The reports on the appalling abuse of children at Waimokoia School made me feel sick. This didn't happen in the far-off, unenlightened past, it was all so relatively recent. The school had opened only in 1980, and stayed open until last year.
This school was set up to deal with children as young as nine who were considered too difficult for ordinary schools to handle. Yet according to the report in the Sunday Star-Times, it had "employed people with little or no formal training, Many were hired from word of mouth or had inter-family connections to other staff."
Graeme McCardle, the man just found guilty on 15 charges, had previously worked at two other homes for troubled children. He worked at Waimokoia for six years. It wasn't clear whether he had any formal training at all for this work. A female staff member testified at his trial about his indecent approaches to her.
And he wasn't the only one. Another teacher at the school has since been struck off by the Teachers Council and jailed on multiple charges of indecent assault. Another staff member died before his trial could be completed, and one other was recently acquitted on 11 charges.
The first complaint about McCardle was made in 1996, but nothing was done until a second complainant spoke up over ten years later. The school was closed last year.
One of the worst things about this whole dreadful history is that it just isn't very surprising. There have been too many such revelations. As soon as you put children in an institution where they are completely under the control of those in charge, they become vulnerable to abuse of some kind - physical, sexual, psychological. The more cut off they are from their families (who may have already abused them at home), the more likely they are to suffer.
As we all know, families can treat their kids really, really badly. They can even kill them. But taking the kids away completely seems to increase the risk of harm, not lower it. And when the victims do start speaking out, they still have huge difficulty being believed. Only when the number of complaints grows to a point where it can't be ignored does anything happen.
As a society, we seem to be just as incapable of finding effective ways of protecting children from abuse as we are of protecting them from poverty.