As the Royal Commission into Abuse in State Care approaches its second year of hearings, reporter Matt Nippert revisits his investigation into a Lord of the Flies-esque bootcamp on Great Barrier Island and finds horror, trauma, hope and dead ends.
Warning: The story contains distressing details about young people, violence and sexual assault.
It had been 23 years, and the memories were still crushing. But now, on a Monday in May, the system that had stripped Scott Carr from his parents, subjected him to shocking violence and left him to deal alone with the trauma was at last ready to confront what he had been through.
At a makeshift judicial conference room in a Newmarket office block, Carr settled into the witness box. His wife Sarah sat with him, holding his hand tight.
“Finally,” Carr thought. “My time.”
Carr, nearing 40 now, was 15 when he was sent to the Whakapakari Youth Trust on Great Barrier Island, in August 1998. Whakapakari had been set up by former professional wrestler John Da Silva on his family’s land in the 1970s as an outdoor and Māoritanga-focused camp. At an isolated bay accessible only by boat, a couple of dozen young residents slept in tents alongside a handful of adult supervisors.
By 1990, Whakapakari was contracted by the Government to take difficult-to-manage wards of the state and youth offenders who were considered too young for prison. But instead of rehabilitation, many of those kids were subjected to violence and abuse — beaten, starved, sexually violated.
The combination of vulnerability and violence was toxic. Many of those who went to the island came back even more damaged. It had closed suddenly in 2004 and a few years later a manager for Child, Youth and Family, the government department which sent children to the camp (it has since been superseded by Oranga Tamariki), said of Whakapakari: “The very nature of the programme — the remoteness, the primitive living conditions, the lack of managerial oversight and accountability — creates an environment where otherwise sane people start behaving in an inappropriate manner.”
But now, on this day in May, Whakapakari was under scrutiny at the Royal Commission in Abuse in State Care, the inquiry set up three years ago to examine the treatment of children and vulnerable adults in care facilities between 1950 and 1999. A campaign pledge by Jacinda Ardern when she was leader of the Opposition, the commission was established after numerous attempts by victims to address historic abuses ended up mired in legal swamps.
Carr had pushed for this inquiry for years, and viewed himself as speaking for others who could not. Over the course of two hours, he laid bare his story. It started with a lonely, but not violent, early childhood. His parents worked hard and didn’t spend much time with him. Carr stopped attending school, ran away from home for weeks at a time, and ended up in a series of care facilities.
He’s still not entirely sure why he was taken into care, but there’s no doubt about the damage it did to him. Whakapakari was by far the worst stop on his ride through the justice system. In three months at the camp, by his account, Carr was forced to do manual labour for hours at a time, often went hungry, and witnessed violence that still traumatises him all these years later.
On one occasion, Carr was brutally assaulted by a supervisor for talking back. The man headbutted him, put him in a headlock, then threw him head-first off a balcony. Carr was knocked unconscious and the supervisor left him there, lying next to a punga tree. He woke up hours later, covered in blood and bruises. After that, Carr was so scared that he considered throwing himself off a cliff. He started sleeping with a fish knife he had stolen from the kitchen.
Years later, Carr is still scarred by his experience, mentally and physically. He suffers intense flashbacks. He has foot and shoulder problems from injuries he suffered there. He has neurological problems that have left him unable to work, which he attributes partly to post-traumatic stress disorder. For a long time, he coped by drinking.
“I’ve hidden the vulnerable Scott behind the alcoholic Scott for most of my life,” Carr told the inquiry. He is sober now, “But I still struggle, like, every day.”
Carr’s story is extraordinary and shocking — except that it’s not. I’ve been reporting on Whakapakari for 15 years, most of my professional life, and in that time I’ve spoken to more than a dozen men with similar stories, and worse, about the camp.
Whakapakari first came to my attention in 2008, when I was a staff writer at the New Zealand Listener. A friend from university who’d gone to work for law firm Cooper Legal asked if I’d be interested in taking a look at a series of lawsuits they were working on about the conduct of private care facilities. Even back then these cases were considered historic.
In that grim stack of lawsuits, Whakapakari didn’t particularly stand out. I started looking into it only because it was the most recently active of the facilities, having closed four years earlier. It was supposed to be a one-off feature story but ended up being the most awful and harrowing reporting project of my career — and lasted far longer than I ever imagined.
One day, I flew with a photographer out to Great Barrier Island. We rented a boat and went out to Mangati Bay, where the camp had been located. It was a stunning and unforgiving landscape. The Whakapakari campsites had long been swallowed by weeds and the bush.
What struck me most was a seven-hectare rock islet jutting out into the bay. Locals called it Cliff Island, but to the boys who spent time at Whakapakari it was known simply as “Alcatraz”. Camp supervisors had sent misbehaving boys out there alone for punishment, sometimes for days at a time, with only a 20-litre jerry can of water to sustain them.
John Da Silva and his wife Willy then still lived across the bay, in the small settlement of Whangaparapara. In an interview, I asked them about allegations of abuse at Whakapakari that had emerged in the lawsuits. Willy said the legal action was “all about the money”. John said any concerns should’ve been raised by boys at the time. He blamed the assaults on some of the children being predisposed to violence.
In a piece for the Listener published in September 2008, I reported for the first time allegations of physical and mental abuse by several former Whakapakari residents. And I revealed that for years CYFS had been aware of concerns about the facility but kept sending vulnerable children there.
In 2015, after I had moved to the Herald, I received startling new information about the camp. To my astonishment, the lawsuit that sparked my Listener story was still working through the courts, a decade after being filed. Lawyers working on the case had found a witness who corroborated an extraordinary story I had heard eight years earlier but which was discounted as too extreme to be credible.
A former Whakapakari resident claimed that in 1998, when he was 15, he and three other boys were forced by a shotgun-wielding supervisor to dig their own graves as a punishment for trying to escape. The terrified boys thought they were about to be killed. (In the years since, I’ve found two more eyewitnesses to that event.)
I wrote about the allegations, and an incident where one boy circumcised himself with a blunt knife to force his way back to the mainland for medical treatment, and the Herald ran the resulting story on the front page. The report got a lot of attention and won a number of awards. Years later, Carr would tell me that it was reading that story that emboldened him to share his own experiences.
At the time, I thought that finally, after so many years of indifference, the system was moving in the right direction — that the victims of Whakapakari might soon get justice. I was wrong.
The public work of the Royal Commission is a curious affair.
Two years after it started, the vast scale of the commission’s remit to chronicle half a century of abuse covering perhaps 250,000 victims has seen budgets blown, the founding chair Sir Anand Satyanand resign, and the finish date extend over the horizon. A final report is now not due until 2023.
Its hearings are part courtroom, part therapy session, both busy and strangely subdued. As well as the professionals attached to the inquiry — the judges, commissioners, lawyers, sign-language interpreters, stenographers and counsellors — there’s usually a couple of journalists and a few members of the public. Regulars include a member of the Mongrel Mob, the motorcycle gang whose membership includes a high proportion of former children in care, and a couple of Scientologists.
For two days, I listened to testimony from a pair of men who were sent to Whakapakari as teenagers. Their stories added ghastly new details to what I knew about what took place at the camp.
One of the witnesses was a 46-year-old man who can only be referred to as “PM”, as he has been granted name suppression. He was hunched and looked older than his age. He spoke with an Australian accent, the product of an early life in Melbourne before he moved to live with his New Zealand-based stepfather when his mother died suddenly when he was 10 years old.
PM described a moonlit night in March 1990 when he was scared for his life.
Aged 15 at the time, PM and another boy were staying in a one-bed cabin at the Whakapakari camp. That night, they were raped in turn by an adult camp supervisor, who slept between them. PM couldn’t get to sleep and found himself staring at a rifle the supervisor always carried around camp with him. He had left it on a table.
“I remember the gun, and it was on the table,” PM told the inquiry. “And I could see it most of the night, because there was a big window on the cabin and it was letting a lot of light in. And I just stared at the gun all night, just petrified,” he said.
PM’s month at the camp didn’t start off like that, he said. His first impressions were that it was like living The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. “But then it turned like Friday the 13th.”
PM’s experience turned when he and three others were marched by the supervisor with the gun behind the dining shed and told to start digging.
“The supervisor told us we were getting executed and we’ve got to dig our graves,” he told the inquiry. “So here we are, digging these graves. They were quite deep graves, at least two to three feet deep. Some were shallower, because some of the kids couldn’t dig so well. And then we were told to get in our graves, face-down, and we were all going to get shot.”
Gunshots then rang out, and when the boys attempted to run the man kicked them back into the graves. “I was petrified,” PM said. “We were all screaming for our lives. It went on for quite a while.”
PM’s account took place eight years earlier than the grave-digging episode I’d written about in the Herald in 2015. It was a longstanding punishment at the camp, it seemed.
PM stayed at Whakapakari for only a month, and he seemed visibly shocked when presented with records that confirmed the brevity of his stay. “Was it only a month?” he asked. In his time there, according to his account, he suffered nearly a dozen physical assaults, including being beaten with the butt of that rifle, and witnessed two rapes of children by older boys egged on by the same gun-toting supervisor.
PM said he tried to raise the alarm with Da Silva. “He stopped me and said, ‘It’s okay’. And he’s smiling at me. And I’m thinking, ‘Why are you smiling?’ I realised at that point I was in a really bad, dangerous place.”
By the end of his testimony, PM was incandescent. “It was a rape club,” he said. “Murderers and rapists came off that island. There were troubled people that went there. And out of that place, monsters came. That place just destroyed so many lives. It was going on for years.”
When he finished giving evidence, commission chair Judge Coral Shaw addressed PM directly. “You mentioned several times, and it troubled me, that you felt ashamed about what happened,” she said.
“I just want to tell you that we feel shame. The whole country should feel shame that we put damaged children in a place where they were damaged further.”
The afternoon after testifying, I found Carr standing in the street. He was vaping and wore a sheen of anxious sweat as he contemplated his evidence. I was also struggling to put it all into perspective.
Over the years, I’d been contacted by numerous boys who were sent to the camp and their families, and their accounts often left me in tears. “Our son was never the same after coming off this island and to date has spent years in prison,” one mother wrote to me in 2016. Their family had trusted the authorities when they said Whakapakari would help their son, but instead it had ruined his life. “I hope that Da Silva and co rot in hell for what they have done to these boys,” the mother wrote.
Their stories stayed with me, but after 15 years of reporting on the camp, the quest for justice had begun to feel like chasing ghosts.
The boys who were sent to Whakapakari are now middle-aged men. Their pursuit of compensation through the courts ended unsatisfyingly. Two sets of civil proceedings brought by Cooper Legal, involving six claimants, spent around a decade in legal limbo without reaching the trial at which allegations could finally be heard in open court.
The Government, through Crown Law, racked up more than $1 million in legal bills fighting each set of claimants who argued that they never should’ve been sent by the state to the camp. They eventually settled for far less than that, with victims of abuse at the camp ending up getting “bugger all” as compensation for what they’d been through, in the words of one of the lawyers involved in the case.
Government agencies responsible for placing children at Whakapakari have, over the past few decades, been restructured and renamed many times over. A manager at the Ministry of Social Development, the current public agency fronting historic abuse claims, said the agency was “saddened” by the testimony at the inquiry and had already apologised to a number of former residents of the camp. “Every young person that comes into the care of the state has a right to be well cared for and kept safe.”
John Da Silva, who was in his 70s at the time the authorities closed the camp for good in 2004, died of natural causes a month before the hearings on Whakapakari began. A few weeks later, his wife and camp stalwart Willy died in similar circumstances. Several of the supervisors accused of abusing boys, including the man responsible for the mock-execution I’d reported on in 2015, have also passed away in the past decade.
That left the Royal Commission as the victims’ only hope of accountability. But what did that really amount to? Amid all those months of testimony about abuse and neglect across the care system, the horrors at Whakapakari had warranted just two half-days of the commission’s time, and had passed with only modest interest from the media. Any final report is still years away.
It was hard not to feel that this whole saga had just been a long march to a dead end.
But Carr doesn’t see it that way. Driving home to Manawatū the night after he gave evidence to the inquiry, he felt a huge sense of relief.
“There were years and years of preparation for just that moment,” he told me in an interview.
After all these years, Carr’s relationship to Whakapakari is complicated. “I’ve got a lot of gratitude,” he said. “It saved my life as well as ruined it.”
On one hand, Carr feels that the experience robbed him of a future. The boot camp was the end of Carr’s formal education. He couldn’t handle school after that, he wasn’t given support to re-enter society, and felt that the system had written him off.
“We were told we were the worst of the worst, and this was the last stop before prison,” he told me. “They were telling you: ‘Nobody cares about you, that’s why you’re here. You’re unloved, unwanted.’ It’s easy to believe that that’s true.”
When he left Whakapakari, Carr found himself on the streets and got in trouble with the law. He went to prison, became an alcoholic, and struggled to shake the traumatic memories. Even now, he suffers intense flashbacks of the assault that left him unconscious by the punga tree. It keeps him awake at night.
And yet there were times when Carr was almost grateful for having been there. When he fell into the criminal world, his experience at Whakapakari gave him an edge. Surviving that place was a badge of honour behind bars. Inmates were well aware of its brutal reputation and respected him for having endured it.
“In the criminal world, people who have been to Whakapakari are held up on a pedestal,” he said. “If people knew I had been there, I wouldn’t be given trouble.”
Today, Carr lives in Feilding, where he grew up, with his wife and two children. He says the system that mishandled him is largely unchanged, but he’s got reasons these days to be hopeful rather than fearful. He’s been out of prison now for 20 years, and sober for what he says is “years and years”. He sought treatment for his alcohol addiction after realising he didn’t want his children to follow the path that he did.
Carr has been following the commission’s hearings from his home. Regardless of what the inquiry ultimately finds, he says, he believes it was worth taking part so that he could have a chance to talk about what he went through, to be listened to, and to hear others share their experiences.
“It’s taken away the sensation of being alone,” he says, “knowing there were other people feeling the same.”