Auckland teen finds hope after absent gang-affiliated father's prison time

A 13-year-old girl is finally receiving help for a "void" left in her life by her gang-affiliated father.

Italeigh Wiperi is a Year 9 student at Manurewa High School in Auckland. She's also one in 23,000 New Zealand children with a parent in prison.

Her father served eight years total. The last time she saw him was six months ago, by accident, in an Auckland mall - the pair are not in regular contact.

Italeigh's mother, 36-year-old student Athena Wiperi, says Italeigh used to be isolated in her thoughts and emotions about the situation.

Italeigh Wiperi.
Italeigh Wiperi. Photo credit: Supplied

"Peers at school have no idea of what she has to go through," Wiperi says.

But three years ago, things changed for the Wiperi family. Children's charity Pillars offered a volunteer mentor, who visits Italeigh fortnightly.

Cath Francis, Pillars mentor and doctor, began to build a relationship with Italeigh - eating out, cooking together, and chatting about life - providing Italeigh with a positive role model.

"If we hadn't gone in for the service of pillars... there would be that emptiness, that void, that uncertainty for Italeigh," Italeugh's mother Athena Wiperi says.

"It's really contributed to her positivity in life now."

"I have the right to be happy," a young girl says in a Pillars promotional video.
"I have the right to be happy," a young girl says in a Pillars promotional video. Photo credit: Supplied

Throughout level 4 lockdown, Italeigh and Francis regularly video called, keeping the relationship strong despite COVID-19 restrictions.

"Once we came through [lockdown], Cath was straight back at the house and at the door waiting for Italeigh," Wiperi says.

Francis hopes to show young people with incarcerated parents that they are appreciated, and can achieve whatever they want to.

"I think it's nice to be a stable role model in a child's life," Francis says.

As part of the mentor programme, Francis takes Italeigh to social events where there are other children affected by parents in prison. 

Wiperi says Italeigh feels comfortable in the spaces where she shares common ground with others.

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft says children with parents in prison face "significant challenges and trauma", so wraparound services and family support are necessary.

Francis says there's a stigma involved, and that people don't see the huge societal value in supporting the children of prisoners.

Pillars is one of the MediaWorks Foundation's national charity partners. Click here to donate.