It’s the right path for me”: Findings from an aromatawai of Te Ira Wahine

Dr Bronwyn Morrison
Acting General Manager, Research and Analysis, Ara Poutama Aotearoa (Department of Corrections)

Kym Hamilton
Managing Director, Karearea: Institute for Change
Technical Advisor, National Iwi Chairs Forum: Pou Tikanga and Iwi Monitoring Mechanism for the United National Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Layla Lyndon-Tonga,
Service Manager Auckland, Te Hā Oranga, Te Runanga o Ngāti Whātua

Author biographies

Bronwyn Morrison has a PhD in Criminology from Keele University, UK. She has worked in government research and evaluation roles for the last 15 years. She joined Ara Poutama Aotearoa (Department of Corrections) in 2015 as a Principal Research Adviser. She has previously conducted research on women and drinking, post release experiences of people leaving prison, the needs of people on custodial remand, women and imprisonment, family violence, public perceptions of crime and safety, and victimisation. She is also a proud member of the Arohata Book Club.

Kym Hamilton (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngā Rauru, Ngāti Raukawa) is a kaupapa Māori researcher, evaluator, strategist and facilitator. She has worked with and for Iwi organisations, government and the not for profit sector for 17 years. She is the managing director of Karearea: Institute for Change, a partnership company with the mission to create social and organisational change, through evaluation, research, facilitation and innovation. She has conducted research and evaluation across a range of justice programmes and strategies, te reo revitalisation, Māori education, family violence, health innovation, rangatahi and mental health, whānau ora, equity, housing, employment and training, Te Tiriti o Waitangi and regional regeneration. Kym is also a technical advisor to the National Iwi Chairs Forum: Pou Tikanga and Iwi Monitoring Mechanism for the United National Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and has assisted with projects for Pou Tikanga including the pandemic response, Aotearoa 2020 Vision and Constitutional Transformation.

Layla Lyndon-Tonga (Ngāti Porou, Ngā Puhi) holds the role of Service Manager Auckland at Te Hā Oranga, Te Runanga o Ngāti Whātua and brings with her more than 10 years of Māori health leadership in the Māori non-government sector. An array of expertise and skills are at the helm with Layla’s continued support for Māori development now integrated through the services being delivered at Auckland Women’s Corrections Facility. The team consists of peer support, clinical, cultural and social work expertise and with an enormous amount of groundwork undertaken by Consumers, Whānau and Wāhine of Te Hā Oranga, support for integrating the Hōkai Rangi Strategy across all work streams has been a seamless process.

Kupu Arataki: Introduction

“I knew by doing it, it’s the right path for me. With Te Ira Wahine, because it’s a Māori programme, it gives you a sense of belonging … it just makes you feel at peace within yourself and spiritually connected. It just made me feel like I belong somewhere.”

“I’ve done many courses … but this is the only course I’ve done where they’ve actually made me feel good, not just in my mind, but in my mind, body and soul.”

“It actually showed me that there are people willing to help you … it felt like I mattered. They made me feel like I mattered.”

“If there is going to be anything that snaps us out of our way of thinking, our constant chain of coming back to jail, this is the closest thing … because this is what will stop a lot of behaviours, a lot of us re-offending, all this support. These people love us.”

“This course has brought some sort of light that there is a way out of this world.”

(Programme participants)

Te Ira Wahine (refers to “the divine spark of woman”) is an eight-week kaupapa Māori alcohol and other drug (AOD) programme delivered to remand-convicted and sentenced wāhine in high security at Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility (ARWCF). It is delivered by Te Hā Oranga of Ngāti Whātua rūnanga.

Te Ira Wahine was designed by Māori, for Māori. Those with experience of addiction and imprisonment helped inform the programme’s design. The programme includes group-based sessions, which focus on tikanga, whakapapa, Tiriti o Waitangi, and exploring the impact of colonisation on wāhine Māori. It incorporates Māori treatment models, such as Te Whare Tapa Whā, and re-envisions Western clinical approaches to AOD treatment (including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) and the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Step Programme) through Māori epistemology. Kapa haka, matāuranga Māori, Māori cosmology, the Māori calendar and pūrākau (Māori narratives) are utilised in the programme delivery. Te Ira Wahine addresses links between AOD use and offending.

Alongside group sessions, Te Ira Wahine includes individual sessions delivered by clinical staff, and an aftercare service. The aftercare service involves group-based sessions delivered by clinicians to wāhine who have transitioned to low security. The programme has a dedicated reintegration kaimahi (staff member) who helps to prepare wāhine for release and provides post-release support to wāhine in the community. In addition to their contract with Ara Poutama Aotearoa, Ngāti Whātua operate a community-based kapa haka recovery group, He Waka Eke Noa. Several Te Ira Wahine graduates were attending this group following their return to the community.

Te Ira Wahine began as a pilot in May 2018. Since this time, 65 wāhine have started the programme and 44 wāhine have completed it.[1] In June 2019, the programme was reviewed by an evaluator from Ara Poutama Aotearoa working in partnership with an independent kaupapa Māori evaluator from Karearea Institute for Change. The aromatawai (review) design incorporated many kaupapa Māori principles[2], including:

  • examining the broader custodial operating environment of the programme
  • focusing on how the programme worked for wāhine rather than solely on what content was taught
  • adopting a strengths-based approach by understanding what works and why, as well as identifying opportunities for further strengthening the programme
  • reducing power imbalances between the researcher and the researched throughout all phases of the research (kau e takahia te mana o te tangata – do not trample on the mana of people)
  • maximising aroha, manaaki, whanaungatanga and respect during the research process (aroha ki te tangata – a respect for the people)
  • privileging the views of Māori wāhine, providers, and other stakeholders (titiro, whakarongo, kōrero – look, listen, then speak)
  • privileging face-to-face interactions (kanohi kitea – present yourself to the people face to face)
  • practicing reciprocity through provision of kōha and sharing knowledge (manaaki ki te tangata – share and host people, be generous)
  • increasing participation of programme stakeholders in the review (kaua e māhaki – don’t flaunt your knowledge).

The aromatawai explored the following questions:

  • What happened during the initial design and implementation of Te Ira Wahine? What worked well and why?
  • How is Te Ira Wāhine operating in practice? What works well and why? What aspects of the programme could be improved?
  • How are whānau involved in the programme and with what effects?
  • How does the context in which Te Ira Wahine operates affect delivery? How can the operating context best support programme outcomes?
  • What impact is the programme having on wāhine and what could be done to enhance and sustain positive impacts?

The aromatawai was based on in-depth semi-structured interviews with Te Ira Wahine stakeholders, including: programme participants (tauira), Te Hā Oranga kaimahi and management, ARWCF kaimahi, including prison management, the site kaitiaki (guardian), pōu tūhono (Māori reintegration officer based in low security), a prison scheduler, case management staff, the principal advisor for rehabilitation and learning (PARL), as well as Corrections officers working in high and low security environments. In total, 36 interviews were completed, with each lasting between one and two hours. While most interviews took place in prison, four wāhine were interviewed in the community. Nine of the 16 wāhine interviewed had completed the programme. Four were currently on the programme at the time of the aromatawai, two had been exited from the programme, and one had been released prior to completing the programme. All interviews were recorded with participants’ permission, transcribed and analysed alongside administrative data using NVivo (a qualitative data analysis software package). The evaluation utilised the Ara Poutama Aotearoa values (ūara): Manaakitanga, Whanaungatanga, Wairuatanga, Kaitaikitanga, Rangatiratanga, as well as the additional ARWCF values of Oritetanga (balance) and Whare Tangata (the womb/house of humanity) to guide the analysis.

A meaningful values and tikanga-based evaluation partnership between the two evaluators of Te Ira Wahine enabled the voices and determinations of wāhine participants to be central to the aromatawai. The aromatawai required trust between those participating and those conducting the evaluation, the challenging of bias and the “taken for granted”, the sharing of power and whakapapa (genealogy). One of the most powerful wananga during the aromatawai was the reading aloud of wāhine kōrero (participant feedback) by participants and staff to share findings and insights. This wananga allowed for the aromatawai to be acknowledged and heard explicitly through wāhine kōrero and was an emotional experience that connected the information back to the purpose of the aromatawai and the programme.

Ngā hua: Findings

Ngā tauira: Who participated?

Analysis of the first six cohorts of Te Ira Wahine revealed that most tauira identified as Māori (93%) and had a younger age profile than the general women’s prison population, with two-thirds under the age of 25 at the start of the programme. Tauira most commonly identified as Ngā Puhi, followed by Tainui and Tuhoe. They typically began Te Ira Wahine with strong backgrounds in tikanga, with most having attended kōhanga reo, kura kaupapa, and kapa haka groups as children and young people. Most also grew up alongside whānau active on their marae. Overall, Te Ira Wahine worked best for wāhine with at least some background in tikanga and te reo and/or a desire to learn more.

Wāhine often arrived at Te Ira Wahine with high and complex needs. These needs included high levels of recent AOD use (particularly methamphetamine) and histories of prolonged AOD use, with many wāhine having used alcohol and other drugs at harmful levels for a decade or more. Many had histories of trauma, including experiences of childhood neglect, violence and/or sexual abuse. Around a third presented with mental health issues, including post traumatic stress disorder, post-natal depression, general anxiety disorder (GAD), and depression. Many of the wāhine interviewed reported whānau histories of intergenerational AOD abuse. Most were gang affiliated and over half had recent convictions for violent offending. While many had histories of previous imprisonment, most had little or no experience of prison-based rehabilitation programmes, having previously served short sentences or only spent time in prison as remand prisoners. Te Hā Oranga was working with wāhine with significant needs and little prior experience of group therapy.

Of the 42 wāhine who started Te Ira Wahine at the time of the aromatawai (August 2019) 28 had completed it. Excluding those women on remand who were released prior to completing the programme, the completion rate for the programme was 80%. This exceeded the expectations of the service outcome agreement and is equivalent to other programmes offered in women’s prisons.

Ngā Whakaaweawe: What impact did the programme have?

Wāhine identified more than 40 positive impacts associated with the programme. The most frequently mentioned impacts were:

  • increased motivation, pro-social goal setting (including aspirations for desistance and sobriety)
  • increased whanaungatanga (connection)
  • an enduring sense of tautoko (support)
  • uplifted wairua and a new feeling of tūmanako (hope/optimism)
  • increased rangatiratanga: self-determination, increased personal agency
  • mana Māori: a sense of pride in being Māori
  • turangawaewae: a feeling of belonging and finding one’s place (often facilitated through identifying whakapapa/genealogy and whakapapa connections)
  • improved emotional management
  • whānau (re)connection.

Wāhine summed up the impact of the programme in the following ways:

“What I got out of it was that it brought me back to my roots … where I’m from, you know, my people. I identified that I’m a Māori, and I lost that.”

“It was mending my wairua, because my wairua was broken. Everything in my Te Whare Tapa Whā was broken.”

“When I did that course, it gave me hope … that’s the biggest thing I took from it.”

“They’re teaching me to just feel belonging again and just to feel like someone does care.”

“Now I am stepping in the right direction for me, and they are not telling me which direction to go in, they’ve just guided me and I am choosing the direction or path I want to take.”

“I believe it will help me to achieve the goals I’ve set: a crime free lifestyle and other core things … I believe it has opened up a big pathway for me to be able to get those sorted.”

Staff and wāhine reported better emotional management amongst Te Ira Wahine tauira, with the number of misconducts declining during and post programme. Three quarters of wāhine who undertook the programme as sentenced prisoners (as opposed to remand prisoners) had transitioned to low security following the programme suggesting an improvement in, or continuation of, “good behaviour”.

In terms of re-offending, just over half of the wāhine who had completed the programme at the time of the aromatawai had been released (n=23), and few had been released for more than 12 months. This prevents the completion of standard Departmental re-offending calculations. Despite this, initial re-offending results appear promising. Keeping in mind the seriousness of participants’ previous offending and addiction issues, just five had been reconvicted of new offences since release, and none at a greater level of seriousness[3].

Ngā Otinga: What worked?

The aromatawai focused on understanding how Te Ira Wahine “worked” from the perspective of wāhine. Wāhine identified a number of factors which they felt were critical to the programme’s success. These are discussed briefly below.

Highly skilled and authentic facilitators

The most important success factor was a strong facilitation team, reflecting the values of whanaungatanga and manaakitanga. Wāhine said they found Te Ira Wahine facilitators to be genuine and authentic, caring and compassionate, trustworthy and non-judgmental. Wāhine spoke of the importance of facilitators speaking to them “at the same level” and being honest and direct. Wāhine particularly valued the presence of peer support workers within the facilitation team, who openly shared learnings from their own recovery journeys. As one wahine noted:

“It’s inspiring hearing their stories, you know, how they’ve gone from being that person to just changing their ways and how they’ve gone through recovery. Just hearing it, I think, I can do that too, now I want to do that, I want to be that person. The similarities, I can really relate to a lot of their stories so it gives me hope that I can change too.”

Wāhine also commented favourably on the involvement of male facilitators in the programme. They explained that male staff brought important balance (ōritetanga) to the programme and made the programme feel more “normal” (noa). Wāhine appreciated that male kaimahi offered different perspectives on healthy relationship dynamics, which, in turn, helped some women critically re-evaluate their intimate relationships and understand the contributory role these played in their AOD use. Several wāhine commented on the importance of having Māori staff delivering the programme, which they felt increased their engagement. Many also commented favourably about the Pākehā facilitator. As one Māori facilitator put it, “There is so much skill and expertise that whether you’re Māori or not has nothing to do with it. In that therapeutic space there’s no race, there’s no ethnicity: there’s just hope”.

Building a recovery whānau

The whanaungatanga developed between wāhine on the programme was also identified as a strength by participants. This was developed through whakapapa connections discovered by wāhine as they learned and shared their pepeha. Whakapapa helped wāhine feel connected and obtain the support and encouragement needed to make positive changes. In this respect the programme was contributing towards the Hōkai Rangi whakapapa outcome: Māori in the care and management of Ara Poutama Aotearoa are supported to have a sense of their cultural identity, connection to people and place, and a sense of belonging. Wāhine often reported starting the programme feeling isolated and lonely but left with a wide group of friends similarly focused on making positive changes. Wāhine described feeling accountable to other wāhine on the programme and felt a sense of belonging to a recovery whānau within the prison. The tuakana/teina model employed on the programme strengthened whanaungatanga and many women reported commencing the programme due to encouragement of Te Ira Wahine graduates. Te Ira Wahine permitted graduates to intermittently attend the programme in an informal capacity, which further enhanced connections between wāhine and provided strong motivation for wāhine still in high security to progress to lower security classifications.

Kapa haka

Kapa haka was widely identified a programme strength and represented a central means through which women developed and strengthened relationships between each other and with Te Hā Oranga kaimahi. Kapa haka provided an immediate sense of belonging and connection, and encouraged a sense of pride in “being Māori”. Kapa haka required wāhine to work together as a group. Wāhine reported that once they had sung in front of other participants, sharing more personal aspects about their lives in a group setting came more easily. Wāhine also reported that kapa haka and karakia improved their focus by enabling them to let go of difficulties and dramas happening in units and focus fully on programme content. Some wāhine suggested that kapa haka provided an important sense of normalcy to what was an abnormal environment:

With the waiata and the haka … it takes the tapu out, it brings the norm back into the zone, meaning how we deal with heavy subjects or things within ourselves and all the things we are trying to heal … for me all that, all that pain and that, it’s tapu and it’s something I want to keep safe and locked … so when we are singing we bring out the tapu. The haka and waiata, just the kapa haka in general, to me that’s cleansing, it’s bringing us back to the normal … it’s really uplifting.”

Kapa haka was a form of trauma-informed practice. Kapa haka was also taught as an emotional management tool, with wāhine encouraged to utilise haka (particularly, the recovery haka, E Tu Ha!) to manage their anger and pain inside prison and beyond. Kapa haka provided a strong motivation for women to enrol in the programme. Many wāhine reported that hearing others return from the programme, upbeat and singing waiata, encouraged them to do Te Ira Wahine.

Post release, several women attended He Waka Eke Noa (a community-based kapa haka recovery group operating in central Auckland with Te Hā Oranga o Ngāti Whātua). Like Te Ira Wahine, He Waka Eke Noa was viewed as a positive and supportive experience. He Waka Eke Noa is open to both men and women in recovery and their whānau. Attendance is voluntary. Participants sing waiata and haka, share celebrations, challenges, and kai. Individual clinical support is available in the sessions to participants as required. The group also travels throughout the region to tangi and other functions to tautoko (support) members of the recovery community and their whānau. Those interviewed in the community who attended, credited He Waka Eke Noa as being a key reason for their ongoing sobriety and desistance from offending.

Enduring tautoko

The ongoing support offered by Te Ira Wahine was identified by wāhine as a key point of difference, which set Te Ira Wahine apart from other programmes. Wāhine understood that they would be supported for as long as they needed post programme, and that this support extended beyond prison and into the community. This support took many forms, including prison-based clinical and peer support, and reintegration support. A number of women had transitioned from the programme into residential community-based AOD programmes, where they continued to receive regular support from Te Ira Wahine facilitators and the reintegration kaimahi. As one wahine noted, “having that guidance in there to full on have that tautoko when you get out, it was just awesome … if it wasn’t for [Te Hā Oranga] I wouldn’t be sitting here right now”.

Te Whare Tapa Whā model

From the perspectives of wāhine, the precise content of the programme was less important than other aspects of the programme delivery; however, wāhine enjoyed the holistic focus of the programme rather than focusing narrowly on drug and alcohol addiction. Many wāhine noted that Te Ira Wahine had helped them to understand why they used drugs and alcohol, providing a necessary foundation on which to make positive changes. Mason Durie’s Te Whare Tapa Whā resonated strongly with wāhine, who said that thinking about different dimensions of wellbeing was a useful way to identify where changes were needed in their lives (Durie, 1994). As one wāhine observed, “So, you look at a house, and in that house, the four walls, and if any of those walls fall down, the house falls with it … it all made sense when you look at it being a Māori”. Wāhine valued the one-to-one counselling sessions provided by clinical staff, which enabled sensitive issues and historical trauma to be more fully disclosed and appropriately supported.

Whakawhanake: Opportunities for improvement

The aromatawai identified several opportunities for improvement. Key recommendations included:

Strengthening programme design and implementation

It was agreed by stakeholders that it would be useful to have an established framework in place to guide co-design practice, to ensure Māori, including mana whenua, can be meaningfully involved in the design and implementation of new programmes and services. The aromatawai found that more could be done to leverage existing matāuranga Māori and Māori clinical expertise within Ara Poutama Aotearoa when designing new programmes. Site-based stakeholders should be included in the design of new programmes to ensure local knowledge is incorporated. For this to occur, iwi and Department stakeholders agreed that more flexibility for pilot timeframes is needed to allow key relationships to be developed and stakeholders to be meaningfully included in the process.

Lengthening the programme duration

It was unanimously agreed by stakeholders that given the high and complex needs of wāhine in high security, more time was needed on the programme to fully address trauma and achieve enduring change. It was widely felt that extending the programme from eight to 12 weeks would be advantageous. This would also enable more time to meaningfully involve whānau in the programme.

Increasing access to tikanga

Te Hā Oranga felt that participant responsivity would be enhanced by expanding the range of opportunities to practice or apply programme tikanga. Raranga (weaving), rongoā (Māori traditional herbal medicine), ahu whenua/mara kai (Māori horticulture) were identified as possible additions to the programme. Facilitators wanted the flexibility to deliver some programme sessions outside on an adjacent lawn to enable wāhine to reconnect with the whenua (land) and Papatūānuku (earth mother) and reiterated the importance of having continued access to Papa Mauri, the marae at ARWCF, for celebrating programme milestones.

Additional content was needed for dealing with grief, giving up smoking and short-term goal setting

Although most wāhine were satisfied with the programme content, there were several gaps identified. Wāhine wanted more support to deal with grief, which many reported had contributed to their AOD use. Acknowledging the association between smoking and other addictions, wāhine also reported they would like more support for giving up smoking. Finally, recognising that around a third of wāhine had some time between programme completion and parole eligibility, more help was wanted to identify short-term goals and access meaningful education, training and employment opportunities within prison.

Extending and enhancing aftercare

There was widespread belief that more could be done to provide a seamless Māori pathway across these services and interventions for wāhine. All stakeholders agreed that the aftercare model associated with the programme could be improved with better links between the programme and other tikanga-based services and activities in prison. For example, Mirimiri Te Aroha (the Māori focus unit at ARWCF), the pou tūhono (Māori navigator associated with Mirimiri Te Aroha), the site kaitiaki, tikanga programmes, and the Māori women’s leadership course could support ongoing programme gains. Relatedly, wāhine wanted greater cultural authenticity within mainstream rehabilitation programmes. Wāhine also wanted better connections between the programme reintegration kaimahi and education, training and employment services to ensure their short-term goals identified through the programme could be achieved. Wāhine were particularly keen to see aftercare provision extended to high security and wanted a kapa haka-based recovery community to be created within the prison. Wāhine further noted the importance of prison-based staff supporting their recovery journeys by recognising and championing kaupapa Māori interventions and tikanga practice within the prison.

One year on from the aromatawai: Reflections from Te Hā Oranga

We have observed excellent progress with the programme delivery since the aromatawai. The programme continues to be flexible and applies learnings in real-time, so the changes are meaningful. The programme has evolved from being a one-off eight week intensive treatment programme, which addresses alcohol and drug problems, to a holistic wraparound service for wāhine Māori, strengthening the Te Hā Oranga commitment as an iwi health service in Tamaki Makaurau (Auckland), to care for and cater to the needs of whānau who reside there.

The responsibility for kaitiakitanga and manaakitanga is something Te Hā Oranga takes seriously. As such, mahi has been undertaken to strengthen the aftercare associated with the programme since the aromatawai. A Te Ira Wahine community recovery group is being developed for wāhine who have left prison and remain in the Auckland area (although the group also plans to do some travel to other regions). The recovery group will focus on progressing the growth of the programme beyond the eight-week prison-based programme into the homes and lifestyles of the wāhine we have been privileged to meet. This is not a funded kaupapa, but an important learning we have courageously adopted to meet the needs of the wāhine and whānau we serve. The group focuses on the development of life skills to ensure the cycle of recidivism is disrupted and that tamariki and whānau become the beneficiaries of these efforts.

As part of this mahi, Te Hā Oranga is supporting some wāhine to develop peer support skills and qualifications which pave the way to new employment opportunities. Te Hā Oranga has a long-term commitment to providing tautoko (support) to wāhine and facilitating employment opportunities for Te Ira Wahine graduates. We have a strong belief in the power of those with lived experience to influence change and support the development of new behaviours in a Corrections’ environment. Our team remains strong and continues to flourish with the inclusion of peer support workers. The addition of kuia and kaumatua as a fixed feature of the programme is a further achievement in our opinion.

Wāhine Māori are a critical part of the future and should be at the forefront of leading our pēpi and rangatahi toward achieving their true potential. The more wāhine we can support to confidently assume their role as mothers, future change makers and heroes to many, the more we will see the landscape of our society improve. We know that the experiences of the wāhine speak to the success of Te Ira Wahine and we look forward to continuing to achieve our kaupapa.

“Kaua e mahue atu tētahi ki waho.”

“Don't leave anybody out.”

[1] Delivery was affected by COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

[2] These principles are derived from the work of Māori kairangahau (researchers), Linda Tuwhai Smith (2001) and Cram (2001).

[3] Based on the Ministry of Justice Seriousness Scale.