Story: Children’s homes and fostering

Page 5. Experiences of institutional and foster care

All images & media in this story

Mixed experiences

Institutions and foster homes provided many children with a safe haven. Though they could not receive the individual care and attention an ideal family home would have provided, these places could give them a sense of stability and security. Studies of children in foster care in the mid-1980s found that most surveyed were happy with their situation. Residential homes were a safe place for many children who could not be cared for elsewhere.

No goodbyes 

Children were often not told what was happening to them when they were taken to orphanages. ‘Andy’ was orphaned in 1909 when he was four. He was taken by his grandmother to an orphanage because she was not able to care for him herself. In later life he recalled the day he arrived: ‘when he was taken to the orphanage, he clearly remembers the matron telling him that his grandmother had just gone away to get a blanket. He sat in the gutter sobbing uncontrollably for his mother while he waited for Grandma, but she never did come back.’1

But life in institutions was austere. Accounts of early and mid-20th century homes show that food was plain and lacked variety, and clothing was basic. Children had a heavy workload of chores and schooling. Some were visited by family and most went on outings during the weekend. Occasionally, some stayed with families they did not know to get a taste of family life.

Stories of neglect and abuse sit alongside the good experiences. They have been told for a long time. A royal commission of inquiry into the Roman Catholic St Mary’s Orphanage at Stoke in 1900 found that the boys were badly thrashed with pieces of supplejack, or beaten by staff. Some were locked in cells by themselves for days or even months.

Children had few chances to complain about poor or abusive treatment. Most kept quiet until they were adults. An inquiry into the treatment of Auckland children in state care by a civil rights group in 1978 brought the issue out into the open for the first time. This, along with a critical Human Rights Commission report in 1982, contributed to the decision to close most residential homes.

Fending for themselves 

A study of 136 young women in residential care undertaken for the Department of Social Welfare and published in 1987 found that 71% had been sexually abused, half of them while in institutional or foster care. It was the first time this issue had been quantified. Some social workers were devastated to learn young women in their care had been abused: ‘I’ll never forget what awful, awful things had happened in our care … Leaving horrible homes only to find themselves in another abusive situation … What can you do when you leave a young person in a home? You simply cannot be there for them.’2

Government redress

People who have been neglected or abused in state care can make a formal complaint (which may involve applying for a financial settlement) to the Ministry for Social Development (MSD). Claimants can also take their case directly to court. Religious orders which ran orphanages have also made compensation payments to settle historic abuse claims.

Between 2006 and February 2018 MSD had settled 1,644 claims of abuse by people who had been in state care, and had 1,024 claims in progress. Most of those claims related to events between the 1950s and the late 1980s. In the period 2006 to March 2017 MSD paid over $23 million to claimants. It also contributed nearly $3 million to the legal aid costs of those making claims.

Fifty-four per cent of historic claims made in 2016 resulted in payments of between $10,001 and $30,000. Few payments were over $30,000. A Confidential Listening and Assistance Service was also set up to listen to and record the stories of those who had experienced abuse in state care. Assistance is offered to those who have been abused and all discussions with people in the programme are confidential. 

Parents and caregivers

State care of children was a relief for some birth parents and a source of heartache for others. It provided a lifeline for struggling families but could also split them apart for good. After 1989 parents were more involved in the decision-making process through family group conferences. Some have regular contact with children in care. However some critics have argued that Child, Youth and Family Services (CYF) was often too quick to remove some children from their parents. Oranga Tamariki – Ministry for Children, which replaced CYF in 2017, works with families and whānau when children are at risk to support parents or organise care from other family members. Occasionally children are still taken into the care of people they do not know, especially in emergency situations.

Foster parents found that fostering could be wonderful, challenging and traumatic. Some could not cope with ‘difficult’ children (which occasionally led to abuse) and others grieved when beloved foster children left their care. 

Government inquiry

During the 2010s pressure mounted for a thorough investigation of the abuse of children and vulnerable adults in state care. The Human Rights Commission launched the Never Again/ E Kore Anō campaign in February 2017 calling for a wide ranging independent inquiry into the abuse of children and adults in state care. The Indigenous Rights Commissioner highlighted the over-representation of Māori children in different forms of state care. In 2017, 61% of children in state care were Māori. Many people argued that there was a need to learn about how certain children ended up in state care, the intergenerational impacts consequences of out of home care and its impacts on individuals and family and whānau. While the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service recorded individual stories, trends in these stories were not identified. 

In February 2018 the government announced a royal commission of inquiry into the historical abuse of people in state care, including children, adults, those in compulsory psychiatric care and people with disabilities in care. Former governor general, Sir Anand Satyanand, was appointed to chair the commission. Draft terms of reference were the focus for public submissions in early 2018.

The inquiry includes physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect in child welfare institutions, borstals or psychiatric hospitals as well as institutions contracted by the state to provide care for children, young people and those with disability. It will include abuse in schools.

In November 2018 the government extended the scope of the inquiry to include abuse in faith-based institutions. This followed analysis of over 400 submissions on the draft terms of reference. The commission's first interim report, due in 2020, will focus on abuse in state care. A later report will look at abuse in faith-based care. The final report is due in January 2023.

The commission will look at the processes for complaint and claims for compensation but will not respond to individual claims. It will make recommendations about the complaints and compensation process to MSD. 

The time period to be investigated is 1950–1999 but commissioners can use their discretion to consider care outside this period. The terms of reference include the central place of the Treaty of Waitangi, a specific focus on the over-representation of Māori and Pacific people in state care, and the vulnerability of people with disability. Nearly $79 million has been allocated to the commission. This includes $15 million for counselling and related support for survivors of abuse in institutional care. Four commissioners have been appointed to assist Sir Anand Satyanand with this inquiry. 

  1. Peggy Crawford, Only an orphan: first-hand accounts of life in children’s institutions. Lower Hutt: MJC Publishing, 1995, p.15. Back
  2. Quoted in Bronwyn Dalley, Family matters: child welfare in twentieth-century New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press in association with the Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1998, p.332. Back
How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Children’s homes and fostering - Experiences of institutional and foster care', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 September 2021)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 21 Dec 2018