Five years after the Christchurch terror attacks, widows say they feel “completely exposed” and are scared about the future as they feel a shift in Government support. 

As forms of financial support begin to fade away, there are questions about whether the Government has done all it can to make reparations. Re: News contributor Jody O’Callaghan reports. 

Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) compensation for the death of loved ones to spouses without dependants, along with other welfare benefits, runs out after five years.

Some financial support has already come to an end and families say they are worried about paying rent and mortgages.

Some also are being told by Work and Income Te Hiranga Tangata caseworkers to find full-time work or study while single parenting and continue to deal with the emotional impacts of March 15.

‘People are already forgetting what happened’

A young mother whose husband was killed in the Christchurch terrorist attack said many widows were worried about how they will be able to pay their bills amid the rising cost of living.

Those who managed to get mortgages to buy their own home were under constant pressure to meet payments. For her, she never qualified for the ACC compensation because her husband was not earning a salary while studying to upskill in order to work in Aotearoa when he was killed.

Rates alone were nearly $4000, she said. “That’s a huge amount for a single mum.”

With two school-aged children, she could not afford to work full-time, But she had studied to gain work, and currently worked part-time.

“You can see a lot of changes in the system already,” she said.

“People think, ‘It’s been five years, you need to get over it’.”

But five years was barely enough time to deal with both her grief and that of her children, while trying to financially support the family alone.

“In our culture we feel husbands are protectors for us. That has been taken away from us. You have to be the man of the house.”

She was quick to say how grateful she was for the support given, but admitted “it’s really hard”.

“You feel completely exposed, and fear for the future. What’s going to happen if I die, what does [the childrens’] future hold?

“It’s just been five years and people are already forgetting what happened. It hurts…you’re still trying to pick yourself up and understand your grief.

“I’m pretty sure there are going to be people struggling really bad.”

Carrying the financial burden

Four years after a 2011 terrorist attack that killed 77 people in Norway, research found that more than half - 51 % - of the parents said they were still so traumatised they were either completely or partially unable to work.

Widows being told to gain full-time work only five years after a major traumatic event was “really harsh”, Anjum Rahman, founder of Inclusive Aotearoa Collective, an organisation working to create an inclusive society in New Zealand, said. 

“We would think we would be prepared to support vulnerable people who have gone through that. I can’t think of more deserving people who need support.”

There was plenty of research that showed the effects of overseas terrorist attacks on victims lasted far more than five years - and it was a small group of people compared to the population, she said.

She said she believes the Government had not done enough in reparation for survivors still suffering from the losses and injuries from the terrorist attack.

“It’s unfair that the victims carry the burden for that without reparation. ACC doesn’t restore them in any way.”

Maha Galal, chairperson for 15 March Whānau Trust which represents March 15 victims, is also calling on the Government to ensure families receive ongoing, long-term support.

“I cannot emphasise enough the complexity of some of the issues these families have had to continue to confront,” Galal said. 

“It's been very hard working within policies that were designed for a no-fault injury scheme, and we invite the government to keep working with us.”

In a meeting with Prime Minister Christopher Luxon this week, it was acknowledged that while significant government funding had been made available through ACC, due to the fragmented system, there were “many who fell between the cracks”.

It also created huge inequities due to circumstances when the core needs were the same, but not all met criteria.

“Many still need assistance, and targeted support is due to expire imminently for many who are still in desperate need.”

Ministry of Social Development (MSD) regional commissioner Blair McKenzie said case managers had “worked with individual families for five years helping them get the support they need after the Mosque attacks”.

Aside from access to the usual benefits for residents, some families (less than 20) who did not qualify, received support through the Christchurch Mosques Attack assistance (CMAA) payment.

The previous Government agreed to extend the welfare programme to June 30, with funding provided through Budget 23. 

No decisions had been made about funding beyond this financial year.

What next? 

ACC acting deputy chief executive for service delivery Warwick Thorn said its support for families affected by the attack was based on a client’s entitlements - like whether they were earning - and include financial compensation, injury-related support, and mental health support.

Under its legislation for fatal claims, spouses and dependants of the deceased were entitled to weekly compensation payments for five years after an event occurs. But if the dependants were young, the compensation would continue until the youngest turned 18 and finished secondary school.

That compensation was 80% of the spouses income at the time of their death.

Injury compensation would continue just like any ACC injury cover.

Raf Manji – who supervised distributing public donations to March 15 victims – sent an independent report to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in 2020 proposing a $34.8 million compensation package to family of the deceased, those injured and witnesses. 

It was never responded to.

Acts of terrorism are a failure of the Government’s responsibility to provide national security, so a payout is appropriate “regardless of formal culpability or any other legal requirements”, the report says.

“There is no doubt that the Government owes a moral obligation to compensate the victims of the 15th March attack for this failure to protect and the catastrophic emotional, physical and financial consequences.”

Compensation was given for previous accidents where the Government had a regulatory or policy responsibility – like the $2.6 million paid to the 1995 Cave Creek victims’ families – and there were state payouts following terror attacks in New York, Madrid and Oslo.

But when the Human Rights Commission sent a report to the Government in 2021 raising concerns about continued human rights breaches to victims under United Nations guidelines, a suggestion of further reparation was rejected by the minister in charge of the response to the attack, Andrew Little. He said ACC was Aotearoa’s form of compensation.

Minister for Social Development Louise Upston said she sympathises with all the victims, and her heart went out to them approaching the fifth anniversary.

“If anyone feels unfairly treated, I encourage them to raise their concerns with MSD, which has a formal process for handling and responding to complaints.”   

The new Government had made no decisions to alter the funding arrangements put in place by the previous Government, she said.

Labour Deputy Leader and Social Development spokesperson Carmel Sepuloni said her government created the Kaiwhakaoranga Specialist Case Management Service to help those in the March 15 community to navigate support through the different agencies. 

This included financial assistance, training, immigration and most recently, support for the Coronial Inquiry.

“We continually engaged with the affected community to understand their needs – and recognise that five years on, there are those who still require support,” Sepuloni said. 

“We’ve also learned there’s a real and ongoing need for the specialist case management service.”

It was “now up to the Government to consider if they continue”, she said. 

“It’s my hope that they properly assess the needs of those families and appropriately engage with them when making decisions.”

Where to get help:

  • 1737: The nationwide, 24/7 mental health support line. Call or text 1737 to speak to a trained counsellor.
  • Suicide Crisis Line: Free call 0508 TAUTOKO or 0508 828 865. Nationwide 24/7 support line operated by experienced counsellors with advanced suicide prevention training. 
  • Youthline: Free call 0800 376 633, free text 234. Nationwide service focused on supporting young people.
  • OUTLine NZ: Freephone 0800 OUTLINE (0800 688 5463). National service that helps LGBTIQ+ New Zealanders access support, information and a sense of community. 

Jody O’Callaghan is a senior freelance journalist based in Ōtautahi, Christchurch. She is passionate about te ao Māori, giving voice to underrepresented communities, and has been working with families and reporting on March 15 issues for the past five years. 

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