The White Ribbon riders on their staunch motorbikes have clocked the kms this week, travelling around the region with their message for men to stand up and say no to violence against women. Rachel Rose spoke with the agencies responding to domestic violence in Whanganui to find out how our community is doing and the changes that are coming.

Whanganui's schools and social service agencies are dealing with an "avalanche of traumatised children", according to senior social workers.

For all the numbers, Tim Metcalfe reckons the state of our kids' wellbeing is a more useful barometer than police statistics when it comes to measuring what progress Whanganui is making to curb the violence happening in homes.

For the record, Whanganui police have responded to more than 2300 calls about family harm so far this year.


"We're dealing with intergenerational violence and abuse," warns Metcalfe, who has worked in the field for decades. He's Executive Officer at Jigsaw Whanganui. "Children who have grown up in violence and abuse are now parents who are repeating the cycle."

Those effects ripple out into the community. Metcalfe says many schools are struggling with even very young children with serious behavioural problems because of what they're experiencing at home. Some children are being abused themselves; others are being harmed by witnessing violence in the home.

The younger the child is when they witness [domestic] violence, the more damaging it is in terms of their brain development.

"The younger the child is when they witness [domestic] violence, the more damaging it is in terms of their brain development," says Metcalfe. "It's only been in very recent years that the impact for children of witnessing abuse and violence has even been recognised."

Rise is a Whanganui-based organisation of long standing that runs stopping violence programmes. It runs group programmes for adults, mostly men referred by the Department of Corrections or Ministry of Justice.

It was funded to work with just 15 violent young people in the 17/18 year, but the need is much greater. They've worked one-on-one with 33 young people so far this year; more than a quarter are girls.

White Ribbon parade Whanganui yesterday.
White Ribbon parade Whanganui yesterday.

Rise manager Shaina Petersen says there is simply not enough funding to meet the needs in the community, especially for young people. The service has managed to assist everyone aged 11-17 years who was referred to them this year but referrals from all sources are increasing and she fears they will have to create a waiting list.

"The education system is overwhelmed. They just don't know what to do with the issues they are facing [from students' violent behaviour]," Petersen says. "The kids that are acting out need help and support, but the schools have to keep other students safe too."

Rise receives referrals from Oranga Tamariki but also increasingly from schools. "There's some confusion, some think we offer 'anger management' programmes. But we'll take their referral and do an assessment."


Rise is funded to work with family violence specifically, so school-yard bullying may fall outside of its scope. However, it's typical for assessments to find that young people lashing out at school are being exposed to violence at home.

Rise works with the young person and their family and Petersen says Jigsaw and Family Works both provide really good 'wrap around' support for whanau. "But there's not enough funding to meet the need in the community."

"Family harm" is the term NZ Police use to describe all the kinds of violence that happen within families. That includes neglect or abuse of children by their caregivers, violent behaviour by children and young people, fights between related adults and violence of all kinds directed at partners or ex-partners.

Some times of year are worse than others. January is always the worst, say experienced Women's Refuge workers, as the stresses and expenses of the holiday season pile up.

Last January, police were responding to as many as 10 calls about family harm a day.
And trauma, such as a sudden death because of violence or accident, very often triggers an ongoing effect within an extended family.

White Ribbon rider.
White Ribbon rider.

School holidays are another fraught time for families coping with violent kids. "The biggest gap [in services is for] people that are having issues with violent teenage children," says Women's Refuge Whanganui manager Heather. (Refuge workers don't wish to use their last names.)

The Women's Refuge safe house provides emergency accommodation for women and children at acute risk. It's a place to hunker down and hide for a few days in a secret location: women don't go to work, children stay home from school.

Refuge has already offered more than 650 nights accommodation this year but the safe house is not as busy as it used to be in Whanganui, and that experience is common in other parts of the country too.

That shift is believed to result from a change in policing. Front line police now commonly issue a Police Safety Order when called to domestic violence incidents. That bans the likely perpetrator from the home and any contact with the family members at risk, for between one and five days. It creates some space for agencies like Refuge to work with the woman and help them understand their options — while she stays in the familiar home environment.

The Domestic Violence Act also gave protection orders more teeth and police will investigate breaches.

"About 80-90 per cent of our work is now out in the community," says Heather. Refuge advocates can provide information and support about accessing services — from WINZ allowances to lawyers — and help with immediate practical needs.

They provide a safe, supportive environment for women to talk about their experiences and support women to come to their own decisions.

Women's Refuge Whanganui is now able to offer some women assistance through the Whanau Protect national home safety service.

Funded by the Ministry of Justice, the programme pays to improve security at a victim's home, for instance by changing and upgrading locks, installing window stays, solid core doors and security lighting and providing personal alarms. Referrals for the service have steadily increased over the past two months, says Heather.

Refuge advocates say they have long benefitted from an excellent working relationship with local police, and they also work closely with other services. Heads of four agencies, including Women's Refuge, meet with the police every Tuesday to review all cases of family harm attended by police.

We just can't get in the door with many families, despite everyone's best efforts.

Frontline staff from 12 different agencies meet the following day to get into the detail of how to assist every single family on the list and who will do it.

This strong networking is one of the strengths of the response to family harm in Whanganui, according to Metcalfe.

Soon, those meetings will happen daily. "We need to get support to families straight away," he says.

Typically, there's a lull after the storm of family violence and if it takes a week for an agency to review the paperwork and start reaching out to those effected, there's less chance they can help.

The best opportunity to work with everyone effected — the victims and the perpetrators of violence — is right at the time of the crisis says Metcalfe.

Refuge advocates call from a private number, which may be ignored because it is unidentified by caller ID and they must be discrete about leaving messages.

Police and Jigsaw workers will get out and knock on doors, looking to make contact and check with victims about what support they may need.

But "we just can't get in the door with many families, despite everyone's best efforts," says Metcalfe.

Whanganui police are currently consulting about a whole new way of responding to and preventing family harm.

Called FLOW, it seeks to address the underlying risk factors that lead to family harm and will see dedicated police staff working with partners and iwi to help at-risk families. For instance, it's likely that social workers will show up alongside police officers responding to 111 calls.

Senior Sergeant Varnia Allan was appointed to the project in July. Five hui have been held since March and the next is scheduled for 12 December.

White Ribbon parade Whanganui yesterday.
White Ribbon parade Whanganui yesterday.

Representatives of Whanganui iwi, Te Oranganui (an iwi-led provider of health services to Maori) and Tupoho are all involved. There's no end date set for this phase, says Allen. "Police, iwi and community partners are still consulting and building the model."

It's unlike the many programmes designed by experts in Wellington and rolled out across the country, says Metcalfe drily. He's strongly supportive of the FLOW model. "We're hoping it will be much more responsive, that the team will be more culturally diverse and able to build on existing community knowledge.

"It has to relate to Whanganui, its history and people. And if it works well for iwi, it will work well for everyone."

White Ribbon March

Posted by Whanganui Chronicle on Thursday, 22 November 2018

Rachel Rose is a freelance journalist and columnist who lives in Whanganui.