20,000 New Zealand children are ‘different’ from the rest…

On any given day, there are about 20,000 New Zealand children who have a parent in prison.  These kids often have a very tough time – while they have done no crime, they are nevertheless serving a sentence. We know that these kids are seven times more likely to end up in the criminal justice system than others, which is only one measure of their vulnerability.

Pillars is an organisation that has been doing a great deal of good for these kids for over twenty-five years. Their vision is that “Every child who has a parent in a New Zealand prison has access to the right support and services at the right time to help them cope with parental imprisonment, therefore breaking the cycle of inter-generational offending and giving them hope and a positive future.”

Pillars started out in Christchurch and established a presence in Manukau City a few years ago.  Recently, I was privileged to attend the official opening of their new expanded premises in Manukau and to hear about their ‘big, hairy, audacious goal’ of achieving a ten-fold increase in the number of kids they support over the next few years. Sadly, there will be no shortage of kids in the South Auckland area needing support any time soon, not least of all due to the opening of the 960 bed men’s prison at Wiri.

The opening celebration brought together a remarkable and genuinely inspiring group of people, including Pillars staff, board members, Pillars patron Ta Pita Sharples and, of course, the volunteer mentors who commit their time to building positive relationships and working with the kids.

One of the most compelling stories we heard was from one mentor who had supported a young boy for a number of years while that boy’s father was serving a prison sentence. The boy was doing well, but his father re-offended and was returned to jail shortly after being released. It was then that the wheels started to fall off. The young man, by now in his early teens, was devastated by (again) experiencing the loss of a parent. He became anti-social, lost interest in school and detached himself from his family. His one big goal in life became a gang ‘prospect’ patch.

The mentor did all he could to continue supporting the young man, and the strength of that relationship was a major factor in his eventual realisation that the path he was on was not where he really wanted to be. Happily, he moved to a new environment with whanau and got back on track; his future is now looking a lot brighter.

That’s a good story of one life being changed for the better, with a great saving in human and social cost. It’s also worth thinking about the financial cost averted when one young person is kept away from crime.  Had the young man gone down the track of alienation, gang association and repeat offending, a conservative ‘guesstimate’ has the financial burden imposed on society easily exceeding $2 million. If a person enters the criminal justice system in their early teens they are likely to be regularly involved with the police, courts and prison until their mid-thirties. A few stints in jail (at an annual cost of $100,000), arrests, prosecution and probation over a twenty year period: all represent a huge financial, social and human cost.

Supporting and investing in organisations like Pillars is not only the right thing to do. It is also a really smart thing to do.