On the morning Annasophia Calman is due to testify in public about a childhood destroyed at the hands of her father and the state, she eats scrambled eggs on toast and paces back and forth in the hallway outside her hotel room.
“My daughter rang up and she goes, ‘Mum, I’m so proud of you. You’re finally going to do it. It’s going to be over for you,’ ” Calman says. “But I knew it wasn’t over until I actually did it.”
Calman, a grandmother with neat grey hair and wearing a floral blouse, was among almost 30 witnesses called to give evidence in the first public hearings for New Zealand’s largest national inquiry. It is investigating the abuse of thousands of children in the care of the state and faith-based institutions between 1950 and 1999.
Its remit is broad, its subject matter unrelentingly brutal. And as has been the case in most similar investigations conducted worldwide, its leaders appear to be walking a precarious line between success and failure, knowing that their efforts could be the only chance of redress for New Zealand’s survivors of abuse.
The fortnight of hearings was the first time the public had been given the chance to watch its progress since it was announced by Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister, in 2018.
‘I don’t know who I really am’
Coral Shaw is one of the commissioners hearing evidence, and will chair the inquiry to its conclusion after its previous head announced his retirement. A veteran judge who for decades presided over some of New Zealand’s highest-profile and most gruelling trials, she says the intellectual demands of the abuse inquiry’s public hearings have been similar to those of a court case – but the subject matter “tougher”.
“This is all a bit more unremitting than before and the depth of the pain is deeper,” she says. “And I think that’s because we are allowing them to be deeper.”
That morning, in a nondescript conference room at a hotel in Auckland, Calman takes her seat in front of a panel of lawyers, officials, members of the public, reporters, and a camera livestreaming the hearings. She is visibly nervous.
“Do you want to tell me about your family, Anna?” asks her lawyer. Calman looks away and wipes her nose with a tissue.
In a voice choked with effort she begins: “My real name at birth was Margaret Ross.”
The story Calman tells is the worst imaginable: beaten by her father, raped at home, she ate out of rubbish bins to survive. She felt betrayed that social workers who knew of her family’s situation did not take her away.
When they did, things did not improve. She suffered abuse and rape in foster homes and was sexually assaulted by a nun. The effects on her life were catastrophic.
“My adulthood is actually starting now. I didn’t remember my age. I do now,” says Calman, 62. “Everything was just taken. I don’t know who I really am.”
Amanda Hill, Calman’s lawyer, is a small woman with a gentle voice, and Calman answers her questions quietly, every word seemingly drawn from her at great cost. It is an atmosphere so charged that no one in the room can avoid becoming part of it – from the court security guard at the door who sang along with the Māori hymn that opened the day’s proceedings to the young sound engineer at a desk in the corner.
At times Hill sees tears on the faces of some of the other lawyers. People in the public gallery sit calmly; many are survivors and stories like Calman’s are familiar. One man had earlier told the hearing he had “lost the ability to love” during his time in state care. Some had ended up in gangs or in jail.
“A court’s normally a really formal place, and I think the commission has been a really good place for people to be a bit more themselves,” says Hill, whose law firm represents thousands of state abuse survivors.
“My job was to help Anna tell her story and not to intrude on it, and it’s hard when the records show how badly she was treated. It’s important that people know about those.”
Calman’s plight underscores the challenge the inquiry faces in making its eventual recommendations. She is among thousands of survivors who have made claims for redress to government agencies to no avail – in her case, without even a response.
Any successes later in her life – teaching herself to read and write at 30, meeting a “lovely” second husband, making a career in caring for the elderly, choosing the name Annasophia for herself – were all her own efforts.
“You practically ruined me,” she says later of the state. But she had agreed to give public evidence because she believed things could change.
Then it is over, and she is eager to fly home for dinner with her husband. “Scrambled eggs on toast again,” she says, with some relief.
‘It’s a turning point’
The inquiry, which is due to deliver its report to New Zealand’s government in 2023, will hear from thousands of survivors in private. The public sessions were intended to set the investigation’s tone and direction, with a focus on survivors who had previously gone unheard – including disabled and Maori people.
Racism by officials and forced estrangement from family and culture were common during the period covered by the inquiry, and Maori children are still removed from their families in disproportionate numbers. They make up 60% of those in state care.
“It is particularly hard knowing that abuse in state care continues today,” says Andrew Becroft, New Zealand’s children’s commissioner, as he takes the witness seat after Calman vacates it.
The royal commission is investigating abuses that occurred between 1950 and 1999 but he urges those on the panel to exercise their discretion “liberally”, adding that the commissioners could choose to gather evidence from the past two decades even though it would increase the scope of the investigation considerably.
“There is often asserted that there is a bright line in the past where abuse has stopped,” he says. “No one can tell me when that date is.”
The reverence in the room for the long-serving former youth court judge is evident. Some inquiry staff refer to him privately as “Sir A”. One survivor says he had sentenced her to jail once, but it had been a fair decision and she still liked him.
As well as hearing from experts such as Becroft, the New Zealand commission is the first in the world to appoint a survivors’ group to advise the panel. That has been controversial too. A gang member with a domestic violence conviction was originally included in the group and another member’s partner, who has a child sexual abuse offence conviction, was inadvertently allowed to attend events.
But many in the hearing’s public seating say the inquiry is finally moving in the right direction. Toni Jarvis is a member of the survivors’ advisory group. He has a wide, white smile and faded tattoos on his fingers.
Jarvis was locked in a psychiatric hospital at nine and has spent decades looking for answers. The inquiry, he says, was the first time people had listened.
“To me it’s a turning point,” he says. But years of disappointment are never far from his mind and his trust is not easily won.
“I will say this with a bit of hesitancy,” he says, “but I’m looking forward with hope and faith that indeed this will pan out and be a positive thing.”
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