Why Never Again must mean Never Again – Dr Judith Aitken

Why Never Again must mean Never Again – Dr Judith Aitken

April 6, 2017

Presidents, monarchs, politicians, prophets and religious leaders often claim that their visionary idea, innovative policies or new law will “ensure that [this] never happens again.”

But it usually does. Sometimes it’s even worse.

Cold comfort to those who seek to deny any future chance for children and young people to be abused, tormented, neglected or violently killed in New Zealand.

Yet almost every day someone publicly asserts that what they advocate will make serious harm to children a thing of the awful past. Oh really?

So, given the disappointing facts of history, why should we so stubbornly seek to inquire into the abuse of children placed in State care?

For me, there are at least three reasons.

First, there is no reasonable alternative. If we don’t inquire persistently and with all our critical antennae alert, then the harm to children in care may recur in even more opaque and secretive ways.

Second, there is no defensible justification for denying voice to those who have been abused. Imposed silence robs them of their legal right to freedom of expression.

Third, no hopeful current initiatives - including the new children’s Ministry – will succeed without the most rigorously tested provisions for the State’s accountability. It is essential therefore to design evaluation criteria that have been stringently tested against the publicly stated evidence of abused individuals’ experiences.    

40 years ago a post graduate South African student, M. Mandisa, at Cape Town university, reported on the treatment of foster children in Guguletu.

The researcher found that openness and transparency were vital means to stimulate our individual and collective responsibility for every child’s wellbeing and security.   

The study concluded that shutting our ears and closing our eyes to those who need to bear witness to the harms they endured often made them more traumatised. The suffocation of collective political and social silence crippled their spirit as well as their self esteem.

South African children officially in foster care often endured the same harm as children in New Zealand. Here as in other countries, professionals, politicians, ordinary citizens often actually know very little about the people the State is supposed to serve and protect.

Sympathy based on ignorance and anecdote is generally fake and pointless. Sympathy based on the evidence of publicly declared individual testimony is a much more reliable guide to remedial action by the State and all of us.

An inquiry such as “Never Again” will be the source for such evidence. It will inform us all. It will arm us, individually as well as collectively, to do whatever we can to protect every child and every young person in our midst. 


One of the signatories in our open letter to Prime Minister Bill English, Dr Judith Aitken is a distinguished senior public servant having headed the Ministry of Women’s Affairs as well as the Education Review Office. She has been appointed to several government reviews and commissions and is active in a range of community organisations.

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