`Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man,' claimed Catholic monks in the 16th century. In Auckland today, gangs are following their advice. Are we letting our children slip through the net and into the all-too-welcoming arms of criminals? Joseph Barratt reports
A car sits idling outside a house. A window creaks open and two scrawny legs appear. They belong to a 13-year-old girl who lowers herself to the ground. She's wearing a short skirt and low-cut top. She runs to the car, opens the passenger door.
She knows if she's gone longer than 30 minutes, people in the house will notice she is missing.
Just in time, the car pulls away from her parents' house.
She's back inside before they know she's left her bedroom. The girl is three RTDs and a pack of cigarettes richer.
SHE - and a handful of other girls, none older than 15 - were members of a small posse working as prostitutes from their parents' homes to get alcohol and cigarettes.
They were a little gang of sorts, with their own name and handshakes. There are dozens like them across Auckland: kids from any background, from any social situation.
They can be on the way to lives of crime, shoulder-tapped - or head-hunted - by adult crims, in the recruitment process for those larger, well- established gangs.
They are the sort of children that Reremoana Darlington, of the Maori Women's Welfare League in Manurewa, deals with.
She's one of hundreds. Waipareira Trust's John Tamihere, preparing for a crime summit at Parliament on Friday, estimated there were 173 groups in West Auckland alone ``putting their hands up' for youth- related matters.
The problem, says Mrs Darlington, is that too many well-intentioned agencies focus their attention on young teens. By that age, the kids have been recruited.
``We aren't catching them fast enough.'
The parents of the 13-year-old girl and her mates' parents couldn't figure out how their girls were getting alcohol until the teens developed sexually transmitted infections. One confessed.
In other cases, boys as young as nine are being signed up to what could loosely be called youth gangs. They roam the streets, often drunk, causing chaos and committing crimes.
Across Counties Manukau, there is a concentrated effort by multiple agencies to deal with youth gangs.
In recent weeks, Mrs Darlington has dealt with four teens, aged from 12 to 14, who were kicked out of their schools. None could read or write properly.
The other aspect she draws attention to is the need to involve parents. For many of these at-risk teens, acting up is a way of life. Their parents did the same, so did their parents' parents.
``The social situation breeds these little gangsters. How are you supposed to learn how to develop proper relationships or even learn to tell the truth when you've never experienced or learnt it?'
THE 13-YEAR-OLD at the top of today's Cover Story is the daughter and granddaughter of former prostitutes.
``In her mind, it was a normal situation. If it is normalised, how do we break it?
``Prostitution, gangs, thieves, it can all be generational. It's hard to break it but we have to show them the alternatives - not rubbish them and give up.'
Mrs Darlington worked with another child who was causing trouble and had joined a youth gang. Seven of that child's brothers were in jail; both parents were staunch Black Power members.
Mrs Darlington's Manurewa group works with children who are at crisis-point. It has four staff, paid through a contract with the Ministry of Social Development. The problem is, it's not enough, says Mrs Darlington.
``There is lots of money going into different organisations across the region, but not enough into groups like us working with the really young ones.'
The league receives $200 a week apart from the salaries. That provides three cars with $50 a week of petrol. The other $50 is spent on stationery.
Which leaves nothing towards other care for the kids.
``We have to work from a house we don't even own. We struggle to just be able to get Milo and oranges for the kids when they come in. You can't do an assessment if they are hungry.'
Older teens need the opportunity for education so they can get a job. Mrs Darlington begs for this help. The day we visit is the first of a two-day forklift driving course she managed to wheedle from a local training institution. The annual course trains 15 people. If a young person misses the course by a few days, they miss out entirely.
THE STREETS, says Police Inspector Jason Hewett, have quietened.
``In late 2005 there were numerous homicides and attacks. The streets are much quieter now. It's not just us that are saying it - it's the community.'
He credits an action plan drawn up in 2006 (see below) in response to the high number of youth gangs apparent at the time. But he agrees with Mrs Darlington: the earlier the action, the better the chances of success.
``With [younger kids], you have the biggest chance to put in place intervention and prevention programmes.'
Work is aimed at children from as young as 10 and says there is great cooperation among organisations.
``When you have a nine-, 10-, or 11-year-old messing up, it is unlikely he has gone out and done it off his own bat. There are usually deeper family issues at home.
``We aren't going to put that child back into a bad situation. The moment we lift them, there are a range of agencies that step in and provide a `safety blanket' to support the family.'
LIKE THE Auckland Youth Support Network, seeded with $10 million of Government money two years ago, an umbrella group of 10 national agencies, plus the Auckland and Manukau City Councils. It implements the action plan, and recently won the Prime Minister's Award for the best cross- government scheme.
Carl Crafar, the Government official responsible for tackling youth gangs, reckons more than $6 million is spent through different programmes each year, of which $3.5 million comes from reshuffled budgets from the different agencies.
But, at grassroots level, Mrs Darlington says it doesn't always appear that the groups work together. She says more cooperation and open access to funding is needed. ``Someone from Wellington has developed a programme for Manurewa and the concept is good but, in reality, it is not that effective.'
She tells of one 13-year-old boy under the wing of eight different agencies.
``A young boy with problems like this is not going to respond well to all these different adults suddenly entering his life.'
The girl who climbed out her window is on the right track, on a self-esteem course. She's learning to look and feel good without dressing provocatively. Mrs Darlington beams: ``Now she's back to looking like a normal schoolgirl.' the Auckland Youth Support Network's Action Plan. Carl Crafar, national manager for youth gangs at the Ministry of Social Development, says a lot of effort has gone into youth gangs in recent years. From his Manukau City office, he oversees an action plan tackling many of the issues. It has a three-pronged approach:
Suppression (or crisis-point), by which police and the courts remove the youths to protect the community's safety
Intervention, or getting youths out of gangs before crisis-point
Prevention, or stopping them from getting into a situation in the first place Some 23 people are employed in the region to tackle youth gangs; more than $6 million is spent each year on the plan. That goes into:
A short-term place to stay for at-risk young people picked up out-of-hours
Working with Maori and Pacific wardens
Extending services to 400 families in Papakura and Mangere
``Cops in Schools', basing five officers in 10 Counties Manukau secondary schools
More youth workers
Mr Crafar says the priorities were set in 2006 after field research. He agrees many programmes are for 14- to 17-year-olds, or even 16- and 17-year- olds.
``In 2006, when we were putting this together, those were our priorities. Kids that haven't come to the attention of police or youth [agencies] won't get referred to different agencies. But, for example, if they are truant, the school should be advising the parents, and youth social workers could refer them.'
He cites other agencies which work with younger people. ``This has been only going on for a couple of years and we will continue to learn things as we go along. We are working to build better links between the different social agencies. If we had all these support groups in place since day one, we wouldn't have to do it now.
``What it does do is provide a framework for agencies to work together instead of separate groups doing their own thing. It was never going to be an overnight fix.'
About 100 leaders from Government departments and other organisations met last Friday at Parliament to discuss the causes of crime. Police Association president Greg O'Connor said agreement is still needed from all the groups involved on what direction to take. Waipareira Trust chief executive John Tamihere said on the eve of the summit that agencies should have access to hospital maternity wards to start tackling the ``drivers of crime' from birth. Police Minister Simon Power described the summit as crucial for forming future debate. The Rev Mua Stickson-Pua -who has been working with at-risk young people for more than 20 years - feels punishment is not the answer. Jobs, education and healthcare need to be addressed first.