Picking up the pieces on Pitcairn Island

By Julie Middleton

Pitcairn Island presents a special challenge to pairs of social workers - sent from New Zealand on three-month rotations to deal with the aftermath of last year's trials - educating the islanders about sex abuse and its prevention.

It must be a hellishly delicate, difficult job: social work on remote Pitcairn Island after its sex abuse trials. New Zealand social workers now living on the island are expected to build relationships in a divided, wary community of 47 people to educate them about sex abuse and its prevention.

The newcomers, sent in pairs, depend on locals to be housed and fed. But they can't be matey; every conversation, even the most casual, could become crucial. There's precious little privacy and few home comforts on an island half the size of Waiheke, 5300km east of New Zealand. It has no harbour, sealed roads, sewage treatment or reliable electricity.

Further complicating the scene is that the six men found guilty of abusing women and girls remain free. Their convictions and sentences are suspended while legal argument continues on whether British law applies to Pitcairn.

Until that is decided, the new six-cell prison built by locals remains empty and the men are sleeping in their own beds between days dominated by subsistence fishing and agriculture and curio-crafting for cruise-ship tourists.

John McCarthy, director of the Safe treatment programme for sexual abusers, says those complicating factors are what makes social work on Pitcairn so tough - and so very interesting.

Mr McCarthy and colleague Diane Jefferson, the New Zealand-based, full-time manager of the Pitcairn project, have just spent nine days on the island, though the logistics of travelling meant they were away for three weeks.

Welcomed, they say, politely and sincerely, the pair settled in the two New Zealand social workers who have just arrived - husband and wife Rodger Jack and Joy Te Wiata - and debriefed the two who have just left, John Dunlop and Aqualma Murray. To prevent burnout, pairs of social workers will rotate every three months.

This is familiar territory for the Safe programme. It has 15 years of experience with its sexual offenders treatment programme. It works solely with sex offenders, with about 90 adult clients in Auckland and the same number of young people.

The social workers started on Pitcairn in November. Their paymaster is Britain's Department for International Development, which has charged them with educating all the islanders, including those found guilty, on what social work is, appropriate relationships with children, how communities should respond to abuse allegations, and how abusers are rehabilitated.

Some of the islanders think social work is just child-snatching after an earlier non-Safe programme saw two children removed; some think treatment is about castration, rather than changing attitudes. But as Mr McCarthy says, many New Zealanders believe the same thing.

The social workers will also develop policies for dealing with abuse allegations and will monitor the impact of planned development. After years of neglect, the British Government has announced $9 million of upgrades, including new roads and a new jetty.

Mr McCarthy and Ms Jefferson liken the situation to counselling a large family where abuse has occurred but half the family refuses to believe it. Complicating matters is that the social workers can't do formal risk assessments of the men - the base-line in all child protection work - until they agree or have their convictions confirmed. Some of those men are long-time authority figures on the island and remain influential.

Still, none of this prevents groundwork being done, with a softly, softly approach being taken to building relationships.

Healing the island's rifts will be slow but not impossible, says Mr McCarthy.

"Most human beings are social beings and don't want to lead their lives bitter and twisted and anxious." People are hobbled by "fear, embarrassment, anger, not being able, maybe, to control themselves".

Still, some islanders, including some of those accused of abuse, have opened up to the outsiders: "People would start talking about the impact the trials had on them, or how they don't communicate with this person and their family because of what's gone on, in a way I don't think they would be able to do with their neighbours," says Mr McCarthy.

Some are hostile: "There is one person on the island who has made it clear they don't want anything to do with social workers at all," he says. "That's OK. We'll meet people where they are. We have years of experience of working with people who are very reluctant."

However, among the islanders themselves, what has happened is aired obliquely, if at all. To survive in such an inter-dependent world, says Mr McCarthy, they have developed a culture of non-confrontation and "ways of keeping things very calm and almost swept under the carpet".

Among islanders, "the trials" is a euphemism for everything that has knocked Pitcairn: the allegations, the first trial, the court cases to come and even the islanders' ambivalence about the British Government.

To be effective, social workers must be non-judgmental. But professional isolation is a real risk with the support base thousands of kilometres distant. Just one other colleague is there to lean on, and what happens on Pitcairn is under intense scrutiny from all corners of the world.

Social workers have few chances to relax their work persona. "On one hand, it's a very small community and you have to relate and integrate to some extent," says Ms Jefferson. "On the other hand, you have to maintain sufficient distance to still be able to do your job."

Social workers are also mindful of "professional dangerousness" - what happens when isolation leads to a fixed mindset. Three-month rotations prevent this and guard against burnout. Some islanders have said that it's a shame people leave just as others have got to know them, but shipping timetables impose limits and so does Safe's concern that it doesn't wear out its people.

Pitcairn's social workers are paid slightly above the market rate - but contrary to rumour, the job will not create instant millionaires. They have email and make weekly satellite phone calls to Ms Jefferson.

So what's the long-term view? Safe's initial contract is two years; independent research indicates that re-offending rates after Safe intervention can be as low as 5 per cent.

And is Pitcairn now safe for kids? It should be a one-word answer but Mr McCarthy pauses for a good 10 seconds before replying that "there is no evidence that they are not safe. For a social worker it's professionally awkward to have a situation where people who have been found guilty of child abuse have such free and easy access to children".

"But there is no evidence that children on the island are being abused at the moment. If there is a disclosure of abuse, there is someone there to do something about it."

By all accounts, Pitcairn's people want to repair their dented image and present their famous island as a safe place for children. But to do that, says Mr McCarthy, islanders "must accept some input from social workers around changing their ideas and changing their views."

Only time will tell.

The story so far

* Thirteen Pitcairn Islanders living there and elsewhere have been accused of sex attacks on the island. Some of the 96 charges date back 40 years, and some involve children as young as five.

* Seven men were tried under British law on Pitcairn Island last year. Four were found guilty and two others were given community service sentences. One man was found not guilty. The rest will face proceedings in the Pitcairn Supreme Court - actually a specially-constituted court in Papakura.

* Although a prison has been built on Pitcairn, the men found guilty are free while legal argument continues over whether Britain has authority over the island and its people.

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