A quiet genocide: The legacy of stolen indigenous children

Indigenous peoples throughout English-speaking countries have had their children taken away by the state for generations. Most countries have faced up to this legacy. Will New Zealand now acknowledge its own Stolen Generations?

Words by Aaron Smale

Tyrone Marks was taken to a welfare home when he was six years old. Years of abuse followed. [Aaron Smale/IKON]

The social worker pretended to be kind to Tyrone Marks. But her act of deception propelled him into an odyssey of abuse.

His family was large and poor. But whatever struggles he had growing up paled in comparison to what happened when the social welfare worker turned up in 1967 when Marks was six years old.

“One day they just came, told me they were going to take me out to buy some clothes for me.”

“I even remember the name of the social worker. She made me feel like I could trust her and all she was doing was making sure I had brand new clothes and shoes and stuff.”

“Where everybody else got lunches when they went to school, I didn’t. With shoes, I was the last on the list. I never really got any, I had to go to school in bare feet.”

“So this lady was telling me she was buying me some new clothes, so I jumped in the car. I was none the wiser [about] what was going to happen from that point onwards.”

“They said they were buying me some clothes and bringing me back home. But that’s not what they were doing at all.”

Instead of taking him to get new shoes the social worker drove him to the airport. He was then put on a plane to another part of the country.

“These nuns came to pick me up. So I had no idea why I was there. I’d never had anything to do with nuns. I was quite freaked out actually as a kid. It was quite sad. I knew I was a very long way from home; I couldn’t just open the door and walk home again. I tried, but I didn’t know where I was. That’s where it all started from.”

For Marks, it was the beginning of an eight-year journey through a number of state welfare institutions. It’s an experience more than 100,000 other children endured in New Zealand from the 1940s through to the late 1980s. Most of the children were indigenous Maori.

“These nuns came to pick me up …. I had no idea why I was there …. I was quite freaked out actually as a kid. It was quite sad. I knew I was a very long way from home ….”
Tyrone Marks, welfare home survivor

Childhood incarceration: The culmination of colonisation

This childhood incarceration happened at a time when Maori were moving to the cities in increasing numbers in the post-war period. It was the first time European New Zealanders had encountered the country’s indigenous people in large numbers. But this urban shift was the culmination of a long process of colonisation that had started much earlier.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, Maori lost most of their land through confiscation or an individualised land tenure system that undercut their social structures and hastened alienation rather than development.

The economic hardship this brought about, combined with epidemics of disease they had little immunity to, contributed to a collapse in the population.

Native schools that were set up by the government had eroded Maori language and culture.

The population only started to recover in the 1930s. But in the post-war period, this expanding population had few economic options but to move to the cities where there was a demand for cheap labour.

They were vulnerable to the new and, at times, hostile environment.

New Zealand during this period was a punitive society that did not readily tolerate difference. And Maori were perceived as different. They were particularly targeted by police and social agencies, being picked up for minor infractions like truanting from school. Economic struggle also attracted the glare of state welfare institutions.

By the 1970s, upwards of 80 percent of the children in state welfare institutions were Maori.

The details of what those children endured during this period of institutionalisation have gradually seeped out.

But New Zealand has yet to face up to an uncomfortable reality: that the institutionalisation of Maori children has uncanny parallels with the institutionalisation of indigenous children in other English-speaking countries built on colonisation. And the results are the same.

Whipped, sexually abused and electrocuted

Residents of Kohitere Boy's Training Centre in Levin taken in around 1979. [File Photo/Warwick Smith]

For Marks one of the results of the abuse he suffered in state institutions was a burning anger. Even 50 years later he believes this response was completely logical.

“They’d dragged me out of my house, lied to me and dropped me in the middle of nowhere. So that’s why I was angry. I just didn’t think that that was right. They were lying to me and then whacking me because I wouldn’t listen to them.”

Eventually, the nuns sent him back to the state welfare.

“I think the final straw was they used to make everybody line up, and you had to show your underwear. You had to show them to the nuns before you went to bed. If you had gold in them, and I always had gold in mine because I didn’t wipe my arse properly, they made you scrub them.”

“As a kid, we never had undies anyway at home. So this was a new thing. This scrubbing sh*t, you know, I just wasn’t into that.”

“It was my turn to show my undies, and I threw it in the nun’s face.” He roars with laughter at his childhood audacity.

“Boy, did I get a hell of a hiding for that. I got held down by the senior boys while I got whipped by the nuns. After that, that’s when they threw me out. I’d just had enough of that sort of behaviour; I just didn’t think it was right.”

The nuns dropped him off at the airport and told welfare to pick him up.

From there Marks would spend another eight years in various welfare and adult psychiatric institutions. At every turn, there were various forms of abuse that he would react to, which increased the severity of the next institution he was sent to.

At Holdsworth welfare home he encountered a staff member who had sexually abused him at a previous institution, Campbell Park. He ran away with other boys.

“We’d just had enough of the way they had been treating us. We were running away from it. That abuse was by this guy and a lot of the housemasters. They were just horrible to us. Even the teachers, the so-called teachers. Using fists.”

“We just wanted to go somewhere where there wasn’t anyone doing these sorts of things to you. I dunno where. We stole bikes and started riding. Wherever we ended up was wherever we were going to end up. That’s it. But it wasn’t going to be there.”

“Unfortunately for me, I crossed the wrong side of the road at the wrong time. I just didn’t make it to the other side of the road in time. I still have the memory of the car running me over. Until I hit the road and I was knocked out. Because I was stuck to the bike, I was dragged underneath the car for quite a distance.”

If that should have been the end of his nightmare, it wasn’t. After being treated in hospital for several months, he was moved to an institution that is now notorious - Lake Alice, an adult psychiatric hospital that was the subject of media investigations in the early 2000s that exposed the abuse of both adults and children there.

“They used that [the accident] as an excuse that I’d suffered some sort of brain damage so they could put me in Lake Alice. They were always dying to put me in some sort of institution like that.”

“When I got out of hospital, the caretaker from Holdsworth, the general maintenance guy, chucked me in the back of the van to take me there. I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was a hospital.”

“Straight away I was put in this adult ward with the mentally disturbed type patients. The first night I was there I was sexually abused. I’m a little kid in with all these mental patients. Just left there. No explanation as to why I was there or anything.”

“I smashed his [the sexual abuser’s] head in with a chair. The next day I was electrocuted.”

During the 1970s, Lake Alice used electroconvulsive therapy on a regular basis. And in many cases, it wasn’t used as therapy but as punishment. Children in other institutions who were seen as troublesome were sent to Lake Alice. After the first electrocution, Marks’ behaviour deteriorated and he was given the punishment three to four times a week without any anaesthetic.

“They wouldn’t tell you you were getting it; they would just grab you and take you upstairs. You knew you were getting it. They rounded us up like sheep into a day room, like sheep ready to be slaughtered.”

“Then they hold you down, it was like you were being murdered. The f*cken pain is so severe, you’re convulsing your whole body. They’d turn it down, you’d sort of come right and then they’d flick it back up again.”

“If you were getting electrocuted by the electric chair, this is no different. The thing is, that’s a higher voltage. It will kill you. This is to make you suffer. It can kill you, it has killed people. It can fracture your skull, break your bones in your legs. Remember, I’m not fully repaired from my accident. I’d smashed my pelvis, legs, my arms, my whole skull was fractured. And then they were electrocuting me. The same hospital board that saved my life were running this place as

well. They were trying to take it away again.”

For the next four years, he was moved around different welfare institutions. He doesn’t have good memories of any of them.

“I was put in this adult ward with the mentally disturbed type patients. The first night I was there I was sexually abused. I’m a little kid in with all these mental patients. Just left there.”
Tyrone Marks, welfare home survivor

‘They never told me why’

Today Marks is the lead claimant in a case taken to New Zealand’s Waitangi Tribunal, a body that addresses breaches of its treaty between the Crown and indigenous Maori. The Tribunal is yet to return a finding.

The claim alleges that Maori were disproportionately represented in the welfare institutions and that there needs to be an independent inquiry to understand what happened and why.

It states that the government isn’t acknowledging that most of the children were Maori, and that “it will not admit publicly that what happened was wrong”.

Marks has never had any real answers to a number of questions that he’s been asking since he was a child.

“There was never any explanation. I knew why they took me away from home. But they didn’t explain the things they did to me. They never told me why. And they still haven’t. There’s no explanation for it.”

“Maybe it was right for the social welfare to intervene. But they should have intervened and made things right instead of treating me the way they did. They should have just left me where I was. I wasn’t sexually abused at home. I might have been mistreated but, sh*t, I wouldn’t have had to suffer all the other things that I went through. All I’ve done while I was in there was survive. What I’ve done in my life after that is survive. That’s all.”

“They left me uneducated. They took away what I didn’t have anyway. And then treated me like sh*t. Let me be abused at their hands and other people’s hands.”

“But why? Why?”

“All I’ve done while I was in there was survive. What I’ve done in my life after that is survive. That’s all.”
Tyrone Marks, welfare home survivor