Te Kupenga: An approach to working with offending families

Jill Bowman

Principal Research Adviser, Department of Corrections

Author biography:

Jill joined the Department of Corrections’ Research and Analysis Team in 2010. She manages a variety of research and evaluation projects, and has a particular interest in desistance, employment outcomes of released prisoners, how probation officers work with offenders and the needs of female offenders. As well as working for Corrections, she volunteers at Arohata Prison, teaching quilting to the women in the Drug Treatment Unit.


The Department of Corrections wishes to express its gratitude to the whanau whose story is told in this article for agreeing to its publication.

The Department also wishes to acknowledge the three Corrections staff involved in Te Kupenga:

Ratema Tamati, Principal Facilitator

Alison Fowlie, Practice Leader

David Sarich, Area Adviser Mäori

Executive summary

When a couple expressed determination that their grandchildren would not follow them and their parents down an offending path, community probation staff started working intensively with the family to help turn their lives around and prevent further offending.

They used the Whänau Engagement Model (described below) as the basis for their approach to working with the family and created an initiative called Te Kupenga (net of support).

Te Kupenga focuses on collaboration and relationship building to develop and achieve goals. The family was responsible for establishing its own goals and for identifying the people who would support them to achieve those goals. Corrections staff helped with processes to ensure the support was effective. Staff arranged whänau hui (family meetings), audio-visual link (AVL) ‘visits’ to family members who were in prison, rehabilitation programmes, parole board support, and liaised between family in the community and those in prison.

Early indicators of the success of the work with the family are a reduction in the frequency and seriousness of offending, as well as attitudinal changes – engagement in pro-social activities, including training and work; better engagement with probation staff and a cessation of alcohol and drugs for those on parole; and a reconnection with their marae.

The approach adopted by Corrections staff for this family could be replicated with other offending families around the country and this article concludes with practical suggestions for how staff might do this.

International literature on offending families

The majority of research on the family dynamics of crime focuses on the inter-generational transmission of crime. This research has shown that due to some combination of genetic and environmental factors, crime often ‘runs in families’ (Farrington, 2011; Goodwin & Davis, 2011). However, the actual dynamics of how offending families operate, including the circumstances of the families, the types of crimes they commit and with whom, are not well understood. The research that does exist, including two longitudinal studies (the Cambridge Study of Delinquent Development in the UK and the Pittsburgh Youth Study in the US) have identified some common dynamics within offending families (Farrington, 2011). A study by Goodwin (2008) looking at inter-generational offending by six Tasmanian families, found family members started offending at a young age, with the majority being convicted of their first crime between the ages of 13 and 17. In this study, men had higher rates of offending – double the number of females – and male family members were more likely to have served a custodial sentence.

There are mixed results with regard to how people within offending families commit crime and with whom. None of the studies has shown clear evidence of parents actively encouraging children to commit crime, or parents committing crime with children. In the Cambridge study, fathers with criminal histories often did not approve of their sons’ offending (Farrington, 2011) although the Tasmanian study did find that relatives may recruit children into crime (Goodwin, 2008). It is common within offending families for siblings, particularly brothers, to commit crime together (Goodwin, 2008; Farrington, 2011). In situations where families earn their income from criminal activity, getting people out of organised criminal activity is very difficult due to ingrained feelings of family loyalty (Young et al., 2013, p74). However, the Tasmanian study did show evidence of family members who had desisted from crime. While the factors supporting their desistance were difficult to identify, they differed from other family members by doing well at school; getting employment; moving away from extended family; and becoming involved with a supportive non-criminal partner.

Programmes targeting families involved in criminal activities to reduce their offending and prevent following generations offending are of two types: those that aim to prevent children in families with risk factors from starting/continuing offending and those that work with ‘high risk’ families to reduce the criminal behaviour of all family members. In a review of 24 family-based prevention programmes, Farrington and Welsh (1999) found that many were effective in reducing childhood antisocial behaviour and later delinquency. These included general parent education and more formal parent management training.

The second set of approaches for working with multi-problem families, including offending families, target all members to change the practices of the whole family. From 1996, the UK government implemented a range of projects using a family intervention model to target families exhibiting high rates of anti-social behaviour and criminal activities (Lloyd et al., 2011). Using different methods, these programmes aimed to target the different factors that contribute to Anti-Social Behaviour (ASB) and criminal activity in families. Generally this was done through assigning an individual or team of people to each family to manage their problems and co-ordinate different services. Many of these projects showed some success in reducing criminal behaviour in families (Lloyd et al., 2011; Westminster City Council, 2010).

While many of these projects appear to have had some success with ‘multi-problem’ families, it is unclear how effective they would be in targeting families that have serious criminal involvement. Goodwin and Davis (2011) suggested that preventative programmes such as the Intensive Supervision Program (ISP) in Western Australia and the Family Independence Program (FIP) in Queensland, may be useful for offending families. However, they acknowledge that there are likely to be challenges encouraging offending families to engage and to be motivated to change, especially given that many of them are likely to have a high level of mistrust of police and social workers. Confirming this, an evaluation of the FIP found that it had limited success in engaging families who had the greatest need and were most likely to benefit from intervention (Standing Council on Law and Justice, 2013). Similarly, the Family Intervention Projects in the UK were not necessarily targeting families with more than one member who had criminal histories. Therefore it is not clear from the evaluations of these projects what approaches and combinations of supports could be useful when working with families affected by entrenched criminality.

The Whânau Engagement Model

The Whanau Engagement Model is an approach to working with Mäori offenders that integrates Maori cultural concepts, principles and practice with the design and implementation of the probation practice framework. The model focuses on collaboration and relationship-building to identify and achieve goals.

The model has three stages:

  • Whakapiri – engaging and identifying goals
  • Whakamarama – knowledge and progressing goals
  • Whakamana – empowerment and achieving goals.

It is underpinned by manaakitanga (acknowledging and caring about the people) and whänaungatanga (establishing relationships and connections) and emphasises the value of staff working with integrity, honesty and respect.

The family*

There are ten core whanau members, including grandfather, grandmother and several adult children. All ten have offended and only the youngest son has not spent time in prison. Most of the children are currently in relationships, and all but one of these partners has a criminal history. The whänau (including partners) has a total of 561 criminal convictions between them. There are 16 grandchildren ranging in age between two and 16, who have been brought up with exposure to this offending.

The grandfather started his offending at the age of 14 and his offences have related to driving, alcohol and drugs, violence, robbery, and fisheries. He was a gang member but handed his patch back over 10 years ago. His exit from the gang was not straightforward, being accompanied (as he described it) by a loss of income, decrease in his mana and a loss of his sense of belonging. His last sentence was intensive supervision for offences under the Fisheries Act.

The grandmother recently completed a home detention sentence for drug-related offending. She started her offending at the age of 16 and has convictions for assault, shoplifting, other theft, and threatening behaviour. She had a long affiliation with a gang, with two previous partners also gang-affiliated.

Several of the adult children were sentenced to terms exceeding two years’ imprisonment after a violent assault against the ex-partner of one of the daughters; they have now been released.

Two of the sons were co-offenders with their mother in dealing cannabis, and received jail terms for these and other offences. One son is a patched member of a gang and the family of the partner of one is also extensively involved with the gang.

Two of the daughters are on parole and one has recently completed parole. Two of the sons are on parole – one is completing a residential drug and alcohol course on parole – and one is on release on conditions in the community.

The youngest son currently has an active charge in the youth justice system.

Another son is estranged from the family. However, his probation officer has discussed with him the possibility of reconnecting with them, although this has not happened. He has been convicted multiple times, mainly for burglary offences.

Support provided under Te Kupenga

Corrections staff recognised the strength of the relationships between the whanau members, given they were frequently co-offenders in their criminal activities, and sought to turn this into a positive. They began working with the family under Te Kupenga.

The objectives of Te Kupenga are to:

  • work intensively with whanau members to reduce re-offending
  • reduce long term welfare dependence (all whanau members have been long-term welfare recipients)
  • provide greater opportunities to learn or enhance employment skills through training and on-going support
  • support the vulnerable children from the whanau to limit the adverse effects of being exposed to anti-social lifestyles
  • establish a culturally responsive and strengths-based practice approach, and generally work in a holistic and whanau-centric way with these offenders.

The following describes the main elements of the approach by which staff have worked with the family.

Prison visits

Staff recognised that developing and maintaining trust with the family was going to be key to establishing a working relationship under Te Kupenga. To promote engagement, they arranged for family members who were living in the community to ‘visit’ by AVL the family members who were incarcerated. This was appreciated because their offending histories meant that they would not otherwise have been approved as visitors. Making arrangements for this to happen established the commitment of staff to assisting the family.

A support person, who is working with the family, has also visited all the members in prison, embodying the cultural principle of kanohi ki te kanohi (face-to-face contact). This support person was, like the grandfather, a member of a gang but handed back his patch to live an offence-free life. He assists family members to resolve day-to-day issues.

Whânau hui

Staff collaborated with the family to arrange the first of many whanau hui on the family’s marae. The hui were established to provide a framework for open and safe discussions, where conflict is seen as normal but is guided by tikanga Maori principles. Kaumatua (elders) from the marae were involved. The goal was to demonstrate to the family that there are alternative, pro-social ways of achieving what they want.

Other attendees at the hui included whanau members identified by the family who would be interested in supporting them to change. Although some of the people who were invited had criminal records, staff recognised that the family should determine who should attend, as eventually Corrections involvement would cease and the family needed continuing support from people they trusted.

These whanau hui are now held regularly – roughly monthly. They vary in length depending on the issues to be discussed. Topics brought to the hui include compliance with current community sentences, as well as practical issues. For example, one of the partners, who has sole care of their young child, did not have access to a washing machine. A whanau member made contact through this process and offered him a washing machine.

Iwi liaison officers from New Zealand Police have attended the hui after the family complained that they were being unfairly targeted by the local police. The whänau now contact the iwi liaison officer rather than reacting in a hostile manner in their interactions with Police officers.

A Child, Youth and Family (CYF) social worker has also attended the whanau hui, reflecting the youngest sibling’s involvement with youth justice.

A Whanau Ora collective has also attended a hui. Pathways have been completed for the six siblings involved in the violent assault, and discussions are occurring about support for them in the community.

Attending Parole Board Hearings

Another way in which Corrections staff provide support is by attending Parole Board hearings when any of the family members are being considered for release. A whanau hui is held before each hearing to identify the risks that might arise were the family member to be released, and how those risks could be managed. At the Board hearings, staff describe their work with the family through Te Kupenga, and propose strategies for minimising risk. Te Kupenga support processes have been written into release plans and the Board is able to ask questions and assess the robustness of these plans.


A five-day tikanga programme “Dynamics of Whanaungatanga” was organised for the family by the Corrections team. This was run simultaneously via AVL at the various prisons where family members were incarcerated and at the local probation service centre. Seventeen people, including some partners, participated.

Dynamics of Whanaungatanga is intended to provide a framework for the whanau to operate under in the future. The programme is based on a Maori system of values, concepts and models. It is intended to improve:

  • Personal wellbeing and authority by which roles are exercised and goals achieved
  • Integrity, respect and compassion that guide decisions and responses to others
  • Personal and professional relationships and interactions with all people.

The programme was chosen for this whänau as it originated and is well-known and supported in the area in which they live.

Following the first Dynamics of Whanaungatanga, which introduced the programme’s concepts, a second session was held during which the whanau developed their strategic plan. Corrections is currently running monthly Dynamics of Whänaungatanga maintenance sessions to facilitate the implementation of this plan. At these sessions whanau members discuss ‘real life’ situations and challenges and how they have dealt with them utilising the strategies that they have learnt. The whanau compares how they would have dealt with issues in the past with how they deal with things now and, in doing so, have exhibited significant behavioural change.

Other programmes completed by individual members include Kowhiritanga and the Maori therapeutic programme Mauri Tu Pae.

Community groups are also working with the women. One has a skill and interest in raranga (weaving) and is attending classes regularly. The classes are held at a very active community-based marae, which has strong pro-social Mäori role models, particularly strong Maori women. Her similarly talented sister is also planning to attend these sessions. The marae provides other activities which the women could attend.

Liaison with the family

Corrections staff also support the family by keeping them up-to-date with developments in other family members’ circumstances. This liaison is based on transparency and trust; no promises are made and if it is not possible to achieve particular outcomes, this is communicated to the whanau in a respectful but direct manner to ensure that the relationship is able to be maintained. The relationship is built on manaakitanga and whanaungatanga.

For example, staff had to tell the whänau that one of the males was being returned to custody after he was accused of further offending while he was on parole. Although family members were angry over this move, they appreciated being advised directly, and remained committed to Te Kupenga.

In another example, it became evident that one of the sons was violent towards his partner, and the whanau determined that he should not be released until he had changed his behaviour. Corrections staff had to pass on that message to the prisoner. Again this was done kanohi ki te kanohi to the offender.

Early indications of the effectiveness of engagement with the family

Given the family’s lengthy criminal history, with violence, alcohol and drugs a significant influence on their chaotic lives, their desistance from crime is likely to be a slow process. However, there are early indications of success, and evidence of motivation to live law-abiding lives.

The offending of family members has reduced in terms of seriousness and frequency.

The attitude of family members has changed. They are engaging in pro-social activities including education, training and employment, after long-term benefit dependency. The grandfather is now gainfully employed after years on a benefit or doing intermittent casual work. One of the daughters has recently completed a carpentry course and is planning on doing a hairdressing course.

Family members on parole are dealing with Corrections staff honestly and openly, in contrast to their previous dishonest and manipulative behaviour. They are abstaining from alcohol and drugs.

The family are enthusiastically taking part in rehabilitation programmes. The children’s partners have also become involved with Te Kupenga and have sought help for issues. As noted above, several attended the tikanga programme.

Replicating the approach elsewhere

If Community Corrections staff are aware of families in their communities who would benefit from a similar approach to that used for this whanau, there are some principles that would aid the process. Importantly, teams need to consider whether they are able to resource the work, and whether they can realistically commit to doing so for the time needed, which is likely to be years rather than months.

Another challenge is how the principal Te Kupenga practitioners involve other staff who will have contact with the family. In this case, although there were three key staff, numerous other staff had roles to play, including case managers, probation officers and kaitiaki. It was important to keep people who had responsibilities with whänau members aware of Te Kupenga and the objectives of the whole whanau without interfering in individual sentence requirements.

In selecting families who would benefit from participation in such a programme, it is critical to identify people who will be motivated to work with Corrections staff to address problems themselves. Whanau members need to take responsibility for their futures and to determine their own priorities. They also need to decide who will support them in making the changes they wish to make, and how they will go about doing that. The role of Corrections staff is to assist them by facilitating the delivery of services and other support. Developing and maintaining a relationship with the whänau is extremely important. Staff have to earn the trust of the whanau by demonstrating their commitment to helping, and by showing integrity – following through on things they say they will do. Staff need also to command respect by being honest, even when this requires them to deliver unpalatable information.

Whanau hui appear to be an important way of connecting Maori families to supporters (natural helpers who are found within all extended whanau groups) who will help support a pro-social life. They provide a forum for discussing issues around offenders’ reintegration as well as offering an opportunity to model pro-social behaviour. Whanau flourish when they practice whanaungatanga and are able to foster positive intergenerational transfers. In addition there is value in exploring whakapapa to establish links to marae/hapu and iwi – whanau will flourish when they are strengthened by a distinctive heritage.

Community Corrections staff can provide practical support, such as presenting well-developed and thought-through release plans to the Parole Board, arranging for programme participation, assisting with finding accommodation, and referral to training or employment.


Farrington, D. P. (2011) ‘Families and Crime’, in Wilson, J. G. and Petersilia, J. (eds.), Crime and Public Policy, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 130-157

Farrington, D. P. and Welsh, B. C. (1999) Delinquency Prevention Using Family-Based Interventions. Children & Society. 13, 287-303

Goodwin, V. (2008). The concentration of offending and related social problems in Tasmanian Families. Briefing Paper No. 8. Tasmanian Institute of Law Enforcement Studies

Goodwin, V. and Davis, B. (2011). Crime Families: Gender and the intergenerational transfer of criminal tendencies. Trends and issues in crime and criminal justice. N.414, Australian Institute of Criminology.

Lloyd, C., Wollny, I., White, C., Gowland, S. and Purdon, S. (2011) ‘Monitoring and evaluation of family intervention services and projects between February 2007 and March 2011’, Research Report DFE-RR174. London: Department for Education

Standing Council on Law and Justice (2013). ‘National Indigenous Law and Justice Framework Good Practice Appendix’, Standing Council on Law and Justice Working Group on Indigenous Justice, Commonwealth of Australia.

Westminster City Council (2010) ‘Repairing broken families and rescuing fractured communities: Lessons from the frontline’, London: Local Government Leadership and City of Westminster.

Young, T., Fitzgibbon, W. and Silverstone, D. (2013). ‘The role of family in facilitating gang membership, criminality and exit’, London: London Metropolitan University

* the following describes the family circumstances at the time of writing