A question of violence

BAD ATTITUDES: Victoria University clinical psychologist Associate Professor Devon Polaschek says violence is an index of the health of society.
Kevin Stent/Sunday Star-Times
BAD ATTITUDES: Victoria University clinical psychologist Associate Professor Devon Polaschek says violence is an index of the health of society.

Reporters last week shared tales of appalling violence on New Zealand streets, and aggression against police. In the past few days Ombudsman Mel Smith called for a royal commission of inquiry into criminal justice estimating crime and justice costs $9.1 billion annually. What makes people violent and how can we reduce it? Mary Jane Boland reports.

"I grew up with a long-term abhorrence of violence ... I've never seen Once Were Warriors. Violence really upsets me." It's an unusual statement for a woman who has spent the past decade treating violent offenders.

Victoria University clinical psychologist Associate Professor Devon Polaschek became interested in violence about 20 years ago when the then-Justice Department offered a chance to study anger management and alcohol in prisons. She has since dealt with hundreds of inmates and has recently been involved in rehabilitation at the Violence Prevention Unit in Wellington's Rimutaka Prison.

Polaschek found last week's violence stories frustrating, especially police remarks about violent women. Crime statistics show women are becoming more violent but she says the policeman's impression is misleading men still account for more violence than women. Polaschek says some people are genetically predisposed towards violence but there is a mixture of factors that results in convictions for violence.

"It's incredibly frustrating when people have an attitude that it's because of one specific thing. It's a consequence of a whole bunch of things. Overall it's an index of the health of society really."

A three-year-old girl is facing expulsion from her Christchurch preschool because staff say her behaviour is among the worst they have ever seen. The girl began going to the preschool when she was nine months old. However, her mother said yesterday the preschool told her that her daughter had become physically and verbally abusive, and she had to improve or she would not be allowed back.

Christchurch Press, November 21.

Research like the Dunedin multidisciplinary study, which has followed children since their birth 30 years ago, shows genetics, lack of early intervention to control children's behaviour and the environment a child grows up in, all contribute to violent behaviour.

"There are people you can identify even as preschoolers," says Polaschek. About Time, a Corrections Department study released six years ago, recommended more should be done to stop children from socially and economically disadvantaged families growing up into a life of crime. It said it costs $5000 to stop a five-year-old's aggressive behaviour, with a success rate of 70%. Intervention with a 20-year-old costs $20,000 and has a success rate of 20%.

Polaschek says: "The most aggressive violent people in society are toddlers. They hit each other all the time. What is disturbing is when that doesn't change."

Short-tempered, difficult-to-manage children often have parents with similar temperaments. Some of their families spend less time with them than wealthier families, the parents may be involved with drugs or alcohol and usually don't have the skills to handle their child. "I can tell you with great confidence," Polaschek says, "that the men at high risk [of violence] have unifyingly horrifying histories of abuse and neglect."

At sentencing, Justice Robert Fisher said psychologists found Bailey Kurariki to have average to high intelligence, poor verbal skills, low self-esteem and a desire to impress those older than himself.

News reports in 2002 about the sentencing of New Zealand's youngest killer. He was 12 when he acted as a decoy and signalman for friends who killed pizza delivery worker Michael Choy.

Polaschek says attitudes at home permeate children's attitudes when they are at school: "They believe the world is hostile and dangerous and other people are out to get them."

Children like Kurariki become increasingly disruptive and hang around with peer groups that endorse subversive behaviour. Polaschek is not allowed to talk about individual offenders Kurariki is in jail and must be released next year but says violent behaviour doesn't come out of the blue. Triggers for violence are things that wouldn't affect most rational thinkers, she says. Those inclined to violence are likely to think "you're going to mess with me" if they're bumped in the street.

Drug or alcohol abuse in high school becomes common, as does truancy. Violent teens often have families or guardians who are either absent or encourage them to look after number one and become a good fighter. A lack of empathy is common, Polaschek says.

"Parents will often report they have no control over their kids. They may know they're up to stuff and are at a loss to know how to deal with it. By adolescence there is heavy involvement in anti-social behaviour. Some of the worst crimes are committed by adolescents they are the most criminally involved in society."

With that isolation comes the increased influence of peers. Self-esteem becomes linked to which group you're involved with and provides the perfect incentive to join a gang.

"Puffing is the posturing when their shirts go off and they tie their shoe laces up tighter. It may be to do with the fact they are going to kick someone."

Dr Nick Wilson, Corrections Department psychological services national research adviser, in Sunday Star-Times, December 2.

Teen gangs have emerged as a growing problem in New Zealand society, and here Polaschek blames the media in its wider sense. Kids access rap music, their heroes are American gangsters, and many embrace violent movies and video games. Scientists know such exposure can make young people behave violently, especially as their already thwarted sense of reality has made them increasingly desensitised to violence.

Polaschek says Corrections' About Time study made a good case for intervening with teenagers, even though the success rates reduce with age.

The Campaign for Action on Family Violence is a four-year "It's not OK" campaign which aims to get people thinking about violence, ways to stop it, and the importance of seeking help. It includes lots of community-based work funded by the Ministry of Social Development which emphasises the value of good parenting, better support for couples, and for those who have separated.

But more needs to be done. Principal Youth Court judge Andrew Becroft has publicly criticised social and educational agencies for not doing enough to reduce truancy and resolve issues before teens appear in his court.

Polaschek says violence is difficult for any government to address because there is always a plea from some vocal groups to lock up people for life.

Many studies have shown prison is ineffective at stopping recidivism. At Rimutaka, Polaschek and her colleagues have been trying to address the reasons for offenders' behaviour in a bid to prevent reoffending. Their research shows the reconviction rate for violent offences was 23% higher among men who hadn't done the violence prevention unit programme. Most are hardened criminals in their 20s and 30s, forced to spend several hours daily for seven months being up-front about their offending.

"People have these ideas that rehabilitation is a cushy option, but it's hard work," Polaschek says.

"These men have to explain to their peers that they have done something that is often abhorrent, and account for themselves.

"A lot of them would rather not be doing that."

The programme is considered world-leading in its success rates.

Polaschek is involved in another study, thanks to a Marsden Fund grant, called Fast-Start.

It assesses violent offenders' thinking and examines the relationship between explicit and hidden thoughts, and the impact of rehabilitation.

"We have to protect the community from men who are a high risk, but we also have to be involved in interventions early," she says.

"The answers are difficult and messy. Really, all of us should be asking what contribution should we be trying to make to improve the quality of New Zealand society, and the quality and treatment of New Zealand children."

Sunday Star Times