People with disabilities experience violence more often than people without disabilities. For the first time, a statement is made through art in the institutional care of Abuse in Care – Royal Commission of Inquiry Disability, Deaf and Mental Health. The hearing runs from July 11 to July 20.
Catherine Daniels became a workaholic at the age of 9. Keeping her mind occupied was the only way to “keep the demons out,” she says.
Through her beautiful and harrowing sculptures, Daniels has found a unique way to express the childhood trauma and sexual abuse she endured over many years at a young age.
As a child, she never fell asleep as herself. She imagined falling asleep like other characters like Mickey Mouse so she wouldn’t imagine experiencing the abuse. Now, at 54, she still falls asleep like other people.
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As a result of the abuse, she lives with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative identity disorder, anxiety, and paranoia.
She describes life with dissociation as a blurry, spacey, fragmented life.
“It affects every part of your day,” Daniels said.
“I’ve had nightmares every day since I was about 4 years old … and it’s hard to take because I don’t get enough sleep and you wake up and you’re in the moment you’re from who you were as a kid, will be traumatized.”
Daniels is one of many survivors sharing their stories at the hearing on institutional care for people with disabilities, the deaf and mental health. It is the first time that art will be shown as a statement at a royal commission.
She is not the only survivor whose testimony is not in spoken English.
The Royal Commission has found accessible ways for survivors to share their stories. Some survivors gave testimonies through poetry, song, New Zealand Sign Language and an assistive communication device.
Daniels felt compelled to share her story because it could open an opportunity for other artists to come forward and share testimonies about the abuse they experienced.
“I could never verbally say what I wanted, it was too difficult for me. Whereas I could speak to art through my art.”
She has also authored a book called The Secret Keeper, which illustrates the abuse with photographs of her sculptures by New Zealand photographer Esther Bunning.
Daniels said working with the royal commission has been amazing because she “thinked outside the square” to collect statements like her art show.
She said she could better express her feelings, thoughts and emotions about her sexual abuse through a three-dimensional object.
“By showing these sculptures and these exhibitions, it sparks more conversation, it gets more people talking and it destigmatizes it.”
Daniels first became involved with the Royal Commission when she held an exhibition of her work in Wellington. Two women visited her and asked her about her story and if she wanted to testify.
One of the women was Ruth Thomas, who leads the Institutional Hearing for the Disabled, Deaf and Mental Health.
Thomas worked as a consultant at the Commission for three years.
She said this hearing is important because it was “a piece of New Zealand history that has historically been invisible and locked away, kind of out of sight, out of mind”.
Thomas said they had to be active in the communities to try to get people to share their experiences, which was different from previous hearings.
Counsel Assist Ruth Thomas leads the Institutional Hearing for People with Disabilities, Deaf and Mental Health.
“There’s no way they would have reached out … to speak to us,” she said. “You wouldn’t even know the commission was taking place.”
Recent statistics show that people with disabilities are still disproportionately affected by violence and abuse.
“I think a lot of abuse and violence against disabled people goes unnoticed and unheard,” Thomas said.
“Much of this would be the result of the disabling barriers that exist in our society.
“The lack of support for people to be heard and communicate what’s happening, and then when a complaint is made, the lack of a real process or persistence in making the complaint as genuine is a real problem.”
In her 16 years as a public prosecutor she has had only one disabled applicant.
At the hearing, survivors will share stories of overt abuse, such as physical, sexual, psychological, and emotional abuse and parenting neglect. But also covert abuse.
“There were regimes and routines where people were driven from one place to another,” Thomas said.
“[From] Dining room, then conveyed to the washing, then left 80% of their lives in the day rooms. Staring, dozing, sleeping, sitting with no real purposeful activity.”
Based on all the evidence from survivors and other sources, the royal commission will issue recommendations next year and it is important that they are received by the government and action taken to ensure this never happens again, Thomas said.
“The hope for this particular investigation is that people will learn what happened and consider the systems [and] the policies that have allowed abuse to thrive, especially as we’re on the cusp of quite transformative change in the disability sector,” said Thomas.
Of her time as Counsel Assist, Thomas said her highlight was coming to terms with the survivors themselves – amazed at their strength of character to overcome the trauma they faced.
“Every time I’ve interviewed and spoken to a survivor, I’ve left that environment feeling like they just gave me their precious taonga,” she said.
“We owe it to all survivors to do a good job in all the work we do as a result of what they gave us.”
Back at the art studio, Daniels, like many others, said the mental health system is beyond repair — it’s “really broken.”
She said the government needs to find new ways to support people, such as investing in creative avenues.
“When I first made a sculpture, a lot of what I made was mulling in and around and I couldn’t see it,” she said.
“But it wasn’t until I pulled it out and I could physically look at it and see it and touch it that it made sense to me. It wasn’t just thoughts in my head, I actually put them into something I could physically touch.”
Daniels said that when people can visit her exhibition and see a sculpture they can relate to, they feel “not alone.”
“You think you’re the only one this has ever happened to because it’s always been kept secret and now it’s time to unveil the secrets.”