Boys will be … David Hill

Little Criminals: The Story of a New Zealand Boys’ Home
David Cohen
Random House, $39.99,
ISBN 9781869790325


Our attitudes towards the welfare of our children seem to lurch between outrage and indifference. When a child is grossly abused or killed, media voices demand the flogging/castration/hanging of those responsible. Depressingly often, such voices are led by the Sensible Sentencing Trust (SST) (swerve here to ponder the appropriateness of that first s word). It all seethes for a few weeks, then we lapse into inaction again.

It would be nice if the SST, along with correspondents and callers who inveigh against “lowlifes … scum… PC do-gooder bleeding-heart liberals” were obliged to read Little Criminals. But let’s not drift into fantasy.

David Cohen’s account of Epuni Boys’ Home in the Hutt Valley sees Epuni as a paradigm of such institutions in this country. They are or were places where individuals from John A Lee onwards “intersected with a system that has long reflected New Zealand’s deeply punitive character”. “This is not mere sociological fancy,” Cohen adds. True, though he occasionally drops into sociological jargon. The book is stacked with case histories, narratives and other evidence that provide a chastening picture of “a national character that has … long subsisted on episodic outbursts of moral panic.”

At one stage in the second part of last century, there were 26 state-run residences for troubled or troublesome youth, scattered between Auckland and Dunedin. (Second swerve here, to wonder why we sentimentalise our damaged small children but often demonise our afflicted pubescents and adolescents.) Epuni, established in 1959 and closed down in the 1990s, was a “short-term training facility”. Over four decades from the late 1950s onwards, more than 100,000 children passed through it and the other 25 establishments. Try to comprehend that number.

Why did such places mushroom? Cohen, like other commentators, attributes it largely to the furore over “juvenile delinquency” – quaint words now – that swept the US as it swung into an era of post-war indulgence accompanied by an obsession with enemies within. In New Zealand, the same fears manifested themselves in the crusade (Cohen uses the word judiciously; there was a religious zealotry about the police, press and politicians involved) against alleged teenage depravity in the Hutt Valley during the mid-1950s. One young man was charged “after admitting to touching his girlfriend’s breast”. Out came the Mazengarb Report, “served up with rich sauces of indignation and … high conservative political cholesterol”.

Nearly two decades later, the author experienced state disapproval of youthful misbehaviour at first hand. He was 12 years old and bunking school after a court appearance where he was deemed to be NUPC: Not Under Proper Control. A police van pulled up alongside him. He was driven to Epuni, admitted, showered, painted with a gluey paste to kill head lice, locked in a concrete cell. Across the corridor, a young gang recruit was slamming his head against the steel door.

Apart from that, there’s little about Cohen’s own time in the Home. His account is restrained and, as far as immediacy goes, rather regrettable. But there’s an abundance of other personal testimony in the book. There are also the cleaving incidental details: the bed-wetters; the asthmatics and stammerers; the ones who licked their plates clean; the almost total absence of books. Little Criminals tells a lot of small stories; they’re the “sob stories” which unsettle Sensible Sentencers, because like all stories they evoke individuals rather than a conveniently collective other. Some are appalling: a number of intractable boys were sent to Lake Alice for electroconvulsive therapy, without anaesthetic in many cases. An inmate (Cohen’s word) recalls a psychiatrist murmuring, “How many times do I have to ask you to behave?” as the shock was administered.

As well as a case to put, Cohen has a barrow to push. Make that a bag to punch, since in addition to telling us a lot about the popular music of the times – which was indeed important to the boys’ lives and always has been to his – he tells us much more about the boxers of the times. Even the epigraph, from Corinthians 1, deals with pugilism. So we get pumped-up passages on Joe Frazier v Muhammed Ali, sustained and sometimes strained links to Ali’s rise and reel (and of course he did come to the Hutt in 1979), comparisons between the end of Mike Tyson’s reign and the end of Epuni, portraits of fighters or trainers associated with the Home. The short last chapter is largely given over to Boxing as Salvation.

OK, it’s an apposite image for the unarmed combat that many inmates’ lives resembled, it makes the case for discipline as opposed to destruction, and I wouldn’t fight the author over his assertion that “the New Zealand chattering class” (that’s us, folks) have it in for boxing. But rather less might have achieved rather more here.

The book is good on the crises and changes at Epuni as an encapsulation of such events through the youth correction/detention culture and the country. There’s the inability to decide whether problem kids represent a crime to be punished or a problem to be treated – and our predilection for the former, with corporal punishment for girls and the urging of “indefinite imprisonment”. Later, there’s the new moral panic about protecting children from their caregivers, and the growing public disquiet over children locked in cells or in solitary confinement.

And there are the concomitant language changes. At first, the institution never referred to its inmates as “bad” or “criminal”, yet, just over a decade on, Epuni’s principal could tell Rotarians of “hardened toughs … borderline psychotics”.

Certain things don’t and shouldn’t go away in Cohen’s story. One is the spectre of sexual abuse: “successive governments in New Zealand have been reluctant to heed” growing international awareness of the extent to which such abuse was committed in Epuni and other Homes. “The government has categorically ruled out any official enquiry. It has said it will not apologise for the treatment of its former wards.”

Another, with sad inevitability, is the avalanche of young Maori into state detention. “Everybody here is Maori,” says an inmate at one stage. About half were state wards; the rest had guardians or parents who had signed, sometimes with little understanding, a voluntary agreement under which the Department of Social Welfare had custody of their child. Cohen is clear on the lack of Maori involvement (contrary to popular belief) in the establishment of Epuni. He’s careful to keep an historical perspective. He checks out the usual suspects of urban migration and associated family disintegration, economic inequities, unemployment, separation from credible father figures, and goes emphatically for the last. Tariana Turia wins deserved applause. There’s the ground-opening realisation that the best thing Epuni could do for Maori kids was to close down.

Little Criminals is narrative rather than analysis. It’s more concerned with what happened and who made it happen than with why it happened or whether it should have. Accordingly, there are many faces and names: housemasters; principal Maurie Howe, a humane figure at a time when some other boys’ homes caned offenders on their “bare breech”; chief nightwatchman Mr Tjeerd with his “barn-like physique … tobacco-stained fingers”; Billy Graham (no, not that one; the boxing gym owner and “Mayor of Naenae”). The research tends to be summaries rather than interpretations, though there’s an intriguing and illuminating targeting of the system’s main failure as a “lack of imagination”, not just administratively, but in terms of the paucity of emotional stimulus it offered the boys.

Cohen’s skills, here and elsewhere, often make me wish that journalism were less ephemeral. He moves adroitly between close-up and overview. He’s pungent and plain and precise. He’s a very able writer, with occasional ambitions to be A Writer, ambitions that sometimes lead him into teetering metaphors and honking cadences. It doesn’t happen often; more frequent are the felicitous phrasings: an official following rules “with … the same degree of attention a medieval schoolman might have given the works of Aquinas”; or “It’s … significant perhaps that our young friends have seldom been regarded as our friends”.

In the final chapter, Cohen notes:

While I’d probably like to say that the residential experiment represented a wholesale failure on every front, it has to be acknowledged that it was a genuine attempt, in however misguided and haphazard a form, to create some kind of calmer universe for children and young people who lacked adequate care and protection in their home setting.

That’s sensible and sensibly qualified; sober and carefully severe. So is this book.


David Hill is a New Plymouth writer.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
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