On an unenviable path, Danielle has weathered the storms of extreme sexual violence. Illustration / Andrew Louis
Warning: This article contains references to assault, sexual assault, and child abuse.
“I basically resigned myself to dying.”
Danielle* is a survivor, born into Aotearoa’s gang scene. The North Island mother has been what police
call “gang-affiliated” since before she could walk.
On an unenviable path, Danielle has weathered the storms of extreme sexual violence, which reached a crescendo a few years ago in a harrowing attack upon her by a former partner.
What followed were threats, more violence, multiple court dates, and debilitating anxiety.
But her story begins long ago, at a time where, like many who are born gang-associated, she was taken into the care of the state.
Sitting in her living room, fighting back tears, Danielle told the Herald of her journey through the foster system, where she says she moved between 18 homes.
Her Plunket book, a space that usually documents the milestones in young children’s lives, holds a secret so harrowing it’s still hard for her to share.
“I had an STI [because I’d been abused] – but the level of care given to me was me being told that I should apparently drink more water.
“We’re here born with a significant drop in life conditions from the moment we’re conceived, we’re here at the tomb at the age of 45.”
At 11, in a different foster home, Danielle says she was also sexually abused by an older man who was her foster father’s dad.
This pain Danielle has carried since her childhood still haunts her, and she feared her children would also face a similar fate.
“I’m third generation [in a gang]. This lifestyle, it’s intergenerational.”
Danielle says within months of her leaving a violent relationship she was almost killed by her former partner – in front of her young daughter.
After the assault, Danielle told the Herald she was comforted by friends and did not initially go to police because she says it’s not what gang-associated women do.
“That’s not safe for us. They start announcing our name over coms, our addresses, who we are and then everyone knows what we’ve done and we’re a target.”
Initially, the main barrier to Danielle leaving her situation was mental, but Danielle says there were also a lot of physical blocks in place preventing her from getting help.
She was often physically trapped in her house and isolated from other people.
Her former partner would look through her messages “all the time” and Danielle said she found it hard to trust authorities because of things she says happened to her while she was in state care.
Danielle says speaking out could also make her a red-flag to the state and worried about her relationship with the police.
An expert spoken to by the Herald says there are informal controls used by gangs which mean “narking” to the police is seen as such an unacceptable thing to do.
Superintendent Kelly Ryan, though, says police treat the safety and security of everyone who calls for assistance with the utmost importance and understand how difficult calling for help can be.
“If a person is concerned for their safety and fears that having their name and address broadcast over the police radio would endanger them further, police would take this concern seriously.”
Danielle did eventually come forward with her story and gave evidence against her former partner in court.
“I didn’t know if it counted. If I wasn’t conscious, would they believe me? I was in fear of wondering if I do anything about this, what will they do to me?”
To help protect her identity, the Herald is not divulging specific details about the court case, but Danielle said the process was traumatic.
With wet cheeks, she detailed her harrowing years in and out of court, which she says resulted in a sentence for her partner that didn’t fit the crime.
“He’d get more if he sold meth…I’m worth less than a bag of crack to the system.”
On top of the stress of her court case, Danielle claims accessing ACC support has been extremely difficult.
“Not only are there no Māori counsellors that we can access easily, but there are also no counsellors that specialise in gang violence, are there?”
ACC doesn’t track the number of Māori counsellors contracted to sensitive claims like this, but says that is changing.
ACC chief operating officer Mike Tulley said to address concerns that Māori do not access services at the same rate as other ethnic groups, they are building Kaupapa Māori Health Services to support clients with sensitive claims and serious injuries.
Although Danielle feels safer now her former partner is in prison, she is concerned about him getting out and says it’s only a matter of time before he is released.
Corrections say it is committed to treating victims with respect and the Parole Board notifies registered victims of the decision to release someone.
Why leaving isn’t easy
Some may question why Danielle maintains ties to gangs when she has suffered immeasurable hurt at the hands of some members – but it’s all she’s known.
University of Canterbury director of criminal justice Jarrod Gilbert said those who believed it was simple for women just to leave the gang scene were mistaken.
“Anyone who thinks that it’s as simple as women leaving the gang scene, I don’t think they understand violent relationships, they certainly don’t understand the gangs.”
Lawyer Tania Te Whenua believes the situation faced by Māori women and their children associated with gangs is often “impossible”.
“Though it may be easy for onlookers to say Māori women shouldn’t get themselves in the situations, Māori women should just leave the gangs or they should not commit the crimes. That simplistic view of what is an extremely complex situation has failed us in this country to date,” she said at the time.
Te Whenua believes gangs are a refuge for some from the trauma of colonisation and a society which inherently disadvantages and marginalises Māori.
“The culture that society has of blaming gang members for any trauma that they may suffer as a result of this onslaught is hypocritical, unsophisticated and only leads to further failures of the system to proactively, adequately support and protect them.”
Stuck in the cycle
Danielle believes gang-affiliated women are stuck in a cycle.
She says the relentless roundabout of disadvantage begins before children are born. Some start on the back block because of fetal alcohol syndrome or drug use.
“We’re second-class citizens in our own country of birth.”
Next, she says, the child may move into care, taking them away from their whakapapa and in the past this has certainly put them at risk of abuse.
Others can fall down the justice system rabbit hole – spiralling from small offences during their teens into larger sentences as they get older.
And Danielle says when young women become mums themselves, some fear the consequences of reaching out for help.
“They don’t even want to tell a midwife they’re pregnant because s***, she’s may contact Oranga Tamariki and they may take this baby from birth. She’s not going to see a doctor because she’s been given a hiding, what’s she going to explain to him?” Danielle said.
Mongrel Mob Wāhine Toa leader Paula Ormsby told the Herald things are incredibly tough for gang-associated wāhine Māori.
She says many will often not disclose their gang affiliations when they’re trying to get government housing because this can lead to them facing prejudice.
In doing so, Ormsby says the women are at risk of being placed in opposition gang territory.
“That ripples through their own mental health, children being able to go outside and play, you not walking them to schools.”
Ormsby said reporting domestic abuse is also a particularly difficult tightrope to tread for gang associated-women, because calling the cops will lead to notifications going to Oranga Tamariki, which can cause children to be uplifted.
“[The Māori Party’s] Donna Pokere-Phillips uses the analogy ‘from the womb to the tomb’ and sadly enough, this is what has been happening in this country. Our children are incarcerated from the womb.”
Danielle, though, says she’s broken the chain and was proud of her two children.
Her eldest daughter has just completed a degree and her youngest is reading at a level well above her age.
It’s taken years for Danielle to find the courage to speak out, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.
“If you need help because you’re not coping and you’re getting hurt, reach out we understand we know hurt people hurt people, but sometimes hurt people like me can also help you heal.”
She says women in abusive relationships reading this right now may be wondering what they’re going to do, and says her only advice is for them to make a plan.
“Make it about you. Because until you do you’re going to keep losing you and worst of all your kids will probably lose you.”
*Danielle’s name has been changed to protect her identity.