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Woman didn't know her culture or where she came from, abuse inquiry hears

A life of abuse from an early age has been outlined to the inquiry into abuse in care by a woman of Tongan and Palagi descent.

Joanna Oldham. Source: rnz.co.nz

By Andrew McRae of rnz.co.nz

The Royal Commission is focusing on the historical abuse in care of Pacific people at its hearing in South Auckland.

Joanna Oldham was unaware of her Tongan ethnicity or culture growing up.

Her father was Pākehā and her mother Tongan.

She remembers, as a child, not knowing what her culture was or where she came from.

''I just knew that whatever I was, I was different and that whatever I was, was wrong. My father, grandmother and the whole side of my Pākehā family was extremely racist toward Māori and Pacifica people, including me.''

The Pākehā side of her family, including her grandmother, referred to her as that black bitch.

When she was first taken into state care, her ethnicity was listed as half European, half Tongan.

''Despite Social Welfare getting my ethnicity correct the first time, throughout my records, Social Welfare subsequently mistook me as Māori, Samoan, Cook Island Māori and Niuean.''

She was born in 1974, first lived with her drug dealing, violent, gang member father who, when she was 11, was convicted of murder.

Her life started to spiral at the age of about eight when she was sexually abused by an Anglican minister, who has since died.

The then-Social Welfare Department were made aware of what was going on, but were told the Anglican minister was looking after the family and welfare help was not needed.

Oldham only learned of this recently.

''It's not surprising," she said.

Documents show that Social Welfare had also been aware friends of her father were sexually abusing her, but again nothing happened.

''Of course I feel angry.''

She went through a series of foster placements and welfare homes - being abused in most of them and running away on numerous occasions.

She said she felt safer on the streets.

''I wasn't safe at home, I wasn't safe with my Dad, my Dad's friends. I wasn't safe with my grandmother, I wasn't safe in church. You know, where was I safe? I was safe with those people who were other kids like myself, who I guess happened to be living on the streets.''

While she felt the streets were a better place, it was not long before she was abused there too.

''[As] a young woman, I guess I became more of a target. You know just like all the other girls who were with me, as we matured we became a target for strangers.''.

The pattern continued with welfare knowing what was happening, but again not reacting.

''My initial thought is, I hope they are still not doing that. I hope they are not treating children that way now. I hope something has changed, like are we still treating children this way, I hope not.''

Oldham said she has now come to terms that what happened to her was not her fault.

''I am very aware when control has been taken away from you, by people stronger than you, the power that we do have is in our words. I don't know what the lessons are and I don't know what the answers are. I know that there are people like myself and you know one of the coaches in my boxing gym [says], you know we don't have degrees but we've got some answers.''

She said early intervention could have made a difference to her life.

''There were opportunities missed. Right through this there were many times when interventions could be done and different things could have happened. We need to be better recognising and acting.''

Oldham said survivors have a role to play in finding solutions so abuse of young people in care ends.

''I have slowly built a life for myself. I have built a career. For many years I was too afraid to talk about my childhood or seek help and so I have had to work to change my life on my own.''