In a deeply personal essay, youth worker Iain Stevens* tells of the small joys and savage pains of his work with some of our community’s most damaged families.
I wondered what it was going to take to break my heart.
I’ve been a youth advocate for just on four years. Moving all around West Auckland, inner to outer, New Lynn to Helensville, I’m deeply involved with kids and families who have fallen apart but have nowhere to go, so they have to stay in the place where the pain began.
I’ve met no one bad yet. Busted-up and angry, suspicious and self-sabotaging, yes. But no one truly bad. The kids have trauma like soldiers have trauma. Exactly like soldiers: some of our streets are trenches, some of our interventions are weapons, some of our ideas are dangerous. The ones used in the past certainly were. Older workers talk about the way things have changed, how families are actually listened to now. I wonder how families survived the paternalism of the “old days”, when the state came down like a hammer.
Today we still dictate too much. Our institutions are set up to ask the wrong questions, and they also can’t hear the answers through the noise of the system’s churn. There are good ideas out there – they just haven’t made it through to policy yet. Time will tell.
When something won’t heal, it becomes a wound, painful and noticeable, and then what do you do? Pretend it’s not there? The families I see, most do pretend that they function properly and just get on with things. It’s not like they’re the only ones that live in this way – there are whole streets, out west, out east, down south, that are just holding on. The people who live there have learned to keep their heads down; piping up means getting slapped down.
I’m in no way a shrinking violet. I’ve seen and done things that would shock most mothers – most relatives, really. I spent years with an addiction that – in order not to get ‘sick’, to keep from collapsing in withdrawal with barbed wire being pulled backwards through my veins – led to situations that, to this day, cause my left eyelid to flicker at their memory. I’ve seen some shit, I’ve done some shit.
In many of my clients, I can see kindred spirits, fellow travellers who know how it feels to be a very small cog in a machine that chews you up if you squeak too hard. The survival attitude of “just hold on” is one I know intimately. That we are making a large swathe of our society live like this disgusts me. Too many of us believe that the poor somehow deserve their lot. Too many deny that our shared history has contributed to the present they find themselves in. We have a wound in this society; it’s scab that must be ripped off so we can look at the putrescence.
Still, in some of the worst houses on good days, I have been privy to moments that have made my heart sing. The way humans can make joy is an endless sense of wonder to me, and to see that joy manifest is one of the blessings of being alive. Laughing with aunties. Watching girls twerk in school uniforms in front of their horrified mums. I’ve watched puppies flop down stairs in ways that have made me wee a bit with laughter. We know how to laugh in this country. We are really good at it, and we don’t do it enough.
We have also gotten really good at ignoring our neighbours.
And there are wastelands just next door, within earshot if you want to listen. All over the country there are big screens pulsing colours and energy into rooms that have neither. I can understand why you would want to get out of it, to remove yourself from these places for a while, at least in your mind. It’s hard to dream while staring at chipboard floors and walls grey-green with mould down to the skirting boards. Back and front yards just fences and grass, overgrown or perfunctorily mown, the edges tatty. Dead cars and broken furniture. The underlying smell of fried things.
You shouldn’t dream here; these places are not made for fantasy, they’re places that should be changed. Being comfortable with this type of environment will kill you; the mould will get in your lungs, the damp will give you eczema. Or maybe someone will explode with pent-up impotent rage and attack anyone within range. You should escape from it. People like me should help you leave.
It takes technique, resilience and often some emotional sleight-of-hand to get a person who isn’t used to talking to talk. But they all will, eventually. The chest will un-puff, the dog will be told to sit the fuck down, the look of “what will this Pākehā promise me?” will leave their face. Sometimes I’ll get a cup of tea, or I’ll sit while they smoke and we’ll let the silence do the introductions. Most mums love to chat about their kids.
My father was a policeman and I knock like he did. I apologise for it all the time. Trust can be hard to win and the initial few minutes can taint the outreach irreparably. I want to be easy to know, I want it to seem like their homes don’t bother me. Most of the time I can pull this off; only sometimes will I involuntarily crinkle my nose or stare too long. And then I’ll realise I’ve been caught out – not judging, just honestly confused at how people can live amongst this squalor with the smells and the cold and the colds without going crazy and soaking themselves in booze or whatever is at hand so that they can sleep at night. And then I just close my mouth, turn my head, do some mental gymnastics to inure myself, because staring is what too many are doing already. It’s my job to try to change this, it’s my job to make some sense in senselessness. To help humans live humanely.
I wondered what it was going to take to break my heart. And I can feel the image looming and I don’t want to describe it. Because I’m going to remember that I walked away that day. I said nothing, I failed to help. But it triggered a feeling so visceral that later I saw the outline of a Subaru Legacy logo on my palm. I’d gripped my keys so tight I’d imprinted it into my flesh.
First, another story. There was a split family I worked with, trying to get a child back to school. The child was truant on the days that the dad was scheduled to do the school pick-up. The mother’s side of the family had alleged abuse and a court case was pending, but before it came up they were having to live with the fact of a cousin abusing one of the children. The mother knew; she’d laid charges as yet unproven. But agencies and the other side of the family were demanding that the visitation rights were met and so she had to let her kids be picked up from her house to spend days with the father’s family, and the cousin.
She more than “knew” – she knew, but was told she would be arrested if she in any way hindered the pick-up. She was hard to deal with and belligerent; if she had any sense of being shunned, she’d act up, and she defended her child to the hilt. After a family conference, the agreement was made that the visits would continue. The lawyers and CYFS had agreed to this. The child was to be given to a predator, until the law said otherwise.
That night I could barely sleep. In the morning, I’d decided that I would side with the mother. I’d stand in front of whoever came and not let the child go. I thought I could not do my job in good conscience if I allowed this to happen without making myself heard. But as I drove to work the next day I got a text saying that the cousin had admitted the abuse. I cried with the mother. It felt like a difference had been made, and I’d been around to see it. I patted my back a little bit.
The next week the mum, who has a history with our service, had a meltdown and demanded to lay a complaint against me. I’d “done nothing,” “hadn’t helped a bit”. My co-workers talked her down and after a while she came round and apologised. But something has changed, our rapport has been dented. She needed to lash out and I was the closest one that day. I wore it, but it’s tainted my joy a bit. I think this is still a success. Time will tell.
That is not what broke my heart.
There are these kids that can’t get off synthetics. Even when they were outlawed everyone knew the shops that still had them or the houses of the people who had stocks.
I started this job a few months after they were taken off the market, and the workload was immense. The burnout of confused, blendered brains bashed by chemicals; the heaviest users were schizoaffective. If you ask me, in a land with such quality marijuana as New Zealand, these toxic chemical grenades are totally unnecessary.
We were tasked with counselling people while they came down from years of having synthetics in their system. The confusions receded, and the families were getting back in touch, happy that their whānau had returned to the land of the thinking. Then we all found out that they were set to come back into shops and I started fielding calls from parents and Nanas and Poppas asking why this poison is still allowed to be sold. I tell them to write to Peter Dunne c/o Parliament House, Private Bag, Lambton Quay, Wellington. No need for a stamp.
I went to see a family about their son in youth prison. He was 14 and had more charges than his age. I was going to get some support around his exit from the system. I wanted to talk to his parents about the options: maybe we could get him in an immersion program, to get him thinking about his strengths. How working with others is necessary to get some things done, how working with others is how we discover things about them and ourselves. See who can handle three weeks in a tent outside Gisborne, making some tools, killing some possums. Learning that human connection means more than wifi status, that anger is good but so is empathy. Things some homes can’t teach.
And this home was definitely one of the worse ones I’d seen. In the corners of the lounge were bags of cheap alcohol cans, empty except for the sickly sweet smell of cola. The windows were open but in Auckland this is not necessarily a good thing; it was 27 degrees and humid, like walking through soup. This house smelt like an old casserole dish wrapped in a dog blanket, a couch with bare foam squabs emitting puffs of dirty air whenever someone sat on it. Mum, high on something, was up and down like Nick Smith in the debating chamber on a dissembling jag. Carpetless floors with piles of dirt around table legs, trails scuffed through the muck on the floor. Mum and Dad smoked constantly and talked about getting their son back so they’d get more accommodation supplement, or more basic benefit, or something.
My phone was running flat and I asked if they had a USB charger,
“Over there on the kitchen bench.” I got up to plug my phone in, and looked through an open door into the hallway. I noticed the hallway was carpeted, and something went through my mind that I can’t remember; something like “at least there’s some carpet.” It was the same colour as the dirt on the chipboard floor. I saw further into the hallway and saw a baby gate across it, making a space about the size of a big suitcase against a closed door. Behind the gate was a child less than a year old. I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl. The child was naked but for a bulging nappy, brown at the edges. A large tin of baked beans lay on its side, spilling its contents on the carpet. The child was turned away from me, eating the beans straight off the carpet. Some of them had been smeared and crushed into the carpet. The baby was sitting on some sauce, its hands and cheeks covered in fluff and dirt and sauce and beans, and at the noise of my phone on the bench the baby turned and looked straight at me with eyes like a deep answer to a question I didn’t know how to ask and my heart broke.
I could not say anything. Maybe as I mature as a person, and a professional, I’ll be able to react differently but that time, I had nothing.
Maybe I’ll be able to gently chide the family. “Aue, your baby needs a wipe eh? They’ve made a mess – let’s clean it up hey?”
Not that time. I pretended my phone did not fit their cord. I had to jam my hands into my pockets because they had begun to shake. I held my keys hard. I was going to walk out of there and get into my car and drive away and try to process what I had just seen.
I forgot my diary and had to go back later to pick it up. They said that they had passed my number on to their son so that I could talk to him directly about what was going on. “Just let us know when he’ll be back so we can tell WINZ.”
The boy texted me a couple of days later, I told him about his options and asked what he thought. It will be challenging at the camp, I said, but the outcomes will be all good. The course sounds choice, it’s been running 23 years and only four boys have quit and only two stayed quit. It’s long though; it’ll be almost August by the time you get back home.
“Is there somewhere else I can go if I don’t want to go home?”
I texted, “That’s not a question I can answer, if that’s what you feel like, you have to let your parents know.”
“I don’t know how to talk to them I don’t know what to say”
I knew how he felt.
“We’ve got 9 weeks, we’ll work out something.”
I think this could be a success. Time will tell.
Postscript: The service has assigned a CSW to help the family navigate through their benefit entitlements, and they have received a food parcel and some funding for carpet cleaning, which has begun the process of making the house better for its youngest members.
* Not his real name – to protect his job and the families involved we have withheld Iain’s identity.