If it wasn't for his children, Willie Skelton might never have realised that something had to change in his marriage.

The father of five and coach of the Otara Scorpions under-13 rugby league team seemed to have it together. He earned a good income as a bread-delivery contractor, was respected in his church and had a wide circle of friends.

"On the outside, people said, 'Willie's working hard and I'm at home doing the kids,"' recalls his wife, Lorris.

"But it wasn't good. We all just kept it quiet, sugar-coated. We have learned from our cultures that you don't get the police involved, you don't call for help, women make sure your husband is taken care of, that's the way."


Willie and Lorris, both 37, have been together since Penrose High School - on and off in their teenage years, but married for 17 years now.

Willie was a catch - a league player who was also the youngest player in the school's rugby 1st XV. He was known as someone not to be trifled with.

"There were four main friends that I had at school. A lot of people would say s*** to them and they couldn't stand up for themselves so I had to stand up for my brothers," he says.

"Other people would hear, 'You got a reputation at this school.' I couldn't walk away. If you walk away you're going to get called 'pussy' or 'a girl'."

When they married, and soon after had a baby girl, Lorris expected that Willie would "settle down". But it wasn't that easy.

Willie was born in Samoa. His parents, wanting him to have a better life than they could give him, arranged for him to be adopted by a much older couple, who brought him to New Zealand when he was 8.

They made him do most of the housework. He was beaten regularly until he was 11, when a teacher noticed his bruises and called in a social worker, who removed him from his adoptive parents. For the rest of his childhood he was passed from one relative to another.

He learned to trust no one and to keep his feelings to himself.


"You don't cry when you get a hiding. If you even flinch, you get a bigger hiding," he says.

So when he married, he took the same approach. Don't let your guard down; the man's role is to stay strong.

Their second baby caught meningitis at 3 months, suffered kidney failure and nearly died. The family was in and out of the Starship hospital for years. Still Willie held back.

"He just had this shield, saying everything's going to be all right," says Lorris. "I could see he was crying inside, but he just never expressed it."

He found it easier to help others.

"I was the one who'll do anything for anyone else except my wife and kids," he says now.

Lorris felt ignored. "He was not paying attention to me," she says.

"There was no talking, there was just screaming. His way of dealing with it was to go. The next day he'll come back and it was still there. That's how we dealt with things."

When Lorris "nagged" him, he got angry. "There's a hole in the wall, furniture, TVs. Instead of hitting her, I'd smash a hole," he says.

He poured his energy into his work until he was working seven days a week, from 1am until early afternoon, when he came home and had a few beers before sleeping. He had two days off a year.

"I thought I was a he-man, taking on everything," he says.

"He would avoid us," says Lorris. "We knew not to bother him."

In the end, it was another woman who brought things to a head.

"I needed someone to talk to," Willie says. "I couldn't go to my wife, so there was a lady at work and she was different. She wasn't yelling at me, she was listening to me. It got too far, and she [Lorris] found out and she got really upset."

Willie's shield cracked. He pushed his wife aside and tried to walk out. She tried to stop him and he bit her arm. "It was physical," Lorris says. "All he used to do was hit a wall and go, then it got physical."

Willie says: "The kids were screaming, I can still hear the kids screaming. That topped everything off - the kids screaming at me to stop."

This time, Lorris called the police and got a protection order.

Willie had to leave home and attend an anti-violence programme.

He tried to come back, breaching the protection order multiple times. One night when Lorris turned him away, he walked from Otara to his sister's house in Mt Wellington, where he was finally arrested and jailed for 21 days.

Eventually, he gave up his bread business and started doing only relief driving for friends.

"My kids come first," he says now.

He and Lorris went to counselling together. She took him back, and this time they talked.

"I would come home [from the anti-violence programme] and tell her the things we've been talking about."

Slowly his broken shield began to melt. Other men in the programme talked about their own experiences.

"I would tell half the truth, not the whole story because I don't want to tell 15 other men in there, I don't want them to think, 'That guy's a softie.'

"As we went on, we would slowly open up to each other. As I hear him tell his story, maybe I can back it up with my story.

"After 20 weeks, we still had problems at home; that wasn't enough."

Otara Scorpions chairman Tagaloa Willie Maea gave him a character reference for court. So when the club organised a meeting with anti-violence champion Vic Tamati last year, Willie felt he owed it to the club to go along. Lorris went with him.

Tamati asked the league players to stand up if they had also done each of the things that he had done.

"I stood up on most of the questions they were asking," Willie says. "It made me feel good that I was being honest. I think that's what lowered my anger level."

They have swapped roles - Lorris works at Middlemore Hospital, and most days Willie gets the kids to and from school. "You're fun to be with now," she tells Willie. "Now we can cry, we can laugh."

"I can't get a job at the moment because of my record," Willie says.

"Maybe I should become a counsellor or something. That's my main goal - to help my community, especially my Samoan community, because people need to know there's a lot of help out there."

Finding good in the worst

Vic Tamati's Safe Man Safe Family workshops have found a way to reach the loving father trapped inside even our most violent criminals.

Mr Tamati, 58, used to get angry at his wife when he too was a young father. Once he threw a chair at her, another time a milk bottle. He gave his 8-year-old daughter a hiding that left her with bruises all over her body.

Another workshop facilitator has been jailed for murder and now works with men in Spring Hill Prison, where rioters burned cell blocks last week.

"We are s***heads working with s***heads," Mr Tamati says. "All I do is talk about me, what I did, my journey, the tools I picked up to stay safe. Apparently it challenges them."

When he spoke to the Manukau Rugby League Club, one man came up to him afterwards.

"He said, 'Someone was just telling me about my life,"' he says. "And he was a committee member!"