27 Nov 2022

Relapse reports upset gang-based rehab programme

From Mediawatch, 9:08 am on 27 November 2022

A controversial gang-led drug rehab project funded by seized proceeds of crime was back in the news recently, thanks to headlines that highlighted the proportion of participants relapsing. That prompted critics to claim it had failed. Was that fair? 

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Photo: screenshot

Last year Hawke's Bay Today revealed $2.75 million seized as proceeds of crime was to be used for a new marae-based rehabilitation initiative called Kahukura. 

It was developed by Hard2Reach, a consultancy founded by Mongrel Mob life member Harry Tam who has also advised governments on youth justice and crime in the past. 

Mongrel Mob members in Hawke's Bay are key leaders of the programme designed to “reduce crime and harm from methamphetamine dependency”, especially among gang associates other rehab programmes had found hard to engage. 

But the wisdom of publicly funded rehab run by gang members was a hot topic in the media and opposition political parties claimed the government was “funding gangs.”

“The money's going straight out the back door to run the meth production units all the way through the Hawke's Bay” National Party police spokesperson Mark Mitchell claimed on Newstalk ZB at the time. 

His colleague Simeon Brown MP said he would draft a Bill to ensure no public money would ever be given to any gang. (It was actually the Health Ministry which had applied for the funding for the scheme and it later emerged the police had backed the idea too).  

The prime minister was happy to point out that this was based on a programme given a green light when National was in power in the late 2000s. 

The Hauora initiative ran from 2009 to 2017, run by the Notorious chapter of the Mongrel Mob and the Salvation Army. An independent evaluation of that in 2016 found significantly reduced drug use among the participants across those years. 

In September 2021, the Auditor-General John Ryan said “it appears  . . . there are appropriate controls for monitoring and ensuring delivery of the (Kahukura) programme”.

But last week, Stuff reported that papers released under the OIA showed that the Kahukura programme still hasn't had its effectiveness evaluated. 

And under the headline: Two thirds of gang-led drug rehab 'graduates' still using meth, Stuff said an assessment this year found that two thirds of those who'd completed the programme reported they still use methamphetamine. 

Stuff also reported “anecdotal and self-reported evidence of reduced methamphetamine use and increased employment”. 

One third of participants reported no use of meth at all in the six to 12 months since the programme. Two thirds reported better health - and 10 out of 22 unemployed participants had since found work. Also, there were no suicides among participants. 

The interim director of addictions at Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand Peter Carter then told Stuff these were “early indicators of positive results.”

“The gang-based healing project has passed the halfway stage with some positive indicators, despite some participants admitting they had used methamphetamine since graduating from their course,” rival paper Hawke's Bay Today reported when it picked up the story last Tuesday. 

It also quoted Carter's comments about the positive signs, but the paper's front page said: "The Mob-led rehab programme: Have they stopped using meth? Two-thirds admit that they have used meth since."

And it was the reported relapses that got the media's attention elsewhere. 

“The Mongrel Mob P programme in the Hawke's Bay that the government gave $2.75m to isn't working. What a surprise,” said Newstalk ZB’s Heather du Plessis-Allan this week.

“Most of them say they're using less P than they used to, but you know, they're still using. That's a twist no one saw coming,” she said sarcastically. 

Programme a failure - Crown prosecutor 

There was more bad publicity on Friday when Stuff reported Mob member Michael Skipper, who had attended the Kahukura programme, had been jailed for a meth-fuelled attack on an RSE worker.

Crown prosecutor Steve Manning said the programme had clearly been “wholly unsuccessful” and "that his pre-sentence report said there had been a consistent pattern of Skipper expressing a willingness to attend programmes, then failing to follow through".

But do relapses mean a rehabilitation programme has failed its participants - or is a failure itself? 

“Kahukura graduates who have not yet won the battle against methamphetamine should not be seen as failures by those uninterested in the complexities of addiction,” Hard2RTeach’s Harry Tam said in a statement objecting to reporting and commentary highlighting relapses.  

Given public and political concern about the proceeds of crime funding a gang-run rehab programme, isn't it fair enough for media to report on those results?

“The headline - is factually correct but it’s what it implies and other media has picked it up and jumped to that conclusion that it wasn't working,” Harry Tam told Mediawatch

“One third of your client group not relapsing is a remarkable result and the research supports that,” he said.

The Kahukura proposal to the Proceeds of Crime Fund  - later released under the OIA - said “a cluster of Mob chapters  . . . have had a noticeable increase in homicides and suicides since the end of the Notorious and Salvation Army Hauora rehabilitation.“

Frustration over lack of evaluation 

Harry Tam told Mediawatch he was frustrated the ministry hadn't engaged an evaluator to evaluate the programme - and the figures for relapses reported by media came from Hard2Reach’s own surveys of participants which were required by the Proceeds of Crime Fund conditions. 

“We asked the ministry to get on with the evaluation  . . . which was actually part of the contract. It was budgeted for us to engage an evaluator but because of the political furore, the Ministry said they will facilitate the evaluation - and they haven't done that as quickly as they should have,” he said. 

“It doesn't look like that evaluation is going to be completed until two years later - and our programme finishes next year,” he told Mediawatch.

“(Kahukura) is only an eight-week residential programme and we have an eight-week follow-up. Other programs run anywhere between eight to 12 months. If we can keep up those results - and substantiate that with evaluation - I think we're doing really well,” he said.

12072016 Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King. Harry Tam has worked in for the Government in a number of roles, he's also a member of the Mongrel Mob. His reaction to Judith Collins standing down a Black Power member, Ngapari Nui.

Harry Tam  Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King