Orongomai Marae’s three-man social services team of counsellors and social workers are as street smart as they are skilled.
Their clients come from all walks of life and backgrounds but the majority of their work is with young boys, aged between 14 and 17 who are considered to be ‘at risk’.
Team manager, James Kirk says they come to work to tautoko and manaaki their clients but they challenge them to take responsibility for their actions as well.
“Tough love is part of aroha but we never forget that this young person is enduring hardship, just like we have, and is learning compassion, just like us.”
Some of these teens are referred by their families. Some approach the marae themselves but most come as referrals from other agencies. They work closely with Police Youth Aid, Child, Youth and Family and Upper Hutt’s Heretaunga College, trying to catch young people before their problems get entrenched and “keep them away from the edge of the cliff”, as James puts it.
“We network and collaborate to get these young people through the door. Then we can work out a plan for them, or support them if they already have a restorative justice plan in place. We support them if they have to go to court and we’ll continue to support them, regardless of the outcome.”
Support for schooling
Youth unable or unwilling to buckle down at school come into the marae to do their Correspondence School work under the supervision of the team’s youth tutor, ‘Scottie’ O’Neill, and a team of volunteer supervisors.
“The marae does a lot of stuff it doesn’t get funded for,” Scottie says. “That’s what our funders don’t see. We’re here to support families and the need, unfortunately, is endless.”
Like many of his young charges, Scottie’s teenage years were chaotic. He “got chucked out” of school at 15 and did an apprenticeship but repeated a lot of the dysfunctional behaviour he’d grown up with. When his own children challenged his behaviours, he realised that he had to clean up his act and put them first.
James has also challenged violence and dysfunction in his own family, and has spent much of his adult life as a foster parent as well as father to his own children.
He believes issues affecting young people are getting more complex. He sees youth as young as 12 getting more cocky and increasingly vulnerable to negative influences from older people who should be guiding and helping them. He also sees that they are part of a prevailing youth culture that glorifies gangs and criminality.
The high cost of domestic violence
Childhood trauma, often caused by domestic violence, is the root cause.
“We know the impact of whānau violence on tamariki and their development. A kid exhibits certain behaviours at school or is too hard to manage. That tamarki gets isolated, they get behind in their numeracy and literacy, then their whole education is affected. We see it all the time. It’s a cycle that leaves these children really vulnerable to all the other influences around them, some of which are not at all positive.”
James believes our society has the resources to help these young people.
“It’s the commitment that is missing. We have to get past who we are as individuals and work towards unity in the community.”
Instinct for something better
Despite this, James is optimistic that he, his colleagues in the social services team and in the agencies they work with, are winning.
“Absolutely. My levels of hope and faith are based on my own journey in life. As a young person growing up, I didn’t know that what was going on in my family was called whānau violence, but my tummy and intuition told me that it wasn’t right.”
He believes in nurturing, educating and supporting young people to identify and listen to that instinct for something better.
Like Scottie, the team’s counsellor Michael Gorrie was an adult when he embarked on his professional studies. He knows that, with hard work and support from people like his colleagues, young people can overcome childhood trauma and have great lives.
“I know that everyone has potential. I don’t need to be there to see them realise their potential but it’s very satisfying to know that I’ve given them some knowledge and help plant seeds of hope.”