Lessons in transformation: "You gotta smile at the little f…ers"
Jun 29, 2010
By KIm Workman
Last night, Maori Television screened the first of a two part programme dealing with the issue of family violence and child abuse. ‘Tamariki Ora - A New Beginning’ was a defining moment for Maori. It showed Maori men acknowledging that the abuse they received as children, turned them into abusers of their own children. But it also showed the extent to which whanau (families) are acknowledging the issues, forging their own solutions, and actively working within their whanau and the community to encourage positive, loving relationships.
I recall in my own marae (*meeting house) , less than 20 years ago, female elders defending a male elder who had sexually abused a visiting school child, as being a practise that was culturally acceptable in traditional times. We all knew that was nonsense, but no one had the guts to face the issue head on. Those days are now well and truly gone.
I wept tears at the programme – but they were tears of joy. From this day on, no one will ever be able to say that Maori are failing to take responsibility for their own behaviour.
One of the stand out characters in the programme was Trish Hunt, a parenting educator from Greymouth, - a provincial town on the wild west coast of the South Island. I know Trish, and she does not fit the stereotype of a parenting educator. She recruits her clients from the bars and taverns of the Coast, and swears like a trouper. But she has succeeded in turning a whole lot of loggers, labourers and miscreants into loving Dads. On the programme she explains to her Dads about the developing brain of a three year old – “it’s all about relationships and connections”. Off camera she puts it this way – “You gotta smile at the little f……ers”
As Trish explains it, the brain responds to warmth, affection and love. Where children do not receive a positive upbringing, the brain fails to develop properly, and the children grow up mistrustful, angry, unloving and abusive.
But it was the next bit that interested me. She explains that It is possible to remedy that early damage with adults, through positive reinforcement, love and care. It takes longer, but with constant support and affirmation it can happen. That confirmed for me everything I knew about adult criminals. So many times I have witnessed suspicious, angry and violent men change through experiencing the love of their partners, of their children and of their community. For some the process has taken more than a decade – but it can happen.
It’s a lesson that our prisons are forgetting. The emphasis these days is not about managing relationships and promoting warm, nurturing ‘connections’ but managing risk.
Let me give you a couple of examples.
For the last three years, 18 prisoners from a 60 bed prison unit went out daily into the community under officer supervision, and worked. They mowed lawns for pensioners and beneficiaries, chopped their firewood, and cleaned up their gardens. Local churches and community centres were painted and tidied, school and marae premises restored. But the benefit was not all one way. The redemptive and restorative nature of the work meant that prisoners felt they were giving back – but more importantly, the recipients responded with gratitude and pleasure. A kind word, a plate of scones for morning tea, and (with official permission) the opportunity to chat with the elderly and disabled about their lives, their grandchildren, their hopes and fears. For some prisoners, it was the first time they had felt accepted and loved by their community. Relationships were formed – the neural connections were contributing to the slow process of transformation. Let’s face it, around 80% of prisoners have suffered sexual or physical abuse as a child.
But all that has changed. The Department of Corrections, in an attempt to achieve a nil escape rate, developed an actuarial tool to assess whether prisoners working outside the wire, were an escape risk. If you were young, had convictions for violence or sexual offences, you scored highly on the scale. The result? Only three of the 18 prisoners are now eligible to work in the community. No one who knows them believes they would ever escape; after they had been out for three years without incident. The Unit Manager is furious, but if he ignores the result, and one of them does decide to jump the fence, his job is on the line.
Risk assessments of this kind are fraught. Recent research shows that even with an accurate instrument, weighing up the probability that an individual will inflict harm requires the practitioner to apply clinical and actuarial approaches, and integrate static and dynamic information. This is a complex and inexact task, and very few have the right level of skill to do it. Research has also found that prison and probation officers override actuarial information that indicates a low risk of harm rather than a high one. They are also likely to overstate sexual offenders' risk of harm and reduce non-sexual offenders' risk on the basis of only flimsy dynamic evidence, and counter to actuarial pointers. It’s not science, but it removes from the officer, responsibility for making a decision based on their relationship with the person, and their assessment of him.
But wait, there’s more. The Department of Corrections has developed a second actuarial tool, which is used on violent offenders released from prison on parole. It takes about ten minutes, and will tell the probation officer whether the parolee is at lesser or greater risk of offending than at the time of their previous visit. Probation officers get about 15 minutes a week with each parolee, and are expected to spend that time filling out the questionnaire.
A senior psychologist from the department recently explained how the tool worked at the Judicial Training Institute, - in the presence of about 16 Judges. One of them asked, “What do the probies think of the tool”. The psychologist replied, “Some of them don’t like it. But I say to them, “What else are you going to do with your ten minutes?”
There was an uncomfortable silence. The Judge seated next to me gave me a nudge, and whispered “Like have a relationship?”.
Well, I have since established that the parolees don’t think much of it either. An informal survey at a local pub made that very clear. As one said, “I wanted to talk to him about problems I was having at home with my missus, and all he wants me to do is fill out a ‘f……g’ form.” I asked him how he responded. “I tell him all sorts of rubbish, and watch his eyes pop out”.
It’s all about relationships and connections. You gotta smile at the little f…..ers’.