The dad of a 14-year-old allegedly involved in a spate of ram raids has spoken of fears his son will kill or be killed before the smash-and-crash rampage comes to an end.
"It's just a matter of time before they kill someone or kill themselves," he said of his son, who he believed had carried out more than 20 ram raids.
"I asked him why he was doing it and he says 'adrenalin'. And it's social media - all the time they are on their phones trying to out do each other.
"They look to film it all to get their notoriety. I blame social media."
He said dedicated TikTok and Instagram communities carried photographs and videos of crimes being committed with young people daring others to trump their criminal feats.
The young people involved in the ram raid scene also created videos showing how to steal cars and carry out other criminal acts, creating an online community afflicted by what one criminal justice expert called the "contagion" effect".
Oranga Tamariki's youth justice strategy director Ben Hannifin said the ram raids involved a small cohort of youth known to the agency who were seeking notoriety among peers and thrills.
Hannifin said six months ago the same group was stealing cars and fleeing police and - as agencies moved to deal with the ram raid phase - could then move onto a new type of criminal offending.
"They're a tough group and pose a lot of challenges."
The boy is from Auckland's central eastern suburbs but his criminal activity has had him roaming north and south of the central city.
Aged 14, his dad said it was three years since he was in a classroom. "School is over for him."
Since then, life has been a series of court hearings, family group conferences and heart-stopping periods during which he vanished before being brought home by police.
"He's done probably more than 20 (ram raids). He's been caught for four that I know of. First time he got picked up was three years ago. He and some mates robbed a bus."
By one account, the boy had faced more than 130 charges. The boy's dad said his son's charge sheet included aggravated robbery, home invasion and ram raids. He had spent time in a youth justice facility, as had his father in his own teenage years.
The boy's family life was an uncertain history of a broken home in which substance abuse was an ongoing issue.
There were periods - even recently - when it seemed his boy had settled down. Some of that was through a connection with a family friend who had a business at which the boy was able to work, learn skills and be among older role models.
And then, "he just sabotages it". The boy's dad said there were different triggers to derailed progress which included social media. He believed recent media coverage of the spate of ram raids was also a factor.
"When my son saw it on the news, he cut his bracelet off at one o'clock in the morning. He's on the run and now the police are looking for him."
His dad said the boy struggled with anger and boredom. His social media accounts - accessed through phones or public devices - allowed him to meet up with people and extend his social group.
Those social media groups also hosted content showing how to steal cars or carry out other forms of crime, he said. It also featured content in which young people could be seen stealing cars and using them for ram raids.
"There's pictures of him doing this. Some of them (with his son) are (aged) 12 or 13. And all the police can do is take them home and a half-hour later they're out the door again."
The boy's dad said the problems with his son got worse during the Covid-19 lockdowns. "The kids are just anarchy."
He said the ram raids began about 18 months ago and weren't out of an urge to make money with most of the crime financially petty.
"They're doing it out of vandalism. They get into high-speed chases (with police) and I worry about them crashing and killing someone - that he will kill someone or kill himself in the act.
"It's coming to that stage where someone is going to get hurt."
The boy's dad described the high-stakes encounters between police and his son and his son's friends - high-speed driving, road spikes over which young people raced, swerving at police cars.
"They just don't understand - we have to get them to know there are consequences.
"There has to be some way of dealing with it. There has to be a discussion. There needs to be more in place to sort these kids out - to get them away from these phones and gadgets."
The boy's dad praised police efforts and the motivations of social workers but believed systems in place to respond to youth in trouble were too slow.
The family friend who had been involved with the boy over the last three years said he had asked the boy if he could look at his criminal record and when given it counted more than 130 charges.
"I said to the police on Saturday, 'I just don't want him shot'. He used to steal a car and just drive around and then drive into a cop car. He'd just ram cop cars."
The family friend said discipline and purpose was missing from the boy's life which he had tried to provide through having around his business.
"It's important to not worry too much about the past," he said of the boy's offending. "As a community, we've got to do our bit."
He said he couldn't fault police, social workers or judges who had tried to make a difference but the answer was an environment and lifestyle change along with constant mentoring.
University of Auckland clinical psychology professor Ian Lambie, who specialises in young people, said there was an element of media-driven "moral panic" about ram raids which appeared to make more of a problem then it was.
"The vast majority of kids are going to school. The vast majority of kids are doing what they're meant to be doing."
However, he said there were ongoing underlying issues which had not changed. "A lot of this happens way before they end up in teenage years."
He said there was also an added pressure of pandemic stress and the way the world's troubles were brought closer to young people through the internet and social media.
Lambie said Oranga Tamariki appeared to be making positive changes, was lead by those who had done social work and were speaking more to communities. "That has to be a good thing."
However, he said there was a need for greater investment in youth and to focus that in schools where the definition of "education" could broaden to encompass a "life course approach".
It's actually getting better
Oranga Tamariki's Hannifin said the latest Ministry of Justice report into youth offending showed statistics from which the community could take heart.
The report, which spanned the last decade and "told us youth crime continues to fall and more rapidly so in the last five years".
Hannifin said: "It gives confidence the system is doing what it should be doing."
The youth justice report showed rates of offending by children (up to 13 years of age) had dropped 65 per cent over a decade and youth offending (14-17 years) was down 63 per cent.
As Hannifin pointed out, the benefit of a decrease in offending by children and young people could be seen in prison statistics. In March 2011, those aged 15-24 made up around 25 per cent of the prison population. Five years on, they were about 19 per cent and a decade were about 10 per cent of total prison numbers.
Hannifin described the ram raid offending as "brazen", "risky" and "volatile". He also described the possibility of a lethal outcome as "the big fear", echoing the 14-year-old's father and mentor.
He said it was believed to involve "a very small number of teenagers" known to agencies with the greatest risk of contagion in the possibility of drawing in younger siblings. He said "wrap around" approaches by those agencies involved in the children would likely see an end to the ram raid phase - but the possibility of another type of offending emerging in future.
Hannifin said the cohort of troubled teens were a group likely excluded from school. Having lost contact with the broader youth cohort that remained at school, they would "drift and drift" until they found and formed friendships with those in similar situations.
Those situations included homes with family violence, substance abuse and poor school attendance.
He said solutions involving schools offered the chance to keep troubled youth in a framework where they had support. It meant finding ways to help schools avoid turning to exclusion, he said.
Hannifin said it could include mentors who would be present in class with those who needed support and structuring a school day different to accommodate their different needs. Even making sure those young people had lunch was important, he said.
In his former Oranga Tamariki role, Hannifin supervised New Zealand's five residential youth justice centres. He said those sent there were often young people with learning difficulties or who had not attended school for years.
"School repulsed them - but after eating well, sleeping well and having staff involved then school became a joy," he said. The discovery of capability and possibility for the young person was empowering.
Hannifin said the priority in recent years was intervention to stop troubled children becoming difficult teenagers and the benefits were clear by the reduction in numbers of people across the youth justice system.
"We don't know our successes because they don't come our way. But we see less and less kids coming our way. Our success is pretty silent."
Children searching for their place
NZ Police's community focus prevention manager Inspector Brent Register said significant effort went into keeping children and young people out of courtrooms because they risked being captured by the criminal justice system.
"There's still an absolute need for those offending at that high level to be held accountable for their actions but that's always after we have tried a number of other things."
Again, Register emphasised the importance of school as a place that provided structure for children.
He said the disruption of Covid-19 and lockdowns had exacerbated existing difficulties in keeping children engaged.
Those who were teetering on the edge of a connection with activities at school were less likely to do so by remote learning - and without a direct connection with a mentor.
With children returning to school, there needed to be efforts to engage children and young people who might have drifted and to make sure there were offerings from schools to which they could connect.
Register said efforts to protect children from a future filled with offending and anti-social behaviour was seeing collaboration between agencies, such as the pilot project in Counties Manukau under the auspices of the South Auckland Social Wellbeing Board.
He said it brought together a range of agencies that covered "contributing factors to why these children go down the path they go down", from Oranga Tamariki and the Ministry of Social Development to NZ Police, Kāinga Ora and the Ministry of Education.
Generally, he said, the path to trouble began years before criminal offending began. It included issues such as poverty, substance abuse, dysfunctional families and environments in which children were victims of, or witnesses to, violence.
"These are children that are struggling to find their place in the world. There are a lot of social issues before there are criminal issues."