child: A state abuse story”

  1. Kia ora Paora. I have finally allowed myself the space to read this. I cried my way through reading your story that I’ve heard time and time again, but never from a friend before. While never a state ward, I too experience abuse in by growing up and was subjected to begin disbelieved. Such things wound us. And then we are called to stand and shed light. Proud to be your friend mate. XoAnn-Marie


  2. Nga mihi mahana ki a koe, this is also my Mother’s story. It has provoked me to own my practice. I look forward to reading more. Kia kaha!


  3. Nga mihi nu nui ki a koe! Thank you for your courage in sharing your story, your insights, your inspiring journey with us. I was deeply moved by this and although I wasn’t put under state care there are elements of your story that resonate. If there was a space at the table on the current redesign of the system would you take it? If so I will advocate hard for this to happen. We need people like you having input .. this might be the only opportunity we get for a few years.


      1. Kia ora! That is great news. I have a small army of feisty wahine behind me ready to tautoko getting you to this table. No we have never met but I hope to remedy that one day. If you could contact me directly at this email address I’d like to run a few ideas past you .. see what you think.


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