The good Samaritan keeping prison inmates in touch with their familiesby Clare de Lore
With her husband behind bars, Verna McFelin set out to help the children of prisoners – with breakout results.
Thirty-five years on, the couple are still together and living in Christchurch, Verna at the helm of Pillars, an organisation she established based on experience gained raising children whose father was behind bars, and Paul, a builder in semi-retirement.
Currently, there are 23,000 New Zealand children with a parent in prison. Without Pillar’s help, McFelin says, they are more than nine times more likely than other children to end up in jail themselves. Pillars has developed a wraparound service to care for families of prisoners and to find adult mentors for children whose fathers are in prison.
Pillars was launched on May 19, 1990, the day the McFelins’ youngest child turned five and with Paul still behind bars – he spent seven years in jail for the kidnapping. May 19 was also the date Prince Harry and Meghan Markle married earlier this year and, by happy coincidence, Pillars is the recipient charity of a $5000 gift from the people of New Zealand in honour of the royal marriage.
The money will kick-start a scholarship fund and caps a successful year for the organisation, which was a finalist in the Mitre 10 New Zealand Community of the Year Awards. McFelin has always been community oriented and attributes that to her upbringing.
Tell me about your early life in Oamaru …
My parents were very good at contributing to the community. They volunteered on committees; Dad was a volunteer fireman and got a 25-year service award. I have one brother and we lived a very good life, quite a sheltered life. I enjoyed school and setting goals for myself and meeting challenges. When I left school, I worked for an accountancy firm and then at the Oamaru Mail – I was a very fast typist and we were always flat out getting all the news out before midday.
Once you and Paul married, what did you do?
We ran the first pizza parlour in Oamaru. We had one of the earliest in New Zealand and were on the foodie trail – there were people pulling up in buses outside our shop and we’d then have only 15 minutes to get their pizzas done before the bus took off again. This was long before chains like Pizza Hut [reached Oamaru]. We had four children – three girls and a boy. The youngest is now 33 and the oldest 47.
What was it like to be suddenly confronted with the news that your husband has committed a serious crime?
It is a huge shock, traumatising. I had a six-week-old baby. My milk dried up immediately and I couldn’t even feed my baby. The night of the arrest, I was told by police that my husband wouldn’t be coming home. It was devastating. Then, as my lawyer drove me home, he crashed my car, so there was a lot to contend with. I wasn’t in a good state of mind – all I remember is the policewoman, who was looking after the children, leaving and that it was raining a lot.
Who supported you?
I had my parents and my husband’s parents living in town and someone said, “Who should we call?” I said, “Call the Catholic convent” – I don’t know where that came from as I’m not Catholic. I think the dominant thought was that the shock of what happened would kill my parents. I didn’t want them contacted in the middle of the night. I just wanted to protect them because I knew I wasn’t coping well.
What about the children – what happened to them?
They suffered a lot. The school the children were at had been tracing the [events related to the] crime so when they found out it was my children’s father, my children were really embarrassed. So was the school. It affected the whole community.
Despite all of that, you and Paul are still married. How did you manage to forgive him?
Very soon after his arrest I had a spiritual experience. God changed my life overnight and that led to forgiveness. The resentment went away and I realised God had a purpose for me. I hadn’t even thought of Pillars then. Now, Paul is building our family home. We live a very normal middle-class life. I run Pillars and after hours Paul comes down and does a bit of handyman work. His main role is building us a house. Despite forgiveness and building this life, there is always a stigma that sits with you. For example, it’s still hard for us to get insurance due to his conviction.
How many children and families has Pillars helped over the years?
We are a drop in the bucket. We have serviced 7000 families in 30 years and 800 children have been mentored. During that time, only four of those 800 have come to the notice of the police through offending. It costs $3000 to have a child in a mentoring programme and $7000 for a family for a year, compared to $100,000 a year to keep someone in jail. Taxpayers should be jumping up and down about this. We need a lot more Government support and funding for our work. We get 25% of our funds from the Government and the rest we seek from grants, and the generosity of New Zealanders.
What’s the role of a mentor?
Our mentors show the children different things in their lives they have never before experienced. They are part of the Pillars community; for example, fundraising for us, helping out with speaking engagements. I often hear from a mentor: “I was going to help a child, but this has changed me, it has changed my life and taught me a lot about my character and my values.”
Are dads behind bars open to the idea of someone mentoring their child?
Most of the dads in prison want someone to step up and help their children and show them things they cannot. The mentor doesn’t replace the dad – we are conscious the mentor is there to support the child as a mentor or friend but never to take on a parental role. Just because a dad is in prison doesn’t mean he is a bad father. Children love their parents regardless but they carry the stigma and shame of their parent’s sentence. They struggle if the community is ostracising the parent they love – that is an invisible sentence children serve.
In the cases where there is shaming or avoidance, is it mostly from adults or other children?
It’s usually parents involved in shaming. Five year olds will play together happily until someone says, “You can’t play with so and so; his dad’s in prison.” They need their peers so that makes it very tough.
Pillars has just produced a book. What’s the background to that?
In March last year, Pillars hosted the inaugural conference of a new international body called the International Coalition of Children of Incarcerated Parents. Experts came to Rotorua from around the world to talk about their research and advocacy for children. Liz Gordon has brought that knowledge together in a book called Contemporary Research and Analysis on the Children of Prisoners – Invisible Children. The cover design – hands on a tree – was done by our children.
What do you read?
I am a lifelong learner; I soak up information like a sponge and read a lot connected to my work. I would love to have time to read for pleasure but I don’t. I do, however, spend quite a bit of time reading people. I enjoy meeting people and learning about them and their values. Some of them may not be my values but it makes me think and I learn a lot about myself.
What’s next for Pillars?
My dream is to see family-friendly prisons, and parents in prison being treated as parents and being able to be responsible for their children – like helping with their homework. We have recently set up a Family Start programme at the Otago Corrections Facility in Dunedin. The Government was struggling to keep children of prisoners on the Family Start programmes, and asked us to run a pilot. We look at it this way: that baby has a mum and a dad, so let’s take Family Start workers into the facility with the mum and the baby where the dad is imprisoned. Parents can learn parenting skills at the whānau centre; how to bathe their baby, play with the baby – everything a dad should do with a baby. The pilot will run until June 2019 and we are hoping for good results.
Prisons must be difficult environments to make child friendly …
Yes, but at Christchurch Men’s Prison and Invercargill Prison we have set up Family Pathway Centres. Previously, children and their parents would be sitting for a couple of hours on cold, hard seats in a visiting room, with the children not being able to move. Now there is a place for the dads to bond with their children, and get down on the floor and play with them with trucks or dolls. Research shows that if you maintain family relationships during the prison sentence, there is less chance of a person reoffending. And I have seen dads who have never been involved with their children before watching other prisoners play with their children and being role models. With one guy I saw his “aha” moment. There was a huge smile as he realised the joy of being with his child, and I thought, “That’s one guy who won’t be back”.
Did the fact that this money was connected to the royal wedding, and those significant dates in your own life, add in some way to its significance for you?
I’m a fan of the royal family – as a child I thought I would like to marry Prince Charles. Being a princess seemed like a cool idea when I was three or four. It was a thrill that we were the group the Prime Minister chose for the gift, and we will probably call the scholarship the Duke and Duchess of Sussex Scholarship. We’ll add to the amount over time – there are so many bright children just needing a hand up.
This article was first published in the August 4, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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