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Breaking the cycle

YOU sleep under your bed or in your wardrobe to escape sexual abuse each night. That started when you were just 15 months old. You watch your mother being beaten each day. There are constant parties, drinking and drugs.

You run away from home at 13 to join the Mongrel Mob. From then on you suffer domestic abuse at the hands of every partner you are with, and you think you deserve it. You are deeply involved in gang crime and give birth to your first child at 15.

By age 19 you have three kids, your partner still beats you. You are committing crimes for the mob weekly to survive. You are lonely and you feel worthless.

You continue this cycle, have another child, are in and out of prison and all of a sudden you are 25. What do you do next?

This is not the start of a “choose your own fate” novel, this is Gisborne woman Tricia Walsh’s story.

“My whanau ticked every box for how not to raise your children — and if you do raise them that way, the low expectations they have and their outlook on life.

“It was horrific. I would hide just waiting for whoever was going to come sneaking into my room that night. When your parents are drinking and fighting, they are not there to make sure you are safe,” she says.

Just before Tricia turned 25 her partner and other mob members stole drugs from a chemist. That night her partner’s sister overdosed and died. Tricia found her and that was the final straw. She decided she did not want her kids to live the gang life.

“My parents were not, but the rest of my whanau were all gang members, the kid’s dad was in the mob. I think my mum wanted differently for us but she was raised in the same environment and you only do what you know.”

She left and escaped with her children to Napier Women’s Refuge. This marked the start of two fear-filled years waiting for her children’s Mongrel Mob father to hunt them down.

“It took a while to realise that I was doing the right thing. You go through that grief of leaving that person and your family. Every time I would get a phone call or he showed up, I would have to move houses and change the kids’ school.”

When they were found, Tricia and the kids would complete the same ritual — grab your stuff, get in the car and leave.

During her last Napier refuge stint, the children’s father found them again and set fire to the house with them inside.

“We had to smash a window to get out. There has been a lot of trauma. When I was younger my dad got drunk and set our house on fire, and my brothers had to jump out the window. Our life has been traumatic.”

Tired of running, Tricia eventually left the Napier refuge and went to the Palmerston North one. She says she was determined for her children to have a house where they were safe and loved. She did her best, there was food on the table and they were happy, but it was a lifestyle maintained by Tricia selling drugs. She had started to use methamphetamine.

Prison sentencePolice eventually busted Tricia for dealing and she was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison at age 38.

She served three-and-a-half years inside and the rest on probation, after leaving prison in 2008 at 42. That marked her last stint in jail — six years in total over four different occasions from previous drug and assault charges.

“Meth turned me into someone I did not recognise. There was this desperation that I was going to die this despicable person. I would just cry because that was my reality.

“Prison is a lonely place but I truly believe I would have died from the drug use without it. Prison, as horrible as it sounds, was my ticket out.”

When she was inside, Tricia says she had a vision of what life after prison would be like.

“I was going to do everything differently and be the best mum, but when I got out my kids had grown up and did not need me any more.

“So I went back to that trough I knew, of being the same hurt and damaged little girl. I have lived my life self-harming because that is what I was brought up to do. I was always hurting and drugs were how I coped.”

Her youngest son was having none of it. At the time she was well on her way to the 10 grandchildren she has now — another is due in February — her son gave her an ultimatum; the meth or your mokopuna.

“He said, ‘I know you can do it, you are the strongest person

I have ever met, you can do anything and I will walk beside you

however long it takes. We will do it together’.“That helped me realise I was not alone.”

There have been hiccups along the way, sometimes the ghosts of her past do appear, but things are good.

“There has been so much pain. I was still in nappies when my father started abusing me. There is grief for the loss of my childhood and my children’s.”

Since 2008 Tricia has been on a mission. Drugs and crime are not even a blip on her radar. From dropping out of school at 13, through all of her mistakes and hardships, she has now gone back to her education and is studying Te Tohu Paetahi Nga Poutoko Whakarara Oranga, a Bachelor of Social Work at Te Wananga o Aotearoa’s Whirikoka campus. However, she can never be a social worker because of her criminal convictions.

“I am using it as a platform to do my masters. My study is about me being the best person I can be and role modelling for my community, and most importantly my grandchildren.”

Studying social work has helped Tricia understand herself on a deeper level.

“Four years ago my mum died. I used to blame her for everything, she should have known my father was a beast. But when she died I realised that we are each responsible for our actions and our lives.

“If you take away all of those negative influences, every child would have a similar chance and opportunities. But with that lifestyle all you see is a world that does not love you, and one you cannot trust.”

Tricia is already well involved in many community initiatives and events, but she says a big motivator for carrying on with her education is to get to a place where she has the academic standing to change some of the policies around crime and children.

“I think we need more opportunities for adult learners. Policy at the moment makes it harder for the vulnerable with bad histories to be employed or educated, like they were meant to be all along.

“We also need to be more aware as a community and support whanau through challenges, so our kids grow up to be healthy and happy. Do not turn a blind eye, because if you are not cared for in your own home then you will not care for your neighbour — and that affects absolutely everyone. There were so many opportunities in my childhood where someone could have stepped in and said, ‘Are you OK?’ But no one ever asked.”

Tricia says the cycle needs to be broken by the entire community, as a whole.

“I have only just started to learn this properly through my study. I was beaten at home so I would go out and beat others. All of our children will mix at some stage, so we need to change that. It has really highlighted how important it is to create options and to actually do something.

Where is the change?“You hear all sorts in meetings: ‘This family is high risk, this family is that’. But what does that mean? Where is the change happening? We need to be more proactive. No matter what side of town you live on, we all have the same goals for our children. We want the best.”

Tricia says she knows there is no magic wand that will stop what happened to her from happening to other children, but she has faith that she can help.

“May the challenges I faced act as motivation for others. I am so blessed now. I have a beautiful relationship with my children and I love them with all my heart.

“I must have done something right, because they are all very well-rounded adults. I see my mokopuna every day and they are so happy. They could have been raised the way I was if we did not have strong whanau bonds.”

Tricia wants those in similar positions to know it is never too late to change.

“My life has been a lifelong education. I will be 50 next year. I looked through a sad lens for a long time and it took me nearly 50 years to wake up and see the world.”

When she looks back on herself at 15, holding her first child, Tricia says she was a sad, lonely girl fighting for survival. Now her words are a testament to redemption and overcoming adversity.

“I am strong, I am passionate — I am proud.”

MANA AND MOKOPUNA: Tricia Walsh with six of her 10 mokopuna. She says through all her hardships her children and grandchildren have been her motivation. From left Layla, Riley, Tricia holding Tawhiri, Myah, Vaelyhn and Ella. She has one more little grandbaby due in February. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell
FIGHT FOR LIFE: Tricia is part of the blue team for this year's Life Education Trust Fight For Life fundraising event. Tricia's childhood and life experiences mean the cause is something very close to her heart and her reason for entering. She will be fighting Alana Nepe at the November 13 event. Picture by Brennan Thomas of Strike Photography

  1. Ihari Tekiri says:

    Hi Tricia, Richard Tehei here, my true name is Ihari Tekiri. Well done – what u were is not u. Who u are now – a rose that has fully blossomed. Heaps of wairua to u and your whanau. Kakiteano

    1. Karen Cameron says:

      What a truly lovely message. And I couldn’t have penned it better. Bless

  2. Anonymous, Napier says:

    That’s terrible – and that there are girls still in situations like this. How can we help them if they don’t tell anyone? Hell, I live in Maraenui, it’s probably rife. And it doesn’t have to be that way . . . I had my child at 15 too, but nothing like you, I had a loving partner, a happy relationship, right up until he died – old. My child grew up happy, his child is happy.
    That’s an awful story . . . good on your son for stopping it.
    You have my sympathy – what a terrible childhood.

  3. Valerie Wilkinson, Auckland says:

    Hi Tricia, I have just watched the documentary of you in “I Am”. I am amazed how you have turned your life around, with everything that you have been through. When you have been brought up in a loving family, you have no idea how the other half live, and the way you came across with your story was so moving. I can only say to you that you can be very proud of yourself and your wonderful kids.

  4. Bobbi, Whangarei says:

    You are an inspiration to not only Maori women but all women.
    And I think that you should not be penalised for your criminal record, it has made you who you are and your whanau, friends and community can only benefit from your experiences. You’ve been there done that, know what it’s like and can now help others get back on the straight and narrow.
    God bless

  5. Karen Cameron, Auckland says:

    Dear Tricia
    I watched I Am twice last night. I believe some people are definitely born “bad” – and you are not one of them. You were clearly born inherently “good”.
    I think you are the most courageous woman ever. The odds of you coming out of what you have been through and have your sanity intact is nothing short of miraculous. You are amazing. To instil the love and values upon your children, despite the horrendous adversity and challenges you faced, leaves me speechless. And who would blame you for wanting to numb out reality?
    What you went through was like walking through a football field of fire – and coming out not only alive, but stronger, not bitter or twisted, not broken. Though I am sure you had a hell of a journey to get where you are now – post drugs and violence. Love and strength to you.
    I had a tenant – very much like you. In and out of prison – drugs – 3 children taken off her. She was not a bad person either . . . but surrounded by family with criminal intentions pulling her back in to the life of crime and drugs – though thankfully not the violence that you suffered.

  6. Compassionate fellow NZer, Waikato says:

    Tricia your story is such a powerful one. My husband and I watched it last night and I was moved to tears often as I listened to your story unfold. It is so distressing to think that this kind of childhood is being experienced here in NZ even today. It feels wrong that parents can have such power in a child’s life to enact such physical, emotional and sexual damage. It’s just wrong on all counts and so hard to tolerate even the thought that it occurs. Thank you for sharing your story – ignorance is not bliss. Everybody needs to know this is happening in NZ so that no-one can turn a blind eye. It needs to be rooted out in every neighbourhood so that no-one can beat up on or rape their whanau members (or anyone else!) – gang or no gang. It is an abomination. I wish we all could give you a fresh start without abuse and fear, but given that we can’t, we all need to celebrate what you have been able to bring about in your own adult life and in the lives of your mokopuna. Congratulations, you are a stunning woman.