Sir Kim Workman has spoken in very powerful terms after giving a witness statement to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State Care yesterday, saying "systemic discrimination and racism" have long been a part of the system.
Sir Kim was among other witnesses called to give evidence as part of the in-depth investigation, with a final report expected by about 2023.
Speaking this morning to TVNZ 1's Breakfast programme, he described how he had witnessed the system from the inside.
"I'd been a police officer since 1958 and it wasn't unitl I visited Kohitere that I realised what we had been doing in those years," he said.
"About 90 per cent of children who were there were Māori.
"It hit me, at that point, that what we were seeing was something more than just the ill-treatment of children - what we were seeing was systemic discrimination that individually we probably weren't aware of.
"When you saw that group of young boys there, it made me realise that, as police officers, we weren't doing the job we should have been doing."
Sir Kim said when he attended the Royal Commission hearing on Wednesday, he met with two men he had first met in 1972 at the Kohitere facility just outside of Levin.
"They came up and gave me a hug, which was lovely, but I just thought of the damaged lives that they have, and the way they've actually managed to survive that experience," Sir Kim said.
He said that the state had an attitude of essentially putting children out of sight until a certain age, at which point they were then considered to be responsible for their actions - and punishable.
"It was almost like the state saying, 'well, these kids might have been victims, but once they became 11 or 12 and they were sort of old enough to be held accountable, the state absolved themselves of any responsibility and treated them as offenders.
"Between 1954 and 1958, the apprehension of Māori youth increased by 50 per cent.
"They were being refused bail they were ending up in police cells - in institutions - and one of the difficulties was that there were no Māori networks operating effectively within police or social welfare.
"They couldn't work the networks - they didn't have networks - they didn't know how whānau operated. The next easiest thing was to institutionalise.
"That culture is prevalent and it's still prevalent today - if we look at the numbers that are remanded in custody, twice as many Māori are than non-Māori - and for some pretty doubtful reasons.
"So underlying the whole system is systemic discrimination and racism."
Sir Kim said it's time for New Zealand to start looking at that relationship between the Crown and Māori and redefining it - and that might mean constitutional change.
"Māori whānau have been totally disempowered - they've lost control of their kids, and were reliant, really, on a mono-cultural Western system that doesn't actually meet their needs."
The public hearings period of the Royal Commission runs between October 29 and November 8.