Lifting the dark cloud from abuse in care for Pasifika survivors
Held by the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care, a Pacific Hearing took place at the Fale o Samoa over the course of two weeks. The July hearing focused on the experiences of Pacific people who had been abused in state or faith-based care or experienced mistreatment by the police. A historic moment for Pasifika communities, it’s the first time a hearing of this nature was held.
Many survivors braved their past anguish to share their experiences with the Commission.
Writer and actor Fa’amoana Luafutu spoke about his early years in New Zealand, which were marred by cultural and language barriers. All too soon, Fa’amoana became a truant, leading to his placement in Owairaka Boys Home at 13 years old.
“It was run like an army,” Fa’amoana remembers.
“Scrubbing out a yard with a toothbrush… Some of the masters would make us fight on Thursday nights, call it boxing nights, and we would just beat each other up.”
“The sexual innuendos that they give out as you’re in the showers — those are the kinds of things I’ve seen.”
Activist, musician and expert witness Tigilau Ness remembered the traumatising ways in which neighbourhood children were taken into care.
“They were there one minute, when we were kids and we were all playing in the streets, and next minute they’re gone. I often wondered what happened.”
During Tigilau’s testimony, Counsel Assist Tania Sharkey presented a number of articles detailing the arrest of Pacific teenagers who had been charged with being idle and disorderly and subsequently placed in police custody. Parents often didn’t understand why their children were taken or where they were taken to.
“Our young ones were locked up solitary; in prison, in prison cells where adults are only meant to be; in solitary confinement for days, weeks, and sometimes months, because they had no support,” says Tigilau.
“Nobody knew where they were, and they were treated like mentally ill patients.”
Tigilau also spoke at great length about the Dawn Raids of the 1970s. For Tesimoni Fuavao, this is where his ordeal with state care began.
As a sickly 20-year-old, Tesimoni’s family had secured a medical visa for his treatment in New Zealand.
An exchange between Tesimoni and a police officer at a local pool club led to a dawn raid at the family home a few weeks later, where police barged into the room his parents and his younger brother Masiu slept in.
“The police first handcuffed my dad, then locked it,” remembers Tesimoni.
“After that, they handcuffed my mum. When they went to cuff my mum, the officer pulled her away from Masiu. Masiu was crying at that time and holding on to her, and they handcuffed her.”
“When they came through to leave, I said to the police, with the little English I knew at the time, ‘Why you do that for?’”
“I still remember very clearly what the police said to me: ‘She deserves it because she’s overstaying.’”
His parents, Sione and Setita, spent nearly two days unlawfully detained in Mt Eden Prison, unable to contact their sons or speak to a translator. At the hearing, Tesimoni’s niece Sonia Pope spoke of the impact this had on her grandparents.
“There were some things our grandparents did that we didn’t understand growing up,” Sonia told the Commission.
“We were always told to lock the doors every single day, and throughout the whole night it was us grandchildren; we had to go and constantly check if the windows were locked.
“We had a sleeping roster with my grandparents, especially my grandma… She couldn’t sleep alone. She always had to have someone sleep in the room next to her or with her in the same room.”
“We realized this is the trauma that my grandparents were still living through.”
With a lack of mental health services targeted at Pacific communities, many of the survivors continued to live with their trauma for decades, taking their pain and hurt to the grave.
Expert witness Leota Dr Lisi Petaia believes the lack of cultural care offered to Pacific people through the mental health system is a form of abuse.
Leota says, “It’s important for those people to actually understand how Pacific people think, especially with something like mental health, because it’s very stigmatised.”
“It requires a lot of education and knowledge to empower people, to understand what the issues are and to know where to go to for help when they do start to have mental distress or mental health problems.”
“If we deliver the clinical services using that cultural knowledge, it’s very effective.”
For Fa’amoana, it was the arts that saved him, using the theatre to tell his story.
“God works in mysterious ways. I think the reason why I’m here today is because he had that purpose for me, you know?”
“I’m going to be here today to be the voice of those that aren’t here no more, you know?”
Tigilau adds, “What they did was wrong, and they have to admit that it’s wrong and that they’ll do their best, with our help of course, never to allow it to happen to any child.”
By Alice Lolohea