Boys' home violence, abuse 'greatest shame'

Former state wards have gone public describing the violence and sexual abuse they claim they were subject to while in the care of the New Zealand government.

The men have detailed systematic beatings, sexual abuse and culture of fear they said they suffered at children's homes, run by the former Department of Social Welfare from the 1960s through to the 1980s.

The Government could face a bill of up to $500 million as about 500 former wards take their compensation claims through the courts, TV3's 60 Minutes has reported.

Keith Wiffen was 10 when he was sent to Epuni Boys's Home in Lower Hutt. Staff were supposed to educate the boys but Mr Wiffen said he was subjected to nothing but violence and abuse.

"I wasn't raped but I suffered what I consider to be serious sexual assaults," he said.

"I think I was very close to being raped."

He recalled a house master scrubbing a tattoo off a boy's hand with a wire brush.

Now in his 40s, Mr Wiffen said, "It left me with nothing but a broken soul, really."

Brian Wilkinson, now 50, was made state ward at age 10 and said the physical abuse, as well as being sexually abused by a staff member, had destroyed his life.

Older boys were used to beat up younger boys, he said.

"I know there's are a lot people that have been abused and it's time to come forward and have something done about it."

After 10 months of going through the government process to address his grievances, he said he received a "blanket rejection" of all his claims.

"It's not about the money, it's about the apology."

The men's case has been taken up by Wellington lawyer Sonja Cooper, who is representing over 500 state wards who say they were abused.

She says it was the biggest case of child abuse in New Zealand's history and was "our country's greatest shame".

Ms Cooper calculated she was only acting for 1 percent of the potential victims.

She suspected there could be 50,000 abuse cases, given the number of people been through care and knowing the systems and culture of abuse in institutions.

Ms Cooper said she wanted a proper and formal inquiry into the abuses of children in state care and a process for rehabilitation and compensation.

Attorney-General Chris Finlayson, the government minister now with responsibility for historic claims, initially said a blanket apology would not offer victims much, but, when pressed, said: "Anyone who suffered abuse as a result of the actions or inactions of state agencies, whether it was 30 or 50 years ago, deserves an apology and on behalf of the Crown I would apologise. Not would, will."

He said the Crown was taking steps to deal with abuse in care, with a Ministry of Social Development (MSD) unit hearing historic claims.

"If their claims are shown to have merit they will get some compensation. And that system is working. There is no need for them to go to court."

With the Crown potentially liable for $500 million, the Government could not afford for litigation to go on for decades.

"People who have justified grievances, I want them resolved, those people need justice."

Ms Cooper said she was not dealing with MSD unless through the courts. The ministry's claims process was not working, she said.

"We have found their process overall to be demeaning, humiliating, long and drawn out."

Two-hundred-and-seventy claims have already been filed in the High Court.