Michelle Kidd in her office at Auckland District Court

Whaea Michelle, navigator of the Family Violence Court

New Zealand has some of the worst rates of family violence and abuse. Addressing those, especially in the courtroom, is about more than punishment. Teuila Fuatai reports. 

Whaea Michelle is part of Frame, a series of short documentaries produced by Wrestler for The Spinoff.

Tucked away on the third floor of the Auckland District Court house is a small office filled with  photos, letters and artwork important to Michelle Kidd. 

“Look at all these beautiful faces, kōtiro,” Kidd says as she ushers me in. “You know, I’ve got rid of a lot of things but you can’t get rid of these things because they’re all gifts.”

Babies, mums, sons, aunties and grandads – the pictures and stories span 20 years of Kidd’s work with thousands of families who struggle with homelessness, poverty, addiction, violence, abuse and mental health. 

The pressure and pain of those problems saw them cross paths with police and come into this court house, Kidd says.

Her job, which began as a volunteer then restorative justice worker with the Methodist Mission, is to support them through the court process. Over the years it has evolved as the court system has changed.

Today, she works primarily with defendants and families who come to the Auckland Family Violence Court – a specialist court formed in 2007 that directs defendants to therapeutic programmes designed to address drivers of violence. 

“It is a very special place,” Kidd says. “We see change every day.”

The court’s process is designed to wrap services around a defendant so further offending does not occur. As the court deals specifically with family violence, that often involves addressing issues related to the wider family unit, such as basic financial assistance or relationship counselling. Once a defendant pleads guilty, or is found guilty, they are directed to an appropriate community provider to undertake programmes related to their domestic violence offending. These can include stopping violence programmes, counselling and mental health services. Two Community Link workers from the Ministry of Social Development also sit in the court and will connect with a defendant before they leave if directed by the judge. Their presence ensures defendants, and their families, have access to basic benefits and assistance they are entitled to.

On the day I attended, defendants at a variety of stages in their cases appeared before the judge, Grant Fraser. In contrast with regular district court processes, Fraser – who has led the court for five years –  extensively converses with defendants in the dock. He asks them to explain their progress in programmes, or reflect on their behaviour and key relationships related to offending. While defence lawyers and advocates remain involved, the emphasis is on direct communication between Fraser and defendants. 

Kidd, who supports defendants and family members, emphasises the importance of that interaction and the court’s transparency. Her position as a navigator in the court system is also independent of the Ministry of Justice and is funded by the Te Rangimarie Charitable Trust

“There is no behind the doors,” Kidd says. “None of this talking about you. The judge engages with you. And if he engages with you, he engages with your children and all of the other things that make you a family.”

That attitude provides a unique foundation for creating change in defendants, some of whom remain in the court system for up to 18 months to complete mandatory programmes and counselling.

“There are often so many things going on,” she says. 

To begin, domestic violence offences require a period of non-contact between a defendant and the family member they’ve harmed. For many defendants, the court process also presents a path to addressing historical abuse – often another layer in family violence offending.  

“Some of our people who stand in the dock have been so abused as children that we need to send them to a place like ACC to get proper counselling,” Kidd says. 

“As children, they’ve not only been ripped physically, they’ve also been ripped emotionally, mentally. Their mamae, their pain, is so great that they turn to things that will just stop the pain – and that is the drugs, the alcohol and the violence. They’ve never had the opportunity to allow that to be spoken.

“So we address the poverty with Community Link,” Kidd says. “And the victims are addressed by the victim advisers. There is a non-association order after you have harmed someone in your family until you can get it together on your alcohol, on your violence, on your mental unwellness.

“All those things can be addressed through the Family Violence Court rather than prison.”

That sentiment is echoed by Fraser, who believes the court’s therapeutic focus is far more effective than current mainstream criminal justice models. Fraser has more than two decades experience as a member of the judiciary. Prior to his leadership of Family Violence Courts in Palmerston North, Manukau and now Auckland, he oversaw criminal and Family Court cases. His earlier career in the mainstream system gave him first-hand knowledge of the shortfalls of punitive-focused outcomes.

“I’d worked in the other way for years,” Fraser says. 

“I’d worked in a non-therapeutic environment and had been as harsh as any judge can be in terms of sentencing. But over time, the reality dawned that you can punish people, you can lock them up, you can contain them and keep the community safe for a short period of time, but they come out. 

“And there’s been no rehabilitative work undertaken whilst they’re in jail and they’re in worst shape when they go in. 

“That’s clearly not in the community interest to get that result.”

Ideally, all criminal courts would operate therapeutic models of justice, Fraser says. However, it requires an intense amount of resourcing and the right people. Overall, there are eight Family Violence Courts in New Zealand. All operate as pilot courts, and are part of a larger suite of therapeutic courts which focus on rehabilitative justice outcomes. In Auckland, there is also the New Beginnings Court (Te Kooti o Timatanga Hou) for the homeless, the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court, and the Sexual Violence Court. Nationally, nearly 60% of family violence cases come through the Auckland and Manukau courts. At any one time, about 400 cases are in the Auckland court, and about 650 are in the Manukau court.

In Auckland, Fraser attributes Kidd’s presence and work as essential to the court’s success. 

“I mean, you won’t find a Michelle in any other court because there just isn’t anyone like her,” he says. 

His own journey over the years also reflects the skills required to lead a Family Violence Court. 

“It took me a few years to basically find my voice. It’s a dialogue between me and the defendants… and it’s about getting to know them. That’s not something judges normally do.”

Extra hours of reading reports from service providers, community organisations and victims about a defendant’s progress throughout their case is also required. That understanding is critical to engaging and holding defendants to account over a prolonged period of time, Fraser says. 

And while recidivism rates are not captured by the Ministry of Justice, he points to a large stack of highlighted and tabulated papers on his office shelf. 

“That pile there is all of the positive reports I’ve got,” he says. “Transcripts of outcomes, people reporting back in positive ways. I can say in a fairly rudimentary way that not many come back. 

“It’s life-changing stuff.”

Frame is a series of short, standalone documentaries produced by Wrestler for The Spinoff. Watch more here.

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