Tracey Benson spent her life in and out of jail, but the prison she couldn’t escape was her addiction to methamphetamine—until she attended The Salvation Army’s Hauora Programme, a partnership with the Notorious Chapter of the Mongrel Mob. Now she is helping others do ‘whatever it takes’ to get free.
Talking with Tracey Benson and hearing her speak about life is inspirational. When I called her to talk through her life journey, I was struck by the hope and gritty determination that emanates from her. There is a palpable desire to continue growing as a person, and an immense gratitude for how things have turned out. But things were not always so positive, and Tracey has had to battle to get out of some pretty dark places.
Looking back, Tracey Benson says she couldn’t identify specifically what it was that made her such a rebellious child. But at 12 years old she was made a ‘ward of the state’, says Tracey. ‘It might have been the fact that my mother and father had recently separated, but I was out of control—sniffing glue, paint and petrol, running away, and I wouldn’t listen to anything my mother said. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do.’
Between the ages of 12 and 15, Tracey was placed in foster care and put into girls’ homes in Wellington and Weymouth. ‘I would always be running away and committing minor acts of crime such as theft,’ recalls Tracey.
She finally left the Weymouth home and foster care, but says, ‘I only lasted months before I got convicted for car theft and other offences, and served my first prison sentence.’
For Tracey, this was the beginning of a journey that involved more time in prison than out, along with increasing drug use. ‘I was committing petty crime on a frequent basis,’ she says.
She had two relationships during this time, both with gang members. ‘I was carrying my first child while in prison at the age of 18, and my second child was born while I was in prison on another occasion, a little later,’ she recalls.
Tracey had three children in three years—two boys and a girl—and during this time began to really try to be a good parent. ‘But I had no idea how to do it,’ she reflects.
Her faltering steps to make a go of parenting were significantly undermined when her then-partner was released from prison. ‘I hadn’t really known him as we began to live life together, and we drifted into a life of violence, drug use and drug dealing. We ran a tinny shop for 12 years.’
While life was a struggle, there were periods of relative stability—like when Tracey got a job at Heinz–Watties in Hawke’s Bay. ‘It gave me my first real job and some structure and routine to my life.’ Her husband also got a job there, and together they bought a house.
‘Life was relatively good during this period, even though there continued to be occasional violence and dabbling with drugs,’ says Tracey. ‘It probably sounds odd to most people, but we even had gang parties at our place that were relatively enjoyable and free of violence.’
Then Tracey’s husband began to use methamphetamine. This was when Tracey began to experience serious violence again. ‘I didn’t want any part of it, so I decided to leave him,’ Tracey says.
But leaving turned out to be a process fraught with great distress and danger. ‘I experienced real violence, including having my car rammed by my husband, with me and my children in it. I never knew when he might get me. I was frightened and stressed all the time—paranoid even,’ recalls Tracey. ‘My husband even forced me to sell the house.’
It was in the immediate aftermath of this separation that Tracey began to use methamphetamine. She says, ‘I was so down-trodden and worried and there seemed to be no escape. My past experiences with the justice system and living in the culture that I was, calling the police wasn’t even an option.’
So, when a friend suggested trying methamphetamine, after an initial resistance she gave it a try. ‘When I tried it, I found it immediately took my problems away, I felt bullet-proof.’ From this first moment, and for the next 17 months, Tracey used mehamphetamine every day. ‘It completely took over my life,’ she says. ‘I became a dealer as well as a user and my life revolved around the drug. My children and other responsibilites were ignored. I left the children with whoever would take them—chasing the drug. Nothing else mattered.’
This behaviour led her back to prison. It had become part of life for Tracey. All her wider circle of whānau and friends viewed prison as a normal part of life, an ‘occupational hazard’.
‘I had become institutionalised and the structure of prison was where I felt, to some degree, the most comfortable,’ she reflects. While in prison this time, watching television, Tracey heard about the Hauora Programme—the addiction programme run in a partnership between The Salvation Army and the Notorious Chapter of the Mongrel Mob. Initially, she didn’t take too much notice of it—she was off drugs while in prison, so didn’t see it as relevant to her.
But after a disturbing prison visit from two of her children, it began to play on her mind. ‘When [my kids] visited, I could tell they were into methamphetamine. I was worried about us as a whānau. I wanted us all to get treatment individually and as a whānau.
‘The boys were adamantly opposed to getting treatment. It was only because this programme was being run in connection with the Mongel Mob—their bros—that they became willing to give it a try.’
After she was released from prison, Tracey tracked down the Notorious Chapter of the Mob, and eventually managed to get herself and her whānau into the programme.
The determination paid off: ‘When we arrived at the programme in Kākahi, I felt completely surrounded by love and fully accepted,’ recalls Tracey. ‘I knew hardly anyone, but the Mongrel Mob whānau and The Salvation Army people all hugged us and gave us such a warm welcome. Even though I was on parole, there was no judgement.’
Treatment in this safe and secure setting made it possible for Tracey and her whānau to focus on getting well without distractions. However, it was no easy ride. Tracy found that because of her lifestyle, ‘my children did not respect me. I had neglected them and they were angry. To add to that, given my many absences, we really didn’t know each other that well.
‘There were frequent arguments between us. We were given support and guidance throughout, from both The Salvation Army staff and the gang whānau, who were all so understanding.’ The programme—with its recognised alcohol and drug treatment, Māori tikanga, and inclusion of whānau—‘was just what I needed, at the time I needed it,’ she says.
After the programme was completed, Tracey was keen to get back to work and home in Hawke’s Bay. However, her children felt they needed to do a follow-up reintegration programme.
'They made it clear to me that I needed to go with them and reminded me that I had run off and left them before,’ admits Tracey. So, together, they completed a reintegration programme before returning home.
So much has happened since the programme in 2014. Tracey credits Hauora with transforming her life and that of her whānau. ‘We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for that programme,’ she says.
Over the past four years there have been many ups and downs for Tracey and her whānau, but they have stuck at it. ‘We still reflect on what was said and done at the Hauora programme, and what we learnt back then. Also, we still connect with the Mongrel Mob whānau and The Salvation Army people who were part of the programme, when we need support or encouragement. In a sense, the programme continues for us.’
Tracey felt a strong desire to educate herself about addictions and mental health. In the years since leaving the programme, she has thrown herself into relevant educational courses. This is something she found hard at first, having left school at the age of 12. But she has completed the six-month ‘Introduction to Social Services’, a ‘Mental Health and Addiction Certificate’ and a ‘Diploma in Addictions’—all at the Eastern Institute of Technology. She is currently in the process of getting an ‘Addictions Counselling Diploma’ at the University of Otago.
Tracey now works as a team leader at the ‘Whatever It Takes’ Trust in Hawke’s Bay, a community organisation with a focus on mental health and addiction support.
She continues to live life with the same Mongrel Mob whānau, in the same community she was living in before. Many people would think of this as foolishness—in fact, some people tell her so. But Tracey’s answer is full of passion: ‘I will always love my “red whānau” [red is the Mongrel Mob colour]. Over the years, when I was in and out of prison, they looked out for me, doing things for me—they were all I had.’
To her, the late Roy Dunn—leader of the Notorious Chapter—was an inspiration, guiding people out of the pain of addiction and loss. ‘I want me and my whānau to be role models for our Mongrel Mob whānau, to help people see that there is hope for a better life,’ she says.
Initially, there was fear and suspicion among some of the whānau when she returned clean and sober. ‘Someone said, “I suppose you think you’re better than us now”,’ Tracey recalls, ‘But now the suspicion has almost gone.’
Whether it’s organising an informal picnic at the gang pad for all the whānau, just being there for people to listen and support them, or her work at the local trust, Tracey is making
a real difference in her community.
From a chaotic young girl, out of control and at odds with the world, Tracey is now growing personally—along with her whānau—and ‘bringing life’ to her beloved ‘red’ whānau and the wider community. Tracey’s story of hope and transformation is a powerful example of the work of the ‘Army that brings life’, working with individuals and within marginalised communities.
(c) by Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Hutson - 'War Cry' magazine, 23 March 2019 p6-9. You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.
How Hauora Gave Gangs a Second Chance
The Hauora Programme was a partnership between The Salvation Army and the Notorious Chapter of the Mongrel Mob, to combat the scourge of ‘P’, or methamphetamine, in the gang community.
It was the late Roy Dunn, a national Mongrel Mob leader, who approached the Army for help with meth addiction—after being turned away by several other agencies. ‘The drug world loomed large on us when “P” entered the market in the way it did in New Zealand. Our whānau were being devastated. It was clear we had a huge problem,’ Roy wrote in War Cry, in 2013.
Hauora is a uniquely Māori philosophy of wellbeing, and the programme included the whole whānau. ‘Doing it as a family, you see your kids there participating with you, and given tools and stuff as a whānau, just made us appreciate one another’, said Donna, who went through the programme.
In 2017, the government cut funding for Hauora, stating that it only targeted a small group of people, and the programme was forced to close. However, Hauora was hailed as a significant success during its eight years.
An independent review— conducted by the Ministry of Health—found that as a result of participation in the Hauora Programme, methamphetamine and other drug and alcohol use had dropped, serious offending had decreased, and so had notifications to Oranga Tamariki (then CYF)