At 14, Clare was angry at the world.

The Dunedin teenager turned to drugs and alcohol to fill the void left by a life of self-loathing.

At a young age, Clare (not her real name) was taken from her parents and placed in the custody of her grandparents because of abuse and drugs.

She cannot recall living in that dysfunctional household, but it shaped her teenage years in the most destructive fashion.


"I don't remember [being taken from my parents], I was so young," she says.

"I was so badly abused they were always rushing me to the hospital with bruises all over me and there's little snaps [of memory], like flashbacks, that I don't even know if they are real or not."

Her grandparents provided the stability she needed, but even their influence could not undo the emotional trauma she had experienced.

"They were the only stable thing I had. Great as they were, at that stage they just weren't enough."

In her early teens she fell in with a crowd of older men and rebelled against any authority, instead indulging in drugs and alcohol.

The vices were used to suppress her anxiety and the company she kept helped her feel less alone.

"I first got into trouble as a young teen, but as early as I can remember my life was headed in one direction," she said.

"I got in with a really bad crowd of people, men about the age of 30, when I was probably about 14.


"Those guys got into some really bad things and through them so did I. A lot of drugs. A lot of theft."

She landed in court after kicking in a door following a theft, and received a sentence of community work.

"I just knew that was going to be my life," she said.

"There was no other option. I had no ambition. It's not that I didn't want to go anywhere with my life, I just knew I couldn't."

She hated herself and hated the hand she had been dealt. Her way of dealing with it was to drink and consume hard drugs.

Her grandparents attempted to intervene and enforce rules, but they were powerless as she ignored their authority and concerns.

But her choices had not gone unnoticed and Dunedin's police Youth Aid section, and in particular Sergeant Rene Aarsen, became involved in her life and attempted to turn things around.

"I didn't like them very much," she said.

"They would pick me up every morning and take me to school because I just wasn't going."

However, she found a way around that - dropping out of school at 15.

But despite her best efforts to drive Sergeant Aarsen away, he did not give up.

"He's just amazing," Clare said.

"He had so much patience. I was a bit of an ... [expletive] I wasn't pleasant to be around. I was rude.

"He probably didn't think it, but he made it seem like I was going to be fine. He made it believable for me."

After four years in a haze of booze and drugs, of rebelling and ignoring the pleas of those who cared for her, it finally sank in; she was worth caring about.

"I'm super lucky if I didn't have the people I had around me I don't know where I'd be - it's scary," she said.

"I see other girls who were my age and now they are on the benefit, doing drugs, baby under one arm and that could've been me.

"It's sad because they are beautiful people."

Her realisation was rapid, as was the change that followed.

"There was just a moment when I was like 'Right, I'm not doing this any more' and I cut all those people out."

She returned to schooling and achieved NCEA level 2 despite having no qualifications when she initially left school.

A diploma in tourism and marketing from Otago Polytechnic followed and she even studied Spanish at university.

"I knew I wasn't stupid so I was like 'I want to prove it to myself'."

She rose rapidly through the hospitality industry and at age 23 is now manager of a hotel.

"It was something I was always passionate about but apart from cleaning a hotel, I didn't see how I could be involved in it," she said.

"And now I'm definitely going to own my own, which is kind of cool."

Most importantly she had proved her worth to herself and her grandparents, who stuck with her throughout her troubled years.

"My grandfather died and I'm so happy he could look at me and see me as a great woman who did well."

She believed the police Youth Aid system could achieve similar results for other children if it was resourced to do so.

"These kids aren't bad," she said.

"You can tell the vast majority of these kids are hurt. They are confused.

"They just need some help and to know they are worth giving a damn about."

Where to get help:
If it is an emergency and you or someone you know is at risk, call 111.
Women's Refuge: 0800 733 843
Victim Support: 0800 842 846
Lifeline: (09) 522 2999
Family Violence Info Line: 0800 456 450