17 Feb 2015

'Gifted' Celia Lashlie remembered

9:12 pm on 17 February 2015

Tonight, the former prison boss, author, researcher and social commentator Celia Lashlie is being remembered for her work with teenage boys and stopping domestic violence.

Celia Lashlie

Celia Lashlie Photo: Supplied

A brief statement on her website says she died late last night from pancreatic cancer and that, while her death was unexpected, her passing was peaceful.

A convent-educated girl with a degree in Maori and a brown belt in judo, she was also New Zealand's first female prison officer to work in a male prison.

She went on to run the Christchurch's Women's Prison.

In 2001, Ms Lashlie was thrust into the national spotlight when she gave a restorative justice meeting in Wellington a vivid picture of a child who she said was already on a certain path to prison.

Here is a transcript of what she said: "He's blond with the most angelic face you can imagine and he's coming to prison and he's probably going to kill someone on his way."

The following day, Ms Lashlie lost her job as the acting head of Nelson's Specialist Education Service for breaching client confidentiality.

She later said the boy was a composite of children she had come across.

But it wasn't enough to get her reinstated and the public furore that followed prompted an investigation by the State Services Commission, which found the sacking was unfair.

Trevor Mallard - the then-Minister for State Services - said it was important the controversy was looked into.

"There was a lot of pressure for her to be reinstated, that's something [that] as the Minister of State Services of course was beyond my power.

"But, as Minister of Education, I was able to talk to the Ministry and to arrange some contracts where her expertise was in fact, subsequently picked up," he said.

Nelson MP and Cabinet minister Nick Smith said while the experience was a bruising one for Ms Lashlie, it was also a turning point.

Dr Nick Smith.

National MP Nick Smith Photo: RNZ

"It crystallised the important connection between what we do with young people at an early age and how if we don't address those issues they will compound into very expensive crime and justice issues down the track.

"I don't think it helped her personally, I know she was very bruised and battered at the time. It was a loss for Nelson in the sense that she was a superb manager of Nelson special education services," he said.

Dr Smith described Ms Lashlie as a treasure to work with.

"So many public servants are so nuanced and fearful of saying anything directly that you are scrambling around as an MP or Minister trying to work out what they really mean.

"With Celia it is absolutely direct and she is not only a very smart person in understanding social policy - in both education and corrections - but she is also an incredibly gifted communicator."

Former children's commissioner Roger McClay said she went on to become a forceful advocate, particularly for boys.

"She was a fearsome spokesperson and advocate for those who needed a voice. She tirelessly spoke out, sometimes in defence of and sometimes in explanation of, where young people's lives had got off the tracks," Mr McClay said.

Ms Lashlie went on to lead the Good Man Project, visiting boys' schools around the country talking with students to find out how they saw the world and what it meant to be a good man.

Christchurch Boys' High School took part in the programme.

Trevor McIntyre, who was the principal at the time, said Celia helped raise the profile of all boys' schools and more boys went to single-sex schools as a result of her work.

"She used to talk about the bridge of teenagehood and how young men had to walk across this bridge from the age of 13 and 14 through to 18.

"There was this really popular saying that she used to coin was that mothers need to get off the bridge and that dads needed to step on it.

"I think there was that view that mums did a lot of the nurturing when boys were younger and there was a stage during their teenage development years where dads needed to step forward and mums needed to step back," Mr McIntyre said.

Ms Lashlie went on to write He'll Be OK - considered by many to be the bible on how to raise boys.

The book sold 50,000 copies in New Zealand and twice that in Australia.

At the start of this year, she was talking with her publisher about an updated edition and planned to write three new chapters for the 10th anniversary edition.