Features Australia

Deserter dads

21 September 2019

9:00 AM

21 September 2019

9:00 AM

Nearly everyone in New Zealand has been made to feel they could play a part in the forthcoming Royal Commission into the Historical Abuse in State Care. But without the inclusion of one critical category, this exercise could be a waste of time.

The $80 million inquiry is the most expensive, by far, ever to be held in New Zealand. The first public hearing is scheduled for October and the process will run for at least three years. Already, the terms of reference have been stretched more expansively than the telegenic smile Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern offered when first announcing her government’s decision to ‘confront a dark chapter of our national history.’

A multitude of historical sins is now included in the remit, much more than initially envisaged, particularly since, unlike a similar exercise held a few years ago in Australia, ‘abuse’ is not specifically defined. Originally, it was to be about abuse that occurred within some two dozen state-run residences for children and teenagers in New Zealand, that operated fitfully for around 30 years, starting in the late 1950s. As many as 80,000 kids, mostly male, went through those places.

Their stories would easily fill a few years of testimony time, as much as they easily filled a modest social history I produced on the subject, Little Criminals, which also looked back at my experience as a child in the same ramshackle system.

Then, somebody mentioned psychiatric institutions, several of which also offered highly questionable standards of ‘care’ for young people over much of the same period, and in they went too. Fair enough, or so it seemed, but that didn’t go down so well with those who had their own historical issues with faith-based institutions — so they got added to the mix. Now, run-of-the-mill schools are also in the remit, with the implication that anybody who ever suffered so much as six on the bags for wagging classes will also have a chance to air their own survivor’s story.

And on it goes. But still, for all that, something remains missing from the quest to ‘learn the lessons for the future,’ as the prime minister has put it.


When I wrote my book on the subject, its working title was ‘The Alumni,’ chosen because so many of the country’s worst criminals had their childhood roots in the system that’s now under official scrutiny. This was something that struck me, particularly when I began researching at the country’s major prison in Auckland.

What struck me even more as I delved deeper, however, was the recurrent back-story of vanished fathers in the lives — or rather, not in the lives — of so many of the erstwhile wards. For me, this seemed to be the true ‘historical abuse’ of the young and criminally restless, and most reliable data and studies appear to bear that out as a general proposition.

As Ann Coulter says, if a newborn boy were to choose just one factor to predict future success — with available options including wealth, elite education, sporting prowess or skin colour — the smartest choice he could make is for his father to hang around for the duration of his upbringing.

Much scholarly research echoes the point.  From the US National Center for Health Statistics, for example, we learn that children living away from their father are 375 per cent more likely to require professional treatment for emotional or behavioural problems and twice as likely to flunk school grades.

As for criminal tendencies, the likelihood that children will engage in illegal activities doubles if they are raised without a father present, according to Anne Hill and June O’Neill, co-authors of a report published by the City University of New York.

In the US, 70 per cent of boys in juvenile hall were raised in father-absent households, as were around the same percentage (the figures shift slightly depending on the survey) of younger murderers, rapists, dropouts, suicides and runaways.

A British study called Tomorrow’s Men, a project supported by the University of Oxford involving 1,500 teenage boys, found that successful ‘can-do’ kids — those with high self-esteem, happiness and confidence — almost invariably come from backgrounds with a high level of father contact. Those lacking this experience reported the lowest levels of self-esteem and self-confidence. They were more likely to suffer from depression, get in trouble with the law and dislike school.

According to another stateside survey, published in the left-leaning Village Voice, a boy raised in a father-absent environment is five times more likely to commit suicide, 10 times more likely to abuse drugs, 14 times more likely to commit rape and 20 times more likely to end up in a correctional facility. One of the major reasons for this is because father-absent boys are statistically less able to delay gratification and show impulse-control over anger and sexual activity, leading in turn, almost ineluctably, to a weaker sense of conscience, in the opinion of E.M. Hetherton and B. Martin, contributors to a report on therapeutic interventions for pathological childhood disorders.

How else to put it? Comparisons are invidious but here’s one that had me reaching for an extra glass of wine. In 1996, the New York Times reported on what, for want of a less anthropocentric term, it characterised as a singular perversity of aggression among young male elephants in South Africa’s Pilanesberg National Park. In an entirely uncharacteristic act, these calves were raping and killing rhinoceroses. Why? Elephant researchers discovered that the younger animals were suffering a form of chronic stress brought on by the lack of dominant adult male elephants to keep them in line. When the web of familial relations by which young elephants are traditionally raised in the wild was reintroduced, the youngsters quickly settled down and the problems ceased. They didn’t even need an official inquiry to sort it out.

New Zealand needs its inquiry and all power to its official elbow as it goes about the mother of all royal commissions. But I suspect the absent father of all royal commissions could yield better dividends.

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