Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Our kids at risk: Losing and regaining mana in Kaikohe

Social issues reporter Simon Collins visited three communities to look for the root causes of that bad child abuse record. Second stop: Kaikohe.

For as long as Destiny O'Brien can remember, her father has been in and out of jail.

"It wasn't always bad, but there's not much you can do when you're on a benefit and you don't have a job and you've got five kids," she says.

"He would get drunk, he would come home, and he would be a different person. We would have to lock ourselves in the room."

Destiny, now 15, moved out of Kaikohe with her mother and four younger siblings six years ago, and now lives in Kerikeri.

Back in Kaikohe, John "Papa Hone" Korewha, 41, has made his home a "safe house" for young people.

"The boys turn up to my house because they have just been beaten by their father or their grandfather or their uncle," he says.

"We've had a couple of girls come to my house because they have been cutting themselves.

There is a lot of depression. There have been a few suicides as well."

A girl who has just turned 16 came to him last Christmas because her mother and her stepfather were alcoholics.

"They party at their house all the time," Korewha says.

"This girl fell asleep on the couch and woke with an old man, a family member, with his hands down her pants. She scrambled out the window and came to my house. She still spends a lot of time in my house. She comes here to sleep. She doesn't get fed at home."

Data on "children at risk" published by the Treasury this year shows that six of the 10 census area units with the country's highest rates of "at risk" children under age 5 are in Northland. Kaikohe is the biggest of them, with 321 of its 579 children under 5 judged to be "at risk" of poor outcomes later in life.

"Risk" is based on four characteristics of the children's parents: being on benefits, a criminal record, no qualifications, and an official finding of abuse or neglect. In Kaikohe, these four are linked with high unemployment (22 per cent in the 2013 census) and sole-parenting (57 per cent of the town's families with children).

Old-timers like Shaun Reilly, 82, lament the town's decline since he moved there 43 years ago.

"Forty-three years ago it was the heart of the Middle North. I have a list of 70 businesses that we've lost," he says.

Kaikohe's main street is quiet today, its regional role displaced by the bustling tourist towns of the Bay of Islands half an hour's drive away.

Destiny O'Brien and her mum Lovey O'Brien have left Kaikohe. photo / Peter de Graaf
Destiny O'Brien and her mum Lovey O'Brien have left Kaikohe. photo / Peter de Graaf

Unemployment impacts

Twenty of its 108 shopfronts are vacant.

On Marino Place between the library and a liquor store, where bright new murals depict famous Kaikohe residents past and present, teenage cyclists ride their bikes in the middle of the day.

At night, only the takeaways are open, doing a brisk trade.

Alva Pomare of Ngāpuhi Iwi Social Services says the men in her hapu used to work at the meatworks at nearby Moerewa. But jobs there have dwindled.

"There were 1200. There are 200 or 300 now," says her general manager, Liz Marsden.

There are still jobs in Kaikohe. The Far North District Council is still based there and so is the country's biggest iwi, Ngāpuhi. But local pastor Mike Shaw says 1000 of the 1500 people who work in Kaikohe drive into town in the morning and drive out at night.

"Half our schoolteachers come from out of town. Eighty per cent of our government workers live out of town," he says.

Ironically Marsden says the new Northland prison at Ngawha just out of town, which was seen as bringing new jobs when it opened in 2005, only reinforced "white flight" from Kaikohe, which is now 78 per cent Māori .

"I think there is low-level depression over this town, at times you can feel it," she says.

Shaw, whose Celebration Centre church runs men's groups, says unemployment "attacks the mana of a man and makes him feel worthless".

Destiny O'Brien believes that is partly why her dad got drunk so often.

"I think the thing that caused him to drink was the stress, and not being able to provide. I think that put a lot of pressure on him," she says. "But sometimes he just did it because it was there."

Her mother Lovey O'Brien says her partner worked at times during their 17-year relationship, but the jobs never lasted.

"As soon as he touched the bottle he didn't want to go to work. He took too many days off," she says.

"Or they would only give him a job till they found out about his record, and then it would stop. His record was theft, burglaries and all that, and assault."

He was first jailed at 17. His own mother left his father because of domestic violence, and their son ran away from home.

"He grew up on the streets," Lovey says. "We met on the streets."

Family struggles

Teraki Beattie, 30, says her partner also struggles to get work because has also been in and out of jail since he was 16. He was brought up by his grandparents and had a strained relationship with his mother, who took him back when the grandparents died.

Teraki Beattie traces her partner's offences to his mother always "running him down". Photo / Simon Collins
Teraki Beattie traces her partner's offences to his mother always "running him down". Photo / Simon Collins

"She's always thinking he's going to fail, running him down," says Beattie.

Perhaps that's partly why he has a low tolerance threshold for bosses.

"He did four weeks [on a work trial at a packhouse]. He quit. He never got paid. He just told them to stick their job," says Beattie.

John Korewha remembers his own father running him down.

"He was an abusive father: 'Oh you're useless,' and all that sort of carry-on," he says.

He helps the young people who come to his house because they "don't feel loved".

"If you haven't been loved, how can you love others?" he asks.

Shaw traces this lack of love and lack of respect in family relationships to a "slave mentality".

"We see that, 'Oh we can't do it, we haven't got the education, we haven't got the resources, it's because we've been colonised' - all this deficit thinking," he says.

Schools sometimes reinforced this thinking. Shaw's daughter told him how the Māori boys in one class were told to "go and sit at the back because you're not going to disturb those who want to learn".

Ngāpuhi rūnanga general manager Erena Kara says Māori kids grow up with "subliminal messages like, 'Oh I didn't expect you to be in the science class.'"

How change might happen

Restoring love and respect, summed up in that Māori word 'mana', is partly a matter of jobs. A person with a job, if respected by colleagues and paid a decent income, can build self-confidence and self-respect that restrain the instinct to lash out at others in stressful times.

Northland College principal Jim Luders says most of his students are "very connected to their marae" and he aims to build on that base of "knowing themselves as Māori" while also being "global citizens" who could work anywhere

The college has an agriculture academy with its own farm and forest. This year the Ministry of Primary Industries funded a course for 13 unemployed locals who planted manuka on the school farm, aiming to build skills for the lucrative manuka honey industry.

Forestry training contractor Jack Johnson, who ran the course, says 85 to 90 per cent of the trainees were using drugs when the course started, and half had criminal records.

They had to stop using drugs to pass the course, and two were failed on drug tests. But the other 11 graduated into work of various kinds including forestry, concreting, fumigating houses and a possum meat business which Johnson himself has started.

They were also helped to get driver's licences and to get their cars warranted and registered.

"Generally I can get them into any job in forestry," Johnson says.

"But sometimes that doesn't suit them, and sometimes it doesn't suit the employer at the time. I think there are enough positions out there. However there need to be some more entrepreneurial people out there creating some more opportunities."

Jim Croft was a supervisor in a manuka honey industry course run in Kaikohe this year. Photo / Simon Collins
Jim Croft was a supervisor in a manuka honey industry course run in Kaikohe this year. Photo / Simon Collins

Father of eight Jim Croft, 45, who joined the course as a trainee and became a supervisor, says his own path away from drugs and alcohol was through sport. He started coaching his son's rugby league team in 2008, took Kaikohe players up to Graham Lowe's Lowie Foundation sports and education course at Kaitaia last year, and has helped to get several Kaikohe players into big league clubs in Australia.

His lounge walls are covered with photos of the teams he has coached.

"All those kids up there have got jobs, have got families. None of them have gone to jail," he says.

Erena Kara, in her private life outside her rūnanga role, is one of nine young Kaikohe volunteers who opened a community gym three years ago, named 405 for the local area code. Classes are cheap, and a majority of the clients are women.

"What we see in them is a real increase in confidence," she says.

Erena Kara (left) and Bo McGee helped to open Kaikohe's 405 community gym. Photo / Simon Collins
Erena Kara (left) and Bo McGee helped to open Kaikohe's 405 community gym. Photo / Simon Collins

Above the gym Bo-Deene Stephens, 26, has opened a dance studio for children aged 4 to 16 who come even if they can't pay the fees.

"We pretty much let them come anyway," says Stephens. "Some parents don't even know they come to class, they said their parents don't really care, so we just let them come."

Bo-Deene Stephens returned from Australia to open Kaikohe's Hush Dance Studio. Photo / Simon Collins
Bo-Deene Stephens returned from Australia to open Kaikohe's Hush Dance Studio. Photo / Simon Collins

With help from social workers at Te Hauora o Ngāpuhi, Teraki Beattie has got all her four children back from state care and has a part-time job as a tutor for the Hippy programme for parents of young children. Her partner will come out of jail in February.

"I need him out here with the kids because he has a very big effect on the children when he's here. They do miss him. He rings up all the time," she says.

"We both still love each other very much. We haven't separated. But he needs to make changes in his life."

But Lovey O'Brien has ended her relationship after 17 years, has become a Christian and has a job in an orchard. Destiny says she can finally see her mother as she really is.

"She's confident, she can be her again," she says.

"I thought the kids needed their own dad," says Lovey. "They really didn't. He was just a lost soul that was going on his own path this whole time."

Troubled town

321 of Kaikohe's 579 children aged under 5 are considered, according to a Treasury analysis, to be "at risk" of poor outcomes later in life. "Risk" is based on four characteristics of the children's parents: being on benefits, a criminal record, no qualifications, and an official finding of abuse or neglect. In Kaikohe, these four are linked with high unemployment (22 per cent in the 2013 Census) and sole-parenting (57 per cent of the town's families with children).

6 of NZ's10 Census units with the highest rates of "at risk" children under age 5 are in Northland.

For more detail see https://shinyapps.stats.govt.nz/sii/

Tomorrow: Manurewa.

- NZ Herald

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