From the age of 5, Tupua Urlich was exposed to a childhood of abuse and a life of trauma under the protection of the Crown.
Addressing through tears the Royal Commission into Abuse in State Care for Maori, Urlich told his story in the hope that the tamariki (children) of Aotearoa will not suffer like him and thousands of others for generations.
Monday marked the first day of a two-week hearing in which 25 survivors and their whānau will share their lived experiences of physical, mental, spiritual, sexual and cultural abuse and intergenerational trauma and racism encountered over decades. of care in the hands of trusted organizations to keep them safe.
While the inquiry only covers historic abuse from 1950 to 1999, survivors who suffered abuse in care up to 2018 opened the hearing to highlight the harm Maori continue to suffer in care status and provide recommendations for change.
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Urlich (Ngāti Kahungungu) described her experience with state care at the age of 5 as opening the “gates of hell”.
In 2000 he was taken away from his mother in Auckland to live briefly with whānau whom he had never met in Heretaunga (Hawke’s Bay) before being sent into state care.
State care delivered Urlich’s first encounter with brutality, as he was subjected to daily physical and mental abuse from the man who was supposed to care for him.
“I was a child at the mercy of a monster that no one wanted to check to make sure he had made the right decision.
“I still have flashbacks from time to time, when he snagged me on the head – a burly, grown man who snagged a 5-year-old child on the head.
“This carer went above and beyond physical humiliation, he was cruel. How could anyone consider him safe enough to care for me, I will never understand.
The man was beating him with his fists, wooden planks and poles, Urlich told the royal commission.
For months the abuse continued, with Urlich identifying a key moment of cruelty when, after being beaten, his carer opened the door and told him his father had died.
“He said, ‘Oh yeah, your dad’s dead by the way’ and the door closed behind him.”
At age 6, Urlich found the courage to bring the man to justice for the beatings he had received. The court acquitted the carer of all but one charge, of kicking him, and told Urlich he was on his own.
“He was sentenced to 30 hours of community service. Even though I was incredibly young at the time, to me it was clear that even then I was against the system protecting another system.
“The second you open your mouth, the state seems to push you from pillar to pillar. After that, I had no stable investments. I’m going to school one day and the next thing you know I’m going home to another city or another place.
“The abuse, despair and loneliness were terrible. You top that off with absolutely no stability, no direction, so many things suffer, my upbringing, but most of all my sanity.
In 2010, after being moved to family homes and several suicide attempts, Urlich, then 15, tried to get help from the Office for Children and Youth where he was confronted with the reality of the staff who controlled his future.
“One of the youth justice workers said to me, ‘Oh, are you a youth judge?’ I replied, ‘No, I am care and protection.’ He replied, “Oh, future justice then.”
“It’s the attitude of the people we’ve employed who are responsible and have a lot of power over the lives of our young people.”
Urlich told the commission that the impact of disconnecting from his whānau, iwi and Māoritanga, with no effort to help him learn about his heritage, left him isolated and without an identity.
“To be Maori and brought up in a system that is determined to separate you from your culture and knowledge is modern day colonization.
“They want to detach us from our people, from our culture, and drop us into a system that feeds their privilege.
“In the context of my childhood, whakapapa is where I should have been and who I should have been with.”
Urlich stressed that the suffering he endured in state care did not end simply because he was no longer part of the system.
His father, who was also in state care, was just one example of the intergenerational effects the Crown imposed on Maori who came through the system, he said.
“Most of the impact goes unnoticed by those unaffected, but those affected suffer every day.
“While a lot of that impact is directly on us, so many people close to me have been hurt, and I have been hurt as a result.
“My only hope in my life is to raise strong, confident and loving people, but I have to do it on the basis of pain, anger and suffering at the hands of the Crown.
“I love my tamariki, but the system has taken something from them that you can’t deny.”
Urlich said it was important that Maori who have suffered suffering in state care speak up, be heard and have their thoughts on how to change the system as part of reform to protect the future generations of the “beast the Crown has created”.
“It’s real life, it’s real people, and it doesn’t age like the system thinks it does.
“You’ve been treated so badly for so long that you’re starting to believe you deserve what you’re getting.
“This pain and anxiety I’m carrying, it’s not my fault. I shouldn’t be embarrassed, I shouldn’t be ashamed, the Crown should be, it’s theirs. They are responsible.
“I consider our role to be the most vital of all, from architecture to deployment. The state needs to step up and make the whole process more inclusive of whānau.
“There’s a lot of duties on us as growing tamariki that the state doesn’t seem to have. There has to be accountability to achieve results. There has to be a will to achieve a result.
Deputy commission counsel Julia Spelman detailed the importance of the hearing in improving outcomes for tamariki Maori in care, and the lifelong and intergenerational consequences of disproportionately disconnecting Maori children from their whānau.
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The loss of connection to Maoridom, whakapapa, reo Māori and identity, as well as the physical and mental abuse of Maori in state care and the racism many faced were key themes throughout. throughout the hearing, Spelman said.
“Everyone and everything has a whakapapa, genealogy and lineage, and the Maori experience of abuse in care can also be seen as having a whakapapa in context.
“As a result of the Crown breaches in Te Tiriti, Maori lands were taken and as a result the ability to govern and control communities in accordance with tikanga was lost.
“The overrepresentation of Maori in negative social and economic spheres is inevitably linked to the history of colonization and the failure of successive governments to honor Te Tiriti.
“While the experiences to follow in the weeks ahead are raw and heartbreaking, for many survivors theirs is a story of power, resilience, reclaiming self-reliance and hope.”
Crown attorney Melanie Baker told the commission that the representative will listen carefully to survivors’ experiences during the hearing and will not ask survivors questions.
“We are committed to accountability to survivors,” Baker said.
“We hope this hearing will be a platform for survivors to speak their truth and can be the start of meaningful change.”
The hearing continues.