Ashburton woman Bronnie McKenna (left) and Verna McFelin are helping families who have a parent, children or siblings in jail.

By Linda Clarke

When Bronnie McKenna’s 20-year-old son went to jail, all the oxygen was sucked out of her world.

The Ashburton woman said no parent planned or prepared for that moment. She did not know where to turn for advice.

It would be eight days before she could speak to her son by phone and eight weeks before she saw him in person.

Bronnie says they were dark times for her family and there was little information available in Mid Canterbury. She now wants to help other families who have a parent, child or sibling in jail.

With $8000 funding from the Advance Ashburton Charitable Foundation, Bronnie has set up PALS, a Mid Canterbury support group for families with inmates.

She says up to 50 families in the district are dealing with a family member behind bars and could benefit from the group.

It has the backing of the national organisation Pillars, set up by Oamaru woman Verna McFelin whose husband was jailed in 1984 for his part in the abduction for ransom of a teenage girl.

Verna said the organisation she established was based on the experience gained raising four children whose father was in jail.

“It was hard, we knew nothing about prison.”

There are around 23,000 children of inmates in New Zealand, she was to learn, and they are 10 times more likely to end up in prison themselves.

Verna was in Ashburton last week to support Bronnie as she launched the Mid Canterbury support group, which will meet every two weeks in the Base youth centre, on Burnett Street.

It will be a place to chat, share experiences and advice.

Bronnie says it is just over 1000 days since her son was arrested and charged with murder; he admitted stabbing another young man and was sentenced to life in prison.

“A much-loved son, brother and grandson was put in prison and not until December 13, 2029 is he eligible for parole. We became a minority, we were the family of a lifer.”

Bronnie, who works in restorative justice, said finding help and advice had been hard, even with the support of her parents and husband.

“It was an isolating, unforgiving and frustrating experience.”

In a “sink or swim” moment, she decided she wanted to make life better for other families who might find themselves in the same spot. The oxygen came back.

She started a Facebook page – Supporting and Educating Families of Prisoners NZ – for families nationwide and approached Pillars about the possibility of starting a support group in Ashburton to reach other families on their own journeys in the corrections system.

Pillars helps families with members in jail, or on home or community detention.

Verna said families carried a lot of shame when a loved one went to jail and children wore scars that could last a lifetime. Pillars has toolkits for families, lawyers and teachers – with good advice and information for helping improve outcomes for children caught up in a custodial sentence.

There is also a mentoring programme for children and resources that are available for inmates.

The first meeting of the Mid Canterbury support group in Ashburton will be on Monday, March 16. Bronnie said it would be a forum that was respectful of victims, the corrections system and inmates.

“It is not for slagging off the system, it is there to support, guide and back each other. It is to help each other find answers.”

Bronnie is also available to talk to groups like social workers and teachers who are dealing with vulnerable children.

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