By Andrew McRae, RNZ
Warning: This story contains details of sexual abuse and violence.
A woman who earlier this year finished seven months’ home detention for a series of arsons says her time in a welfare residence as a child and the abuse she faced there has affected her life ever since.
Donna Te Wahia Tipa, 59, does not put the responsibility for the arsons on an abusive childhood, but believes it did play a part.
In 2020 the Palmerston, North Otago woman admitted a representative charge of arson, which included setting fire to some of her neighbours’ trees, plants and a hedge.
She ended home detention in June this year after spending it in a caravan.
Wahia Tipa said she had lost her second husband to cancer after looking after him. She then turned to drinking for comfort, ended up losing her friends and feeling very isolated.
She said she was on an anti-smoking drug, along with other medication and did not remember much, saying she lost the plot.
She describes her early life as pretty rough and abusive.
“Beaten up, neglected, violence, rejected.”
Her father left the family when she was four.
She said it was then that her mother became abusive towards her.
“It was pretty horrific, she was verbally abusive and over the years it got worse and worse.”
Tipa was sent to counselling at the age of four because her mother claimed she was the problem.
“She claimed I was an unmanageable child.”
The abuse escalated as she grew older.
“She would beat me up. She would put a face cloth in my mouth to shut me up so the neighbours couldn’t hear. It started with a jug chord, a wooden spoon and then the dog’s chain. She would beat me up with that, with a face cloth in my mouth and then she would tell me to go and run the hot tap in the bath and then she would physically force me into that hot bath to cover the bruises.”
She was also beaten with a breadboard.
Tipa complained to her teachers but they did not believe her.
“They believed her because my mother was clean, her house was clean. She was a solo mother with two children. She told them I was a compulsive liar, that I was exaggerating and that my injuries were self-inflicted.”
Social welfare did visit the home, but once again Tipa said they believed her mother over her.
Her mother told them that because she kept running away, she was an uncontrollable child.
Social Welfare took her from her home at the age of 12, but she was not made a state ward because a judge said there was no reason to.
In spite of this, she was then sent to the Strathmore Girls’ Home in Christchurch where she spent the next three years.
“I was innocent, naive, didn’t know anything about drugs, alcohol, swearing, tattoos, violence, apart from what my mother did, and I got locked up into a cell.”
She said girls were taken for medical inspections.
The examinations included vagina and breast checks.
“This happened quite a lot.”
After some time she started resisting the examinations.
“Struggling but then you get to the stage where you know the routine so you give up, you just let him do what he does and then he gives up on you and finds someone else.”
Tipa said she had been raped, long before this when she was very young and it seemed that what was going on was also rape.
On being taken upstairs after she first arrived at the home, she received what she said was a massive hiding from the other girls.
“I got slammed up against a window, there was hair brushes used, I got smashed up to a pulp, and that was welcome to the girls’ home.
“You get taught a lesson of no narking, you don’t say nothing, you shut your mouth and all that sort of thing.”
She said she was in fear at first.
“Over the years I gradually became aware of what the situation was and how you live there. I spent three years there. I ran away once and I remember the cook came and got me and she told me that if I don’t come back my time would get extended, which it did.
“There was a top dog there. She says what you do, you jump, you jump. If you bash up someone on her instructions that’s what you do. After the welcoming thing with the big bash, you might get a couple of hidings after that because you have slipped up or you have said something you shouldn’t have said or something like that.”
She said there was no physical violence from staff.
She said learning how to survive in the home was essential.
“I became institutionalised. I got the education of taking pages out of a Bible and drying tea leaves out to have a smoke. Using ink out of a pen to do tattoos. Smoking, swearing, ending up bashing other people. I ended up becoming like that because that was the way of surviving.
“You can’t survive if you are just a little innocent girl. Don’t know how to do all those things. You have to be amongst them to join them to survive in that environment.”
Tipa said she had lived on the streets and that was better than being at home with her mother or in the girls’ home.
“I learned to clean myself and eat and keep warm and be safe. I wasn’t safe at home and I wasn’t safe in the girls’ home.”
On leaving the Strathmore Girls’ Home at the age of 15, she got a job.
“I walked there every day so proud. I earned my way out of that place [the girls’ home].”
Tipa said the long-term effects of her time in state care had been far-reaching.
“I had no education, none. I never had any identity of my culture. I never had a counsellor to talk to about my issues as far as my mother or the separation of my mother, father or my sister or talk about how I was treated.
“There was no support for me. I was treated like a criminal and yet that person who started it all off is still out there today. My mother is still alive and I don’t talk to her because she won’t own up to it. My father is not alive.”
Now aged 59, she has been working most of her adult life.
She was married to her first husband for 18 years and had four children and it was a violent marriage.
“All I knew was violence and that is all I knew about love.”
She married again and was with her husband for 20 years, but lost him to cancer.
She said she was now back in the system because she committed a crime.
“I have given up now. I feel like the system and the government has won.”
She said no one would employ her because of her conviction and she was now on an invalid benefit.
On looking back at her early life she feels no one has ever listened to her.
“I got punished for … trying to protect myself. The girls’ home never did anything for me and neither did my mother. But the system I remember very well that when I went into court and the judge said to me we can’t make you a state ward because there is no reason but you need to go to the girls’ home.
“I didn’t understand what that was and I have suffered of lack of education, pride, everything has been stripped off me, I got raped, abused in that girls’ home. I had to learn another way of surviving through the girls that were in there. They taught me something, but it shouldn’t have ever been like that. They never had any social worker in there to talk to. They didn’t even have a priest. They didn’t have a school. That was a joke.”
This is the first time Tipa has spoken of her early life in state care.
She has not yet made contact with the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care to share her story, but she says she intends to.
SEXUAL HARMSexual harm – Where to get helpIf it’s an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.If you’ve ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone, contact Safe to Talk confidentially, any time 24/7:
• Call 0800 044 334
• Text 4334
• Email [email protected]
• For more info or to web chat visit safetotalk.nz
Alternatively contact your local police station – click here for a list.If you have been sexually assaulted, remember it’s not your fault.
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