Content warning: This story discusses violence and sexual abuse

More than half the inmates in New Zealand’s three women’s prisons are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), often due to physical and sexual abuse. It is well-known that untreated PTSD is linked to criminal offending, so why is this epidemic of mental trauma not being treated properly? Sharnahea Wilson investigates.

The first person who told Horiana she was probably suffering from trauma was her cellmate. She was in her 20s, and had suffered various forms of abuse throughout her life.

Horiana was put into foster care in 2000, after her mother and stepfather were both jailed. She was six years old. “One of the foster homes that we were living in – me and my sister were getting hidings. We were getting beat up like we were full-grown adults.” At the age of nine, Horiana built up the courage to tell her aunty and uncle from her first foster home that she and her seven-year-old sister were being beaten up. “They rung CYFS and told Child, Youth and Family that we were being abused in the home that we were living at. Then [CYF] rung up our caregivers that we were getting hidings from and asked them over the phone what was going on in the home.

“Well we got back from school and walked into another punch in the face. What help was that? What’s the point in talking to somebody and asking somebody for help when something like that’s going to happen? So, I just never asked for help ever again.”

Let down time and again by those supposed to protect her, Horiana’s struggles have not taken away her bright, warm smile. But on the inside, her feelings reflect the life of a girl subjected to evils she should never have known.

When she was about 12, Horiana and her siblings were placed back into the care of their mother. At 13, Horiana was on holiday with her grandmother when her younger siblings were taken away from their mother again. Horiana stayed with her grandmother, which meant living with gang members. “With gangs comes violence. But it was never towards me. Actually…  it wasn’t hidings and stuff, they’ve never given me a hiding but I think I’d prefer the hiding instead of what did happen to me.”

“That’s when a darkness came into my soul. I died and this evil May arose. I couldn’t see good anymore, I couldn’t see love, I couldn’t see sweetness.”

“When it first happened to me, I was six. That was just on a brief holiday with my grandmother and my biological father. Then the second one was when I was 13.”

As a teenager, she started getting into trouble with the law, “like pinching from shops, robbing houses, doing all of those kinds of things”. She was arrested after getting into a fight with a girl at school, and was convicted and discharged, then expelled from school.

Horiana was most recently sentenced to prison in April 2018. She did not get offered therapy for her trauma until she was already incarcerated. Though she found it difficult to trust anyone, Horiana opened up to her cellmate about what had happened to her. “I just broke down about everything and that’s when she said to me ‘Bro that’s happened to me’.” Horiana was shocked – she thought she was alone in her experience.

Horiana did not realise she had PTSD until she underwent a psychiatric assessment through ACC counselling services in 2018. While this diagnosis allowed her to start piecing the puzzle together in terms of understanding her actions, she is still grappling with what it means to live with PTSD.

“I still don’t understand what it really is. They just said you’ve got this, and I said well I’ve had a lot worse.”

There are degrees of PTSD, with those at the higher end feeling very out of control emotionally, physically and behaviourally. In the 1980s, clinical psychologist Lisa Cohen started her career working in girls’ homes with young women who had typically suffered from various forms of abuse. She says traumatised people often look to substances such as drugs and alcohol to self medicate, to dull down their feelings. This can lead people into crime to get money to pay for these substances, “or because they’re taking illicit drugs – that’s committing a crime, and then that spirals”.

HELP is an organisation that works with survivors of sexual abuse and their whānau. Executive Director, Regional Clinical Psychologist Kathryn Phillips, says early identification and treatment for PTSD could mitigate many of the risks of young women ending up in prison. “People use all sorts of ways to manage the high arousal which comes with PTSD – self-harm, alcohol and/or drugs, gambling and so on. Many of these harmful activities could be avoided if assistance was available when they needed it.

“To let them down at that time can mean they need to escalate their ways of self-medicating and they feel even worse because it seems like no one cares about their suffering, that they don’t count. That replicates experiences of sexual violence.”

May Heta knows the feeling of being let down by those who were supposed to support her all too well.

May’s father started sexually abusing her in 1969 when she was six years old. At age 14, May asked her father if she could go to a disco in Hamilton. When he said no, she threatened to report him, and received “the biggest thrashing of my life”. The next day, May went to the police. “I hated what he was doing to me. I hated having sex. I hated the smell. I hated his body on me. I hated him doing things to me or me doing things to him. I wanted it to stop. I didn’t want him going to jail. No, I just wanted the police to give him a warning and [for him to] stop touching me.”

“We had nothing. We were just house girls. If you were 15 you didn’t get to go to school, you just cleaned.”

The police drove May home that day and spoke to her father. They left her there at home and promised to return the next day. That night, May’s father came to her crying. “You tell the police that I never touched you, I promise you that I will never touch you ever again, I promise,” he said. When they returned the next day, May told the police she had lied because her father wouldn’t let her go to the dance.

Two days later, he abused her again. “That’s when a darkness came into my soul. I died and this evil May arose. I couldn’t see good anymore, I couldn’t see love, I couldn’t see sweetness.”

When May was 16 her mother died. “I just screamed the walls of the hospital down because I thought ‘How dare you die and leave me here with my father, my father who’s going to continuously have sex with me [day] and night’.”

After her mother’s funeral, May’s father gave her a drink of rum and coke – her first taste of alcohol. “Then that was my God. Alcohol became my life. Cos I couldn’t feel anymore. When he had sex with me – it was nothing … Not like when I was sober, it was all this tense and ugly. Alcohol gave me a different way of living.”

May was first incarcerated for driving under the influence of alcohol in 1981. She has been in and out of prison ever since. She doesn’t know how many stints she has done. The only times May was sober from the time of her first drink until her latest sentence in 2018, was when she was in prison. May served sentences for a variety of offences she committed while under the influence of alcohol including theft, assaulting a police officer, and cultivating cannabis.

In the 2018 paper It’s never too early, never too late: A discussion paper on preventing youth offending in New Zealand, Professor Peter Gluckman said in 2016/17, 87 percent of young offenders aged 14 to 16 had prior reports of care and protection concerns made to Oranga Tamariki.

He argued persistent maltreatment is linked to later violent offending, and those who have experienced recurrent, or more than one form of maltreatment are more likely to engage in offending behaviour. May said “nothing was offered” by way of mental health services the first time she went to prison. Over the years, one-on-one counselling services, counselling for sexual abuse, and drug and alcohol services have been implemented. However, she has still not been treated for what she now knows was the root cause of her problems – PTSD.

Auckland Region Women’s Correctional Facility in Wiri Prison. A strategy in 2017 placed trauma counsellors and social workers in New Zealand’s three women’s prisons, but there was no way to know how either the quality or the uptake of these services would be ensured. Photo: RNZ/Claire Eastham-Farrelly

“I went to rehabs and they gave me counselling. It was in those sessions that it was like, I don’t think they had met anybody quite like me so they couldn’t really give me a diagnosis.”

When Arohata Women’s Prison opened their drug treatment unit in 1997, May started getting help for alcohol addiction. But because it was a drug treatment unit, not a trauma unit, they did not realise she had been sexually abused. It was not until May was coming to one of her release dates that the penny dropped. She and her clinical supervisor realised her drinking had been caused by the sexual abuse she had suffered.

May says this realisation came just as she was about to be released from prison. She wanted more time in jail so she could continue working through her issues with her clinical supervisor. “I was denied it. When I got out, I went back to my old ways of living.”

When she applied for a sexual abuse claim through ACC Sensitive Claims Unit and underwent a psychological assessment 10 years ago, May was officially diagnosed with PTSD. However, ACC denied her claim saying she could still function properly, and she was not offered any treatment for her trauma.

May was last released from prison on January 15, 2020. She has been sober since the beginning of her last sentence in early 2018. After 13 years of sexual abuse and nearly 39 years of being in and out of prison, May has finally found peace.

For a high proportion of women in prison, their complex and entwined histories of severe trauma, mental health issues, substance abuse, unhealthy relationships and poverty have contributed to their offending.

The Department of Corrections launched ‘Women’s Strategy’ in 2017 – a four-year strategy that recognises women have different needs to men and sets out a new approach that gives women the treatment, encouragement, counselling, skills and support they need to shape better futures for themselves, their children and families.

The strategy has placed trauma counsellors and social workers in New Zealand’s three women’s prisons. While this seems promising, it does not indicate how either the quality or the uptake of these services will be ensured. And what about helping people with PTSD before they become offenders?

“There’s some silent victims at that scene, and I don’t think we pay anywhere near enough attention to them – because they actually are our future family violence statistics and our future offending statistics.”

Maxine’s mum used to bring people home. “I would’ve only been six,” she says. “‘Come give uncle a kiss’, you know, and they’d slobber all over you – all of that shit. ‘Come sleep with uncle’ and you’d be crying. And mum’s going ‘It’s alright, it’s alright’.”

Maxine started receiving violent beatings from her stepfather when she was seven. “I hated him because he took the place of my dad … It was no sweat to just smash us around the head or pick us up and smash us into a wall – and I blamed my father for leaving us in that place like that to be treated like that. And mum never defended us – not once.

“I hated Pākehā, because my stepfather was Pākehā, and I thought they all beat up their women.”

By the time she was 10, Maxine was stealing school supplies, clothing and food for herself and her siblings. At 15, Maxine and her friend got caught stealing chocolate bars. They were arrested and taken to the police station. “My Pākehā mate was crying so she got let out first to go to her house and they took her home and said you better tell your mother or you’ll have to come back. They didn’t take me home.”

Instead, Maxine was sent to Miramar Girls Home, a state-owned institution for girls on remand or in need of shelter. Two weeks later she appeared in court. “I got sentenced to three months – for stealing a flake.”

Maxine tried to run away from Miramar Girls Home and was consequently sentenced to three months at Margaret Street Girl’s home. “We had nothing. We were just house girls. If you were 15 you didn’t get to go to school, you just cleaned.” She was never given a psychological assessment.

At 17, Maxine was sentenced to Corrective Training (CT) in Arohata for stealing a car. CT is a three-month custodial sentence for offenders aged 16-19, and involves hard physical work. Once she got out of CT, Maxine was sentenced to eight months in prison for theft. “I was a thief, but I was stealing to survive. I had no home. I lived with [a gang] and I didn’t have a job. I would buy drugs, then steal shit to buy more drugs. It was really just to get out of my pathetic life that I hated.” Maxine’s addiction issues worsened in prison because drugs were regularly smuggled in.

“After my eight months I had to do rehab, because I was a real drug addict. You go in and you don’t even know the frickin’ drugs or you’ve only done one kind, and then you come out and you’re addicted to everything.”

For years Maxine believed all her problems stemmed from her not knowing her father. “Because I’d been running away from home since I was 10, to try and find my dad. So … a psychologist or something, they said ‘It must stem from you not knowing your father, so we found your father’. Guess where he was – in Rangipo [Prison].”

The turning point for Maxine was when she ran into her old high school te reo teacher who offered her a job in a Māori language preschool. She went back to high school at the age of 20. In 1994, aged 30, Maxine graduated with a diploma in teaching. Two years later, she became a school principal. “I just think all the stuff you go through – there should be a purpose, but it shouldn’t be this frickin’ hard. No one should have to go through [this].”

In 2019, Norway had 3200 inmates with a country population of 5.3 million – an incarceration rate of 60 per 100,000 inhabitants. New Zealand statistics in the same year showed there were 9857 inmates with a country population of 4.96 million – a rate of 199 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. So why is New Zealand’s justice system so far behind the eight ball?

Principal Youth Court Judge John Walker has seen cases like Horiana, May and Maxine come through the youth court time and again. He believes young women offend for quite different reasons than young men – so the way out needs to be different as well. “We have a very … one size fits all in terms of responses.” Walker says our court system needs to start tailoring responses to meet the needs of young women who have suffered abuse.

Principal Youth Court Judge John Walker says the courts are often playing ‘catch-up’ because teenagers entering the justice system already have entrenched problems and behaviours at the age of 15 or 16. Photo: RNZ

Young women who come from abusive homes often end up being attracted to violent partners, “but don’t see anything wrong with it in the sense that this is something they’ve grown to expect. Then on the other side [are] very angry young women who take the view that they will never be a victim [which] plays out in sometimes aggressive behaviour,” Walker explains.

In 2018, there were 133,022 family harm investigations. “At 80 percent of those callouts, children are present. Let’s say maybe half of those are young girls, either in their rooms listening to repetitive violence in the house or seeing it when they come out of their bedroom, or being subject to it.”

Walker points out only about 20 percent of family violence is ever reported, so if we multiply those figures by five “There’s a lot of kids out there that are suffering from this trauma”.

Over the past year Walker has been convening meetings with representatives from the education sector, Oranga Tamariki, the health sector, academics from Victoria University of Wellington and other judges to discuss what needs to be done differently for young women in the youth justice arena.

He suggests one way to limit the issue of ongoing trauma caused by family violence is to have a designated person to look after children when police attend a family violence incident.

“There’s some silent victims at that scene, and I don’t think we pay anywhere near enough attention to them – because they actually are our future family violence statistics and our future offending statistics.”

Walker says the courts are often playing ‘catch-up’ because teenagers entering the justice system already have entrenched problems and behaviours at the age of 15 or 16.

“It would be really good if it didn’t take offending behaviour to bring that sort of focus on. Until the underlying causes are successfully addressed then we can’t expect them to suddenly change.”

Walker maintains the biggest challenge is workforce capability.

“The more that we identify these underlying causes and barriers to engagement in the court process, the bigger pressure we put on workforces. I would hope that the biggest development will be the development of workforce and resource to help us all deal with it.”

In 2018, the government allocated over $76 million in additional funding over four years to support the stabilisation and strengthening of MSD-funded family violence services for victims, perpetrators and their families.

From this funding, MSD invested an additional $6.59 million to increase funding for contracted family violence service providers. With the remaining funding ($15.4m per year) a new initiative, Whānau Resilience, was formed.

The Wellbeing Budget 2020 provided $183 million over four years to address ongoing cost pressures for specialist family violence providers contracted by MSD. This investment aims to ensure continued access to specialist family violence services and includes $142 million for services supporting victims/survivors of family violence.

In 2018 a multi-agency Joint Venture for Family Violence and Sexual Violence was created under the Ministry of Justice with a particular interest in the Death Review Committee findings.

The Death Review Committee investigates each family violence death and determines whether the system could have operated differently. In many cases, there were repeated failures.

Joint Venture Director Fiona Ross says the Death Review Committee provided the first lens that showed a more joined up approach was needed to combat New Zealand’s high rates of family violence and sexual violence.

“It would be really good if it didn’t take offending behaviour to bring that sort of focus on. Until the underlying causes are successfully addressed then we can’t expect them to suddenly change.”

The Joint Venture is 10 Government agencies working together on the transformational aspects that will reduce or eliminate family, and sexual, violence. The first step was to increase and improve investment in family, and sexual, violence within the budget.

“Our next priority is creating a national plan to eliminate family violence and sexual violence…and our goal is to achieve that this year. That would incorporate prevention, as well as the actual moment of violence or crisis, and the recovery process that comes after it.”

The Joint Venture has been working closely with the Chief Victims Advisor, Dr Kim McGregor. “She has been helping understand the voice of those who have experienced violence. That is going to be absolutely essential to understand what we need to change about the services or what is provided to them.”

Ross says there is a change in how government, whānau and communities are working together to resolve what is “a crisis for New Zealand”.

Workers on the frontline say there is more demand than services can meet. Psychologist Lisa Cohen says mental health in general is overloaded, and if sexual abuse is mentioned, victims are immediately passed onto [ACC] Sensitive Claims. “I could turn away five people a day, and I’m a small supplier.”

Founding Director of drug and alcohol support programme Red Door Recovery, David Collinge, echoes Cohen’s sentiments, saying the most common underlying factor leading to substance abuse, associated criminal behaviours and incarceration he sees at Red Door Recovery, is PTSD.

“Mitigation through identification prior to incarceration, when possible, is a no brainer,” Collinge argues, saying in many cases it could keep people out of the prison system.

Corrections and MSD are heavily focused on funding. More services, more staff, more investment. Cohen and Collinge also agree there needs to be more services made available.

But what about when those services are in place and they still don’t work? Horiana, May and Maxine all received counselling in prison, and all three of them found it ineffective. To this day, none of them have been properly treated for PTSD.

Recent Ministry of Justice statistics confirmed the average offender in 2019 attended court 13.1 times for High Court cases, 5.2 times for District Court cases and 8.8 times for Youth Court cases during the course of the year. When asked at what point in those interactions with the justice system an offender is required to undergo a mental health evaluation, the Ministry of Justice admits, “There is no single point in the court process where a defendant is required to undergo a mental health evaluation”.

Joint Venture Director Fiona Ross says there is a change in how government, whānau and communities are working together to resolve what is “a crisis for New Zealand”. Photo: Screenshot/YouTube 

There appears to be a collective agreement among government agencies and independent organisations that early identification and treatment is preferred when it comes to young women suffering from PTSD. So why is this still not the case?

Some of New Zealand’s most vulnerable young people can be found in Oranga Tamariki’s nine Youth Justice and Care & Protection residences across the country.

Oranga Tamariki says each residence has an on-site mental health team contracted by local DHBs which provide primary health services and services for young people with mild to moderate mental health issues. But it admits that currently there is nothing in place for young people with serious mental health issues.

Nor, it seems, does Oranga Tamariki know how many of those children in their nine residences have suffered from mental health issues in the last five years. It admits those who go through the youth court are not required to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

“There is no mandatory testing for every young person who commits an offence. Assessments and services are carried out on a case-by-case basis, as and when tamariki and rangatahi require them.”

Maxine has been the caregiver for her brother’s children for over a year. She refuses to put the children into the care of Oranga Tamariki because of the trauma her younger siblings suffered under the supervision of the state.

“I went to fight for them and said ‘Fiix mum, spend some time on mum’ but no, they spent 17 years on those kids just throwing them from foster care to foster care to foster care and look at the result. I’ve got five of the children of one of the oldest kids, and the other ones are just doing the same things that they were raised as. The cycle’s just going round and round.”

In 2018, then Minister of Justice Andrew Little said the fact that 60 percent of inmates reoffend within two years showed a need for a new approach. Norway has a 20 percent recidivism rate within the same timeframe.

A 2017 report by the Norwegian Parliamentary Ombudsman, Women in Prison: A thematic report about the conditions for female prisoners in Norway reveals, similarly to New Zealand, many female prisoners in Norway were also severely traumatised by sexual abuse. So, what is Norway doing about it?

You’ve got to let them know how beautiful they are. Because if they’ve lived a life like mine – you’ve been stripped of your humanity, your dignity. You have nothing.

One of the central lessons taught by Norway according to The Dissolution of Social Democracy: How Law and Order Came to Norway released by Oslo Metropolitan University in 2018, is that a truly rehabilitative and integrative criminal justice system is only possible within the ambit of an expansive, generous welfare state.

Scandinavian incarceration rates were at their lowest in the mid 20 Century, largely because these societies were governed by politicians who believed that the goal of the state was to provide jobs, free education, healthcare, and housing to their populations. This report pointed out that the reversal of such policies would spell the end of an exceptional prison system.

“Their long-term success relies on a generous welfare state willing to prevent individuals from falling into crime in the first place, and to reintegrate (relatively small numbers) of criminal offenders upon their release from prison.”

Identified as critical to solving the issue of untreated trauma is women’s prisons is more funding for mental health services, along with a wider workforce to deal with the extent of trauma caused by the high numbers of physical and sexual violence cases in New Zealand.

But what is it that makes treatment for PTSD effective? And why even when they had access to counsellors in prison did Horiana, May and Maxine not feel like they were being helped?

May says what would have helped her when she was 19 was an environment where she could figure out who she was meant to be and get her identity back.

“You’ve got to lift them up. You’ve got to let them know how beautiful they are. Because if they’ve lived a life like mine – you’ve been stripped of your humanity, your dignity. You have nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

Maxine says the best way to help a young woman who has had a similar life to her own, is to have somebody who trusts them, and someone they can confide in.

“Just to understand their behaviour, and where that behaviour comes from. That’s why I think whānau is really, really important. As long as there’s someone that supports them, that doesn’t judge them. That helps them talk through that. It’s finding that person.

“It’s just unbelievable what some kids go through … but somewhere along the line, someone hurt them. And it’s getting to that aye, find the hurt.”

*Sharnahea Wilson wrote this story as part of a Master of Journalism through Massey University Wellington

Where to get help:

1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) – or email or free text 5626

Anxiety New Zealand – 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)

Supporting Families in Mental Illness – 0800 732 825

Sharnahea Wilson is an investigative journalist with a focus on social justice issues.

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