Dr Oliver Sutherland. (Screenshot from When Nobody Was Looking)

Some of the children who suffered appalling abuse at the Lake Alice psychiatric hospital have been telling their stories in a podcast released last week by journalist Aaron Smale.

For many, Lake Alice was the end of a long road that started with deep-seated racism within the police, courts, and welfare systems.

One of those who played a key role in bringing that abuse and racism to light is Dr Oliver Sutherland. He’s a Pākehā entomologist who’d grown up in 1950s and ‘60s New Zealand believing we had the best race relations in the world — until he was confronted by a very different reality. He was one of the first to use the term “institutional racism”, and he was instrumental in the stories from Lake Alice being made public.

As a member of ACORD (the Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination), and working alongside Ngā Tamatoa and the Polynesian Panthers, he has spent decades compiling the first concrete evidence of the racism which pervaded — and, he says, still pervades — our systems of police, justice and social welfare.

In this extract from his book, Justice and Race: Campaigns against racism and abuse in Aotearoa New Zealand, Dr Sutherland recounts some of his work and how it caused an uproar in a society still inclined to blame poverty rather than racism for shocking Māori statistics.

The book closely parallels his evidence to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care.


Oliver in the 1970s, from the documentary by his nephew Alex Sutherland, When Nobody Was Looking.

The state as parent 

By 1974, both the Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination and I had high public profiles and our efforts to gain justice for children in the courts were well known among Māori and Pacific community groups, who sent us a steady stream of parents concerned over the treatment of their children by the police, Social Welfare and the courts. 

It was a time when children suffering alleged abuse or neglect at home, or who had run away from home, could be taken into care as “wards of the state”. Many ended up in one or other of the homes administered by Social Welfare. Other children who had been arrested by the police or prosecuted by way of a police summons had to face the children’s court, usually — as we repeatedly said — without legal representation. 

They could be held before or after their hearing on remand in a welfare home or in “police custody”, which meant police cells or, in the larger centres, an adult prison. 

By the mid-1970s the police, rather than social workers, were the major source of admissions, and the children incarcerated were predominantly male and disproportionately Māori. 

We very soon became concerned over the treatment of children in the Social Welfare institutions, of which there were 20 throughout the country in 1972. Thousands of children passed through these homes annually. For example, in 1978, 4225 children and young persons were admitted to Department of Social Welfare institutions throughout New Zealand.

The Ōwairaka Boys’ Home alone received more than 1000 admissions every year in the mid-1970s. 

In Auckland, there were four homes: Wesleydale Boys’ Home (ages 10 to 13), Ōwairaka Boys’ Home (14 to 17 — but we had cases of 10-year-olds), Allendale Girls’ Home (9 to 14) and Bollard Girls’ Home (14 to 17). 

The revelations from ex-residents and their parents, and from some current and ex-staff of the homes as well as from Education Department psychologists and teachers, built up a horrendous picture of ill-treatment and abuse.

A deluge of cases

We made our first complaint to Bert Walker, Minister of Social Welfare, on 7 April 1978 in a letter that detailed the case of 13-year-old state ward, Kevin O, who in January 1978 was held for 10 days in a “secure cell” at the Ōwairaka Boys’ Home. 

Kevin and his parents told me his story, which began when he was picked up by police in Kaikohe and taken to Ōwairaka. He was immediately placed in what the Department of Social Welfare termed “secure care” — in fact, solitary confinement — in a cell about 3 x 2 metres. 

The only clothes he was allowed to wear were a T-shirt and football shorts — no underpants, no socks, no shoes. For the first four days, he had to wear his T-shirt and football shorts at night as well as during the day. He was issued with pyjamas on the fifth day. 

All meals were eaten in the cell and the only time he mixed with the other boys was at physical training (PT) three times a day, totalling one hour per day. Even then, the boys were not allowed to talk. 

He was therefore locked alone in his cell for 23 hours per day for 10 days. He and other boys in solitary were considerably embarrassed by the lack of underpants during PT. Because he was only allowed shoes for one of the three daily sessions, Kevin got badly blistered feet.

Kevin had seen boys who “caused trouble” beaten by staff and locked in a special cell (“Cell 7”) which was smaller than the other cells, with only a tiny 15x15cm window too high up to look out of. The boys emerged days later with black eyes and bruises. In our accompanying letter to the minister, we demanded that he suspend the principal and staff of that home immediately and initiate a full, public inquiry into its administration

Reception centres

Lengthy testimony was [also] given by past staff of Reception Centres, which looked after boys and girls from just a few months old up to about 12 years — children who had been removed from parents whom the department deemed to be neglectful or violent. 

Often, the children were accommodated en route to a foster home. M J Hampton, who had been a night supervisor at the Market Road Reception Centre for most of 1974, painted a picture of shambolic administration. 

Left on her own at the home at night when the duty sub-matron had unofficially gone home, Ms Hampton said that her constant concern was how one person would cope in case of fire — the gas fire in the common room burned all night, with various items of laundry draped nearby for airing. 

Culturally inappropriate assessments were not uncommon. One newcomer was described as “retarded and unable to talk” but “he turned out to be a bright lad, fluent in French, and eager and quick to learn English.” 

While children attended a nearby school, back at the home, help with homework was a hit-and-miss affair. School-age children, who should have had pocket money, “didn’t appear to be getting it because the administrative problems would have been too much of a hassle.” 

Bed-wetting was common, with the “punishment” for older children being to make them go to bed wearing napkins. As the beds had only a waterproof square between mattress and cold sheet and no underblanket, children who wet their beds lay in cold beds all night. 

Ms Hampton’s concluding summation was an indictment on the reception centres and the policies of the department that administered them: 

I feel very strongly that children are whisked away from their parents far too quickly and too often. It is easy enough to walk into a home and say that a child, or more often children, are in an ‘environment detrimental to their wellbeing’, swear an affidavit to that effect and have them admitted to the reception centre. 

I wonder what percentage of children admitted to the Market Road Home are eventually restored to their parents. I contend that more effort should be made to help the home situation before children are separated from their parents . . . A mother doesn’t have her problems sorted out by sudden and traumatic deprivation of her children. 

If she isn’t particularly conversant with the law and the language and is under stress, she is the one who needs understanding and help. 

It is positively monstrous and inhumane for a government official to waltz in, label her a bad parent and whip away her children. If that is acting ‘in loco parentis’ then it is time our wonderful welfare state substituted a little warm red blood in place of its inhumane cold red tape. 

Oliver talking to the news media in the 1970s. (Screenshot)

Ten years of protest and statistics 

After a decade of exposing the details of case after case of children incarcerated in police cells or adult prisons, and multiple submissions to Parliament and to a range of inquiries, ACORD was frustrated and angry at the lack of any positive moves by the Department of Justice, although [Mel] Smith [who at the time was director of the Planning and Development Division of the Department of Justice] did conclude in his 1979 report, rather obscurely, “consistent with the protection of the public, we should look for a more flexible policy and establish a wider range of complementary provisions.”

It was a pity that he had to preface his comment with the qualifier — as if the “public” needed protection more than the children. Judged by newspaper editorials and vast numbers of column inches devoted to our complaints, public opinion was on our side, but cabinet ministers and the police, justice and social welfare systems would not budge — actually, the figures were getting worse. 

In a new approach, we decided to collate 10 years of statistics on the treatment of children in the hands of these authorities and publish it as Children in State Custody. They were, we wrote, 

Ten years which have seen thousands upon thousands of children from the age of eight years or even less, dragged through the police stations, the courts, the welfare homes and the adult prisons. A child, once caught up in this machinery of punishment and retribution, is lucky if he or she escapes without going through the whole progression of a criminal career.

Our survey of the annual New Zealand Justice Statistics showed that in the period 1971 to 1981, the Children’s Court (from 1975 the Children and Young Persons Court) had processed well over 100,000 children. For the 10 years to 1976 (the latest annual statistics) the precise figure was 116,595, of whom 41 percent were Māori. 

This meant, we said, that any Māori child was about four times more likely to be brought before the children’s court than any non- Māori child — and the proportion had risen each year. 

We pointed out that in that 10-year period, a lot of children faced criminal charges well before they were t10 years old: there were four children — actually, infants — under eight; 16 eight-year-olds; and 62 nine-year-olds. 

Their charges were thefts, burglaries and car conversions. In 1973, eight years earlier, we had protested to Martyn Finlay, then Minister of Justice, over two such cases in the Napier Children’s Court.

The first concerned an 11-year-old boy charged and convicted for “receiving stolen money”, which he had got from a friend in the school ground. The second concerned a 14-year-old boy charged and convicted for being a rogue and a vagabond. 

Such charges were, we wrote, “quite indefensible”, and we challenged Finlay’s stated concern for failures of the nation’s children’s courts, when he could allow children to be dragged into court to face and be convicted of charges such as those. 

Among the youngest age groups, the proportion of Maori children reached 56 percent. This was the legacy of grossly punitive, racist behaviour by the police, Social Welfare and, worst of all, the courts and the magistrates who kept the wheels turning. 

Oliver (far left) and ACORD protesting outside Mt Eden Prison.

Māori children hit the hardest 

For years, at this point, we had highlighted the discrepancy in the treatment of Māori and non-Māori children. Of the 116,595 juveniles processed between 1966 and 1976, 41 percent were Māori. Of those receiving the harshest sentence, a two-year term of borstal training, 59 percent were Māori. 

Data from the Powles and Smith reports showed trends which were profoundly disturbing. Children who got into trouble and were brought before the court were much more likely to be taken away from home and family and locked up if they were Māori. 

The disparity was even worse for the younger ones, and worse still for girls — to the extent that every one of the twenty 15-year-old girls sent to borstal in the last three years for which we had figures, was Māori. 

All that was wrong with our system of justice was typified by the scene of a middle-aged, middle-class male Pākehā magistrate or judge sitting in judgement on a young Māori woman and deciding that her background and her family were so bad, so worthless, that she should be taken from them and locked up. 

In hard numbers, in the 10 years to 1976, 1363 Māori boys and girls were sent to borstal and another 690 Māori boys to detention centre. 

Children treated worse than adults 

Why, when decisions were made about depriving someone of their liberty, were children treated more harshly than adults? The facts showed that children on remand were more likely to be locked up in prison or a welfare home (13.4 percent) than an adult on remand (6.4 percent). 

Sentences followed a similar pattern to the remands: 10.4 percent of 14 to 16-year-olds were sentenced to terms in a penal institution (detention centre, borstal or prison) or to the custody of the Department of Social Welfare, whereas only 6.9 percent of adults were sentenced to a term in custody. In other words, we locked up children more readily, more often, than we locked up adults. This was hardly exemplifying Principle Two of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child that “the best interest of the child shall be paramount”. 

These statistics proved the deliberate, systematic and increasing oppression of children, particularly Māori children, by the state, and were an appalling indictment of so-called justice in this society. The figures illustrated the depth of institutional racism and its impacts on those who were most defenceless. 

We sheeted home responsibility to the police — “racist attitudes among police officers towards Māori children and young people are legendary” — and to the almost exclusively Pākehā welfare officers, probation officers and magistrates, whose monoculturalism was equally well known. 

We concluded what would be ACORD’s last publication on children and the judicial system with the identical analysis we had first published in Justice and Race: a mono-cultural system in a multi-cultural society in 1973: 

Racist oppression exists when one racial group holds power and uses that power to subjugate or persecute another racial group. In New Zealand the whole machinery of justice has been made by the white majority and is controlled and operated almost entirely by them: police superintendents and commissioners, magistrates and judges, social welfare directors are almost entirely all Pākehā. The children they bring before the courts, remand to prisons and lock up in borstals and social welfare institutions are predominantly Māori. 

These are the facts of racist oppression. It is part of the established ways of our society: institutional racism. 

Our focus on children, the Māori majority particularly, and the appalling way they were treated in the 1970s and ’80s by the police, justice and social welfare systems — the latter often acting in loco parentis — was uncompromising. 

The stories I heard — of children suffering weeks in lonely solitary confinement cells in welfare homes; of enforced, punitive use of the Lake Alice electroconvulsive therapy machines in a psychiatric hospital; and of days spent in solitude in the totally bare dungeon called “the well” in Mt Eden prison — and the Justice Department’s own statistics showing that these horrors might begin with the arrest of children as young as eight years old, left all of us in ACORD resolute in our determination to campaign for change. 

From the distance of nearly 50 years, I think that we did help lay the groundwork for changes in the way society deals with our youngest and most vulnerable. Legislative and administrative improvements have occurred, often with some reluctance it must be said. 

But, as we still find children confined in adult police cells on remand, and 14-year-olds before the courts named and paraded publicly, there is certainly some way to go. The underlying racism we first described in Justice and Race: a monocultural system in a multicultural society in 1972 still lingers. 

These extracts are from Justice and Race: Campaigns against racism and abuse in Aotearoa New Zealand, by Oliver Sutherland, published in 2020 by Steele Roberts. 

© E-Tangata, 2021

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