Payout for abuse victims 'deeply flawed'

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley has announced historic abuse claimants can opt to receive a 'fast-track' payout.
Kevin Stent

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley has announced historic abuse claimants can opt to receive a 'fast-track' payout.

Advocates for child abuse victims say the Government's plan to "fast-track" payouts for people alleging historic abuse in state care is deeply flawed and underfunded.

The historic abuse claims relate to sexual, physical, and psychological abuse or neglect of children while they were in a wide range of social welfare, health, education and church-run homes, as well as foster care and family homes.

The claims involved a wide range of allegations from people who had been in state care, covering a 70-year period, with most between the 1960s and 1980s.

Wellington based lawyer Sonja Cooper has about 600 clients on her books who have made abuse claims against the state.

Wellington based lawyer Sonja Cooper has about 600 clients on her books who have made abuse claims against the state.

The Ministry of Social Development has received 1572 claims since 2004, with payouts totalling $8.4 million awarded in the 583 cases resolved so far - an average of just under $14,500 per case.

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said the average time taken to resolve a claim was more than two years, and people with unresolved claims would be given the option of a "fast-track settlement".

Those who chose the new settlement approach would receive a prompt financial payment and a letter of apology from the Ministry of Social Development chief executive.

There were 862 people eligible for the faster settlement.

The claimants had suffered significant trauma, and the claims process could often be difficult and emotional, Tolley said.

"This accelerated process, in which there is no compulsion to take part, is an acknowledgement that it is taking too long to resolve claims.

"It will give claimants the opportunity to reach some kind of closure sooner, if that is their wish."

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Lawyer Sonja Cooper was "dismayed" at Tolley's unexpected announcement.

Cooper Legal represents about 650 clients abused as children in Social Welfare and Child Youth and Family care.

The process proposed was "incomplete and underfunded," but the ministry had chosen to impose it anyway, she said.

"It will infringe [on] the basic rights of hundreds of people."

Tolley said the settlement offer would be based on an assessment of the claim, and a "face value acceptance" of key elements, subject to some fact-checking.

"The financial settlements will be based on claims resolved to date, to ensure as much as possible that there is equity between past and current claims."

Cooper said the money available meant there was not enough to address all of the claims in the way the ministry had represented.

"Each claimant will receive less and less over time as the amount of available funding runs out."

Labour's justice spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern said Tolley had issued claimants with an ultimatum.

"For really vulnerable people, to have this dangled in front of them, it's like the money or the bag.

"Either you wait possibly years, again, or you take the money that's on offer, even though it might not be fair."

The way the ministry proposed to investigate claims under the fast-track system meant many victims would get little to no compensation at all, Cooper said.

"The ministry relies on a person's records to indicate whether a person was physically or sexually abused in care, but records rarely record abuse as it was either not discovered, or when it was, it was dealt with quietly and not recorded," Cooper said.

"This allows the ministry to decline a large number of claims."

Ardern said it was "a massive problem" that compensation would be based in part on file records, and not every file would contain the fact that someone was abused while in care.

The amount a claimant could get would be based on past claims that had been settled.

"Every case should be seen for its individuality and its merits," Ardern said.

Victims would also not be able to raise social work practice failures.

"So someone who was continually abused by a foster carer, for instance, with the full knowledge of Social Welfare, won't be able to successfully make a claim."Ardern said the historic claims unit needed to be better resourced, and "the Crown needs to behave like a model litigant."

Tolley said claimants who decided not to opt for the accelerated settlement would continue to have their case assessed under the existing process.

The goal was to conclude all historic claims by the end of 2020.

The settlement offer applies only to backlogged claims, with those received after January 1 2015 to be subject to the normal historic claims process.

Claimants needing more information should call the helpline on 0800 631 127.

 - Stuff

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