Greg Newbold

Donna Hough

  Part I


 Early in 1979 David Hall, an inmate at Christchurch Prison, read a book called Sane Asylum by Charles Hampden-Turner, which was about the Delancey Street Foundation. Convinced that a similar concept might work in New Zealand he approached Dave Robinson, a Canadian-born psychologist and probation officer who worked at the prison, and together they made plans for a residence in Christchurch.

 Like Synanon and Delancey St, SSF was originally conceived as an inmate-run program. Opened in Salisbury St, Christchurch, in October 1979, and catering initially for four clients, the facility was first located in a four-bedroomed house leased from the Methodist Mission. The Foundation was established as a charitable trust with a volunteer board of trustees and received establishment funding from the Department of Internal Affairs. From that point onward, support has been provided by the Department of Justice/Corrections, from a number of charitable trusts, and from the unemployment benefits of residents.       

 David Hall, released from prison in mid-1979, was the Foundation’s first director, supported by Dave Robinson as chairman of the board of trustees. However neither had experience with running an operation of this type. An unstructured self-governing model which they employed proved unworkable and the house was soon experiencing chronic trouble with drinking, criminal activity, disorganisation, and loss of property. Unable to control the place, Hall resigned after four months and early in 1981, the Salisbury St facility was closed.     

 Several months later, following a review by Robinson and his board, the operation was revived in St Albans St in the upper class Christchurch suburb of Merivale. The new program was set in a large, 12-bedroomed colonial homestead that had previously served as a periodic detention centre and which was leased from the Department of Justice for just a few dollars a week. These are the premises that SSF operates from today.

 From this point, the middle of 1981, the Foundation has had an unbroken but varied history. Initially, reflecting Robinson’s training as a psychologist, psychotherapy dominated the program. Intensive group therapy and self criticism, similar to that used at Delancey St, were employed in an effort to extinguish inmates’ criminal propensities and to re-socialise them into law-abiding citizens. The method won high government approval and when specific grants to residential rehabilitation programs were created in 1981, SSF received the maximum possible sum of $15,000 a year. At the end of 1981, when a government-appointed Penal Policy Review Committee presented its 232-page report to the Minister of Justice, SSF was identified as an ideal example of a community-based after-care project.

 In 1981 a fulltime director was appointed but in spite of outward appearances, systemic faults were in place. Under the Foundation’s constitution, the program was run by a volunteer board of trustees which was responsible for overall governance and which hired paid staff as necessary. The board was elected every 12 months at an Annual General Meeting that was open to the public. This not only exposed the Foundation to the risk of takeover by hostile interests, it also led to high board turnover and allowed the board to become dominated by people with little experience or expertise. The result was that for years SSF was governed by a procession of well-intentioned but unprofessional dilettantes who had poor knowledge of the client group, low commitment to formal procedures, and only a vague awareness of their constitutional mandate. Some became personally involved with residents, compromising their duties and their judgement. Faulty decision-making resulted in an organisation that lurched from crisis to crisis, with monthly board meetings characterised by bickering, indecision, and repetitive argument over matters that had already been discussed and resolved. Oversight was erratic and the duty of governance often took a back seat to personal agendas.

 Compounding the above problems was the fact that because SSF received only partial government funding, the director’s duties became overridden by the need maintain the flow of charitable finance which kept the organisation afloat. This created an atmosphere of instability and uncertainty, and distracted the director from his management duties. Since there was insufficient money to pay for full-time supervision, after-hours absenteeism, theft of SSF property, and criminal activity on site, were continuing problems. 

 Weak board leadership and financial and other stresses led to high turnover in directors. During the 1980s SSF had five different directors and between 1990 and 1997 there were eight. In 1991, by majority decision, it was decided to dispense with directors altogether, and to allow a ‘core group’ of three long-term residents to run the program. With no administrative experience, guidance or leadership, the core group soon proved calamitous. Systemic collapse was rapid and after six months the experiment was abandoned. But fickle and ill-considered board decisions continued. In 1993, for example, a newly-hired director was asked to resign after just two weeks on the job because some board members decided he was inappropriate. Under such circumstances the organisation lost directional momentum, eroding morale and boosting levels of resident defection. The Department of Corrections, which was the organisation’s principal funder, had little knowledge of what was happening. However this was soon to change.

 In 1993, following a recommendation contained in the 1989 Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into the Prisons System, an amendment to the Criminal Justice Act 1985 provided for the establishment of privately operated, fully-funded, halfway houses known as ‘habilitation centres.’ The next year applications were invited and in February 1996, after lengthy negotiations, Salisbury St was awarded New Zealand’s first habilitation centre contract.

 The move to full government funding had a major impact on SSF and marks a significant turning point in its history. First, the provision of full support ($330,000 p/a) removed the need for private fundraising and allowed the director to focus on running the program. Second, the contract required and the funding permitted, 24 hour supervision seven days a week, together with regular random drug testing of residents. This largely solved the problem of on-site criminality. Finally, under the contract the Foundation became directly responsible to the Department of Corrections, and subject thereby to strict conditions and monitoring. Now performance standards had real meaning. Consequently the board began actively to seek experienced membership and through attrition it gradually renewed itself as a professional body. In 2000, in order to prevent the risk of regression to governance methods of the past, the board abandoned the practice of public election and moved to a model of recruitment by cooptation. The board now became a committee of highly-qualified volunteer specialists with long-term and steady commitments to the organisation’s objectives.

 Consistency and stability within the board had a marked effect on operations. High director turnover ceased. David Coom, appointed as director in 1997, stayed for six years before resigning to take up another position. Lyn Voice, who replaced Coom in 2003, has remained since. The organisation became financially secure and capable of consolidating its assets. In 1995, ownership of the SSF premises had passed from the Department of Justice to the Ngai Tahu tribe as part of a Treaty of Waitangi settlement. Three years later the board of trustees raised a mortgage and purchased the Merivale property off Ngai Tahu for $320,000. In 2001 a further purchase was made in the form of a block of three, two-bedroomed flats in nearby Manchester St. Supervised by a live-in manager, these are used as supported accommodation for ex-residents. The treatment capacity of SSF has thus increased from eleven to 17. In 2009, a grant of $100,000 from the Canterbury Trust allowed the SSF premises to be completely refurbished within, creating a benign and sophisticated treatment environment for clients. 

 In 2002 the passage of the Parole Act and the Sentencing Act once again altered SSF’s legal and operational status. Habilitation centres now disappeared but the house continued to receive funding as a ‘Residential Community Centre’. At the same time the new legislation extended parole laws, thus expanding SSF’s recruitment base.              

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Address: 15 St Albans Street
P.O. Box 36-174
Christchurch NZ, 8146
Phone: (03) 355 9189
Fax: (03) 355 9123
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