5 July 2023

Charmaine’s story: Wellbeing and whānau the key to change

Charmaine Roberts was just 15 when she left school.

Subjected to racism and underwhelmed with an education system where she felt she didn’t quite fit.

But it’s that hurt, she says, and feeling of injustice which has helped shape her career and the person she is today.  

“At Ara Poutama Aotearoa – Department of Corrections, I have the opportunity to influence change and those lived experiences over the years where me, my children, my siblings and my mother experienced racism and hardship because of being Māori, I suppose I use that strength and my self-belief to be the voice of those people to ensure we do better.”

“And I know that if we do better for Māori, we do better for everyone,” says the now National Bail Services Manager.

Prior to commencing work at Ara Poutama Aotearoa, Charmaine found herself as a single mum, working in a male dominated workforce, undertaking a physically intensive, manual labour role at a factory in Whanganui. 

Her first application to work at Ara Poutama Aotearoa was rejected, but Charmaine was determined to follow in the footsteps of her uncles who were Prisons Officers and lived in the Prison Villages at Whanganui, Rangipo and Waikune Prisons. 

“I think your ‘why’ changes over time because you’re changing and growing as a person and likewise with your career. But within the village community I felt a sense of belonging and camaraderie and I saw that being a Corrections Officer was an opportunity to be better for my whānau and for my child,” says Charmaine.

On July 3rd, 1997, Charmaine put on the uniform for the first time, walking through the grounds where she had spent her summers and past the District Office (the then social club) where her kuia celebrated her 70th birthday with whānau.

Back then there was no outer wire around the prison; staff just walked or drove in.

“Given I have been with Ara Poutama Aotearoa for 26 years. I think that says a lot. There’s a lot of opportunity. I love the work that we do. I live in hope that people can change.”

Change is one thing Charmaine has got used to. She’s held many roles in the intervening decades, but it’s in her current job where she believes she can make the most difference.

“As the National Manager for Bail Support Services, I lead our team helping people at the beginning of their journey within the justice system and it’s really, really rewarding.”

“Being able to understand their social needs so that you can actually address the issues and to steer them away from that justice journey and potentially be the ambulance at the top of the cliff, rather than the bottom.”

When asked how she feels about the disproportionate number of Māori in prison, Charmaine pauses.

It’s a statistic that unsettles her, but one she believes can be reduced with the new service being rolled out across the motu.

“Through the pilot we discovered that if we can intervene and wrap support around all of the areas impacting on people’s welfare and what’s driving the alleged offending at that time, we have better success with people.”

When a person is remanded in custody it can have a detrimental effect on them and their family. From job security, to housing, financial and mental wellbeing as well as their perceived place in society.

“It could mean because of the additional information that we provide to the judge; a person might get bailed in the community or remanded in custody with the ability to apply for electronic monitoring bail.”

Day to day Charmaine travels the country helping to implement the new service and ensuring staff have the knowledge and training to help uplift those in their care.

She’s deeply passionate about it on a professional and a personal level, revealing that Bail Support Services would have made a significant difference when a close whānau member was navigating their way through the justice and in particular the prison system.

“So, I’ve been that person going into a prison environment and visiting, where some interactions have been super encouraging and positive, and there have been other interactions where there’s room for improvement.  I know what that feels like when your loved one is removed from your whānau circle, feeling helpless and that the system doesn’t work for or support you.  That remains at the forefront of my mind, ensuring people have awareness of our processes, our systems and that they're treated with respect.”

“Having the support of kaimahi [employees] connecting with others that can assist with these factors is an absolute advantage and often leads to increased self-management. Having people who are passionate and understand the kaupapa can determine a successful pathway for the people.”

While Charmaine determined her own pathway, she knows not everyone has the support network her younger self did.

“I feel accomplished in many ways when I reflect on my journey to date. It hasn’t been without its challenges and setbacks but has allowed me to pave the way to do things differently and become the person I am today,” says Charmaine.

“I've thought about other opportunities outside of Ara Poutama Aotearoa, updated my CV, have gone to push send on the application, but have never gone through with it, I'm not finished. You know, there's always more to do and I can see myself being here until I retire. I just love the opportunity to assist in changing people's lives.”

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