DESPITE suffering years of abuse as a child in state care, Southland-born Donna Matahaere-Atariki is using her experience to assist and support other Maori survivors of abuse to join her in seeking justice.
Born into a large Catholic family in Tuatapere during the 1950s, living with her parents and 10 siblings was, at times, incredibly challenging for Donna.
Partly as a result of her turbulent upbringing, she would often run away from home, wag school and smoke her parents’ cigarettes.
Her rebellious streak and a distrust for the system, led her to be picked up by authorities and taken into care.
“I always talked back. On my records, an educational psychologist noted I had sociopathic tendencies, as a 13-year-old, because I got 20 detentions in one week just for ordinary naughty stuff you do as a teenager,” she said.
When Donna was put into care, she, like many others, experienced severely traumatic physical and mental abuse which would change the trajectory of her life entirely.
A self-proclaimed “runner”, at 16 years old, she fled and never looked back.
However, Donna always kept in touch with others she had formed enduring friendships with, many who were not able to get out of the “pipeline”care, to being in the justice system, psychiatric care and prison.
“The majority of children in care go in with no criminal history and end up with a list of convictions while in care.
“Often their experiences are replicated across generations and whanau end up in state care and the pipeline continues.”
Her experiences “nurtured a strong sense of social justice within her”, she said.
One of the notes made in her file said she had expressed an interest in going to University, but “had ideas above her station in life”.
Donna did not accept this as the truth.
“We weren’t given any education in care. For me, the way out was education, I never wanted to let myself get into a position where someone dictates who I am and how I should live.”
After enrolling at the University of Otago in the 1990s, Donna went on to complete a masters in philosophy, become a lecturer, work with Ngai Tahu, as a contractor and then as a policy director for Government, among other roles.
In 2018, she co-authored a report which reviewed the Ministry of Social Development’s historical claims process and the consultation process for Maori claimants.
During the same year, she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Maori and health.
Donna said the deep love of whanau, a level of resilience and an unbroken connection to her iwi had allowed her to move forward.
While she was grateful for being able to “come full circle”, the fact she was just one of 100,000-odd other New Zealanders who had been through the system never slipped her mind.
“I understand why it is so hard to get out of the pipeline and move forward.”
One of the biggest roadblocks to coming out the other side of her trauma was the feeling of being “trapped in someone’s system and devalued”, she said.
“When our systems constantly perpetrate the myth of bad Maori parents with children in need of care, our expectations for Maori children are limited and often reflect deficit notions that are applied to everyone.”
Now working as a general manager in the Abuse in Care Inquiry’s Treaty Engagement Programme, Donna works with a group of survivors and Maori stakeholders with a goal to better understand why so many Maori children, who were taken into care between 1950-1990, suffered widespread abuse.
“It was really I think that people had a distorted notion that they were saving young Maori for better and brighter things by taking them out of the Maori home.
“While there were obvious reasons where children were unable to be cared for at home, for many it was often for truancy issues.”
While some were taken out of an unsafe environment, when they got into the system, they received the same treatment, if not worse.
“We know from the Expert Advisory panel’s report on Oranga Tamariki, that having children in care, especially non-kin care, the long-term impact for them is not good.
“Kids who’ve been in care tend to have lower outcomes, educationally, healthwise and suffer long-term psychosocial effects that make it harder for them to integrate back into society.”
Abuse in Care Inquiry chairwoman Coral Shaw said Maori were 15-16% of the New Zealand population and yet, at any given time, had made up more than 60% of children in care.
This included those who had been in girls’ and boys’ homes, youth justice residences, foster care, psychiatric and disability care, and different types of schools.
Through hearing from survivors, evidence and research, the Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry would make recommendations to the Governor-General on how New Zealand could better care for children, young people and vulnerable adults.
One of the desired outcomes for the inquiry was to prevent any abuse or neglect from happening again in the future.
To reach survivors and find survivor-driven solutions, a Survivor Advisory Group of about 18 members was formed from across New Zealand.
The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care is set to run for several years, with an initial report to be provided by December 2020 and a final report to be delivered before January 2023.