The Road to Hell, State Violence against Children in Postwar New Zealand by Elizabeth Stanley,
Auckland: AUP (2016).
Reviewed by Marie Connolly.
Child welfare in New Zealand, as in other Western countries, has a long history of providing care for children and young people. Over time large numbers of children have been taken from their families and placed with strangers often in family-like care settings, but also in institutional care. Sometimes they were treated well. Sometimes they were treated brutally in dehumanising and humiliating ways. This book by Elizabeth Stanley tells the stories of children who were abused and terrorised in state institutional care. Their stories expose a system that failed utterly and miserably in its duty to protect and nurture children that it had a responsibility to care for. It is a story of negligence and the concealment of atrocities that have had tragic results for many children who clearly deserved better. It is a difficult book to read – a sad reminder of the powerlessness of children when controlled by abusive adults that they should have been able to trust, in the very places that should have provided them safety.
Stanley, a criminologist at Victoria University of Wellington, is experienced in writing about human rights violations, particularly in the context of state crime. In this book she interviews people who were incarcerated in children’s homes and institutions across the length and breadth of New Zealand. She does not claim academic neutrality. Rather, she seeks justice for people whose lives have been blighted by physical and sexual abuse perpetrated by institutional staff who were employed by the state. Institutional systems internationally have been plagued with these stories of failure. Tom McCarthy’s excellent film Spotlight dramatised the widespread abuse of children in the US by members of the Catholic Church. Similarly, Mary Keenan’s book Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church examined the abuse of children in Ireland. Closer to home, Australia is currently in the midst of a Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse. All these investigations expose betrayals of trust and crimes against children that share things in common. They are systems that support cultures of violence that permit adults to prey on powerless and vulnerable children with impunity, and then do whatever they can to cover it up to protect the ‘good name’ of the institution.
The Road to Hell begins with the stories of sad, abused children whose home lives were characterised by violence and neglect, and for whom protection by the state was necessary and justified. You would think that it would not be difficult to provide them with better care environments. Yet in the chapters that follow the stories of systematic abuse including, perhaps most shockingly, the use of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) as a common behavioural management tool. It is a shameful indictment on a child welfare system that had responsibility for institutions that Stanley describes as ‘closed places with weak external oversight’ (p 9). These were places that allowed violence to flourish and become normalised. Stanley recognises that not all children experienced abuse, and that there were humane staff who did their best to look after children well. But sadly, positive stories are few and for the children terrorised by abusive people in these institutions, the consequences have often been tragic and long lasting.
Stanley ends the book suggesting ways in which the state might make amends through official recognition and assurances that those who come forward to tell their stories will not be further victimised through the processes that are available to them. As I reflect on the experiences and effects of what Stanley calls ‘the generational tolerance of state-led violence’ (p 200), I can’t help but wonder if whether repairing harm and sharpening efforts to monitor institutional care will ever be enough. We have ample evidence from this and other enquiries into institutional care to know that institutions create power dynamics that present very real risk for children and young people. Yet we continue to build them even though we know that they are likely to be criminogenic – they become learning environments for children and young people that have the potential to reinforce and embed criminality. I think Ministers and people who have a say in how the state responds to children in care should read this book. Perhaps then we will find better solutions that respond to the contemporary needs of children and young people.
 M. Keenan (2012). Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power and Organisational Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Marie Connolly is the Chair and Head of Social Work School of Health Sciences at The University of Melbourne. She has written extensively in the area of child and family welfare, including Beyond the risk paradigm in child protection (2017), Understanding Violence (2013), Understanding child and family welfare (2012), and Morals, rights and practice in the human services (2008).
Published takahē 90, August, 2017.