Youth violence in Northland is a growing concern. In the second of our four-part series, Karina Cooper looks at the impact social factors have on the issue.
Each week Northland police answer the calls of around 180 family harm emergencies, ranging from heated arguments to savage attacks.
Of these callouts, officers say there is a heartbreakingly high number of children forced to watch cruel acts of emotional, physical, psychological and sexual abuse within their families - often linked to alcohol and drugs.
Despite the general perceptions of family violence in the north, research showed Te Taitokerau youth are significantly less likely to witness family violence than those in Auckland or Waikato.
But those children who are forced to be involuntary onlookers can become key contributors to the pockets of youth violence a Whangārei mother wants calmed.
Dr Terryann Clark (Ngāpuhi) - a registered comprehensive nurse with extensive experience in youth health, youth mental health, Māori health and a University of Auckland associate professor – said young witnesses to family violence become drawn into intergenerational cycles of abuse their families are lost in.
"I think violence begets violence. Children learn violence from families and actually families have learnt violence from cycles with all sorts of factors."
These factors included colonisation, racism, discrimination, poverty, equity, housing, and a long-running lack of hope.
Children who are exposed to family violence within their homes were more likely to be younger students - with no real difference between genders - and of Māori, Pacific, Asian or other ethnic descent when compared to Pākeha and other European youth, according to the government-funded Youth19 survey completed every four to five years.
Young people living in poorer neighbourhoods were also more likely to witness family violence.
A downward trend was recorded in the number of young people across Northland, Auckland, and Waikato who witnessed adults hitting other children.
Instead they reported a slight increase in the number of young people who say they see adults hitting each other.
Clark said research showed them that violence in the home also impacted families "irrespective of ethnicity or how much they earn".
Family violence muddies the messaging around appropriate behaviour for kids, who are often told not to hit others only to go home at the end of the day to a household where abuse is deemed a solution.
"We're expecting a young child to make sense of 'it's not OK to hit' but it happens at home," Clark said. "They're thinking when my family gets annoyed at me they hit me but I'm not supposed to do that when I get annoyed at other people."
Police believe the true magnitude of children witnessing family harm in Northland – and nationwide – stretched well beyond what officers encounter, as a large portion of abuse is kept behind closed doors.
However the calls they do receive about family harm from the majority of the district's police work, Whangarei-Kaipara police area commander Inspector Marty Ruth said.
A theme relevant to the rest of the region and New Zealand as a whole, Mid and Far North relieving area commander Chris McLellan said.
McLellan's 20 years in the police has seen him amass extensive experience and responsibility in the youth, community, ethnic, and family harm spaces in Northland.
A key takeaway his experience has afforded him is the difficulty afflicted families breaking cycles of family harm.
"There are communities where there have been generational issues where families have struggled to make changes and that has really affected our young ones who are often present and it's obvious when we are policing those communities," McLellan said.
Families can find themselves, for decades, struggling against Northland's housing crisis – previously explored in depth by Advocate reporter Jenny Ling's Our Hidden Homeless series.
"In terms of Northland we have challenges around shortages and the quality of housing," McLellan said. "From personal experience being further up north, we have people living in caravans and portacoms or in accommodation outlets that are supported."
Circumstances McLellan saw frustrate a family's efforts to create an environment to call home.
"It's not so much physically about the house but if you do have a house, you've got somewhere to live, to call home, you've got a connection point – a whakapapa – which is so important for creating safer homes."
Clark gave the colonisation of New Zealand as an example of another factor driving intergenerational family violence.
"Prior to colonisation hitting children was a tapu thing to do – children were really valued. Yet colonisation has taught us that you have to hit your children to get them into line," she said.
Racism and discrimination was also deemed by Clark to have contributed to "all sorts of really violent ways of dealing with behaviour".
Wellbeing statistics for the December 2020 quarter, provided by StatsNZ, revealed Northland ranked in the higher end nationally when it came to experiencing discrimination in the last 12 months.
Miriam Centre counselling service director Patsy Henderson-Watt said intergenerational family violence had the ability to hold loving parents hostage.
"I've never met a parent – and it's not just a cliche – who didn't want the best for their kids. I've met hundreds who can't because they have no other resources or because for three or four generations there has been unemployment or low-wage employment, and crap housing."
She said families in the north were in survival mode and just needed to "get through".
"These kids and families who are violent, often become designated as "bad", but they're not. They are people trying to survive. They're in trauma and their trauma are things like being hungry or sexually abused."
However, their issues were often inflamed by drugs and alcohol which Henderson-Watt said when mixed with poor role-modelling had dire consequences for young people.
Her view was echoed by Clark, who used the America's Cup as an example.
Rewind to March where images of people drinking champagne from the cup itself were littered across news outlets across the nation.
"If you look at that from the public health perspective, it is saying when you are successful and top of your game this is how you celebrate. Children see these messages, I think these are really strong, of this is what you do to show you're the best and this is how you behave."
Long-term messaging potentially reflected today in the high number of family harm incidents police attend that have links with drug and alcohol.
McLellan said methamphetamine and drug use within Northland homes remained high as indicated by wastewater.
Henderson-Watt said when the home environment stopped resembling a family kids were more at risk of prospecting in gangs.
"They get into gangs because they feel like they finally belong to a family, but also I think kids get into gangs because they think it's cool."
So how bad is youth violence?
There have always been violent people shut behind doors we didn't know about, says Miriam Centre counselling service director Patsy Henderson-Watt.
She said since the day the Miriam Centre first opened 33 years ago the demand for services had always been "massive".
"It's not worse, it has always been bad. There have always been violent people shut behind doors that you didn't know about."
Acting Senior Sergeant Christian Stainton, Area Prevention Manager, Whangārei Police said the perception youth violence is on the rise was misleading.
"There is no evidence or data to suggest there has been any increase in incidents involving youth violence or that police are attending more of these incidents."
But he acknowledged in recent months youth had been involved in a small number of violent episodes within school grounds or on school bus routes, which included arranged fighting, and were shared on social media.
Mid and Far North relieving area commander and strategic partnership manager Chris McLellan said there was definitely a large number of calls reporting youth violence.
But he hoped that was a result of the growing trust Northlanders had in police to create safety.
"We are finding the trend more recently is we are getting calls for intervention early. We are building relationships and trust with the community that when they call we come and help."
University of Auckland associate professor Dr Terryann Clark (Ngāpuhi), who has extensive experience in youth health and youth mental health, said people may be surprised to learn bullying has been trending downwards over the last 20 years.
Five per cent of the 7500 young people from Northland, Waikato and Auckland said they were bullied weekly or more often.
Girls were just as likely to be bullied as boys, Clark said.
"There is no difference by socio-economic deprivations – wealthy schools, poor schools, it's still the same and there are no differences by region."
Over the last 20 years the experiences of being hit and harmed on purpose have remained almost stagnant, minus a dip in 2012.
However, Northland students were more likely than Auckland-based kids to be hit or harmed on purpose but about as likely as Waikato youth.
Overall younger students, as well as Māori and Pacific youth, were more likely to be hit. But again, there were no socio-economic differences.
Substance use among young people in the three regions has decreased by nearly 50 per cent.
Clark said the stigma attached to Māori and people living in poverty were unwarranted as "violence is across the board".
Clark highlighted the fact there was very little difference across the regions as being "really important".
"We start thinking that our kids are the worst and everything up here is really awful but our young people are telling us they're experiencing similar challenges."
Part one: Mum's plea 'Protect our babies
Part two: Social factors
Part three: How our education systems are coping
Part four: Solutions
How to get help
If you're in danger now:
• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours or friends to ring for you.
• Run outside and head for where there are other people.
• Scream for help so that your neighbours can hear you.
• Take the children with you.
• Don't stop to get anything else.
• If you are being abused, remember it's not your fault. Violence is never okay.
Where to go for help or more information:
• Women's Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 - 0800 refuge or 0800 733 843 womensrefuge.org.nz
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633 2shine.org.nz
• It's Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 areyouok.org.nz
• Ministry of Justice: justice.govt.nz/family-justice/domestic-violence
• National Network of Stopping Violence: nnsvs.org.nz
• White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men's violence towards women, focusing this year on sexual violence and the issue of consent. whiteribbon.org.nz
How to hide your visit
Where to get help:
• If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
• If you've ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone call the confidential crisis helpline Safe to Talk on: 0800 044 334 or text 4334.
• Alternatively contact your local police station
• If you have been abused, remember it's not your fault.