WARNING: This article, or links to it, contains information about suicide.

A loophole in the law which could place children at risk is under scrutiny by Children's minister Anne Tolley after warnings from the coroner investigating the death of a 13-year-old.

Cabinet minister Anne Tolley said she had asked for advice on the coroner's recommendations, which were to extend background checks on those seeking work with children to include any professional bodies they had been kicked out of.

At the moment, the law does not compel people - such as teachers - to admit they had previously been registered and then rejected for wrong-doing.


The law came under the spotlight during the inquest into the death of Reiha McLelland, 13, who took her life after the end of an intense relationship with her former teacher Sam Back, 43, who taught her at Gisborne Intermediate.

No evidence was found of sexual relationship but Back was banned from working as a teacher after evidence of sleepovers at his home and the exchange of 4000 text messages in three months.

As the law currently stands, there is nothing to compel Back to declare his ban as a teacher should he seek work with young people which could mean his contact with Reiha would not be revealed.

Tolley said: "It's always incredibly sad when a young person takes their own life, and my deepest sympathies go out to Reiha McLelland's family and friends.

"I have not yet had the chance to read the coroner's report, but if there are recommendations that could help prevent tragic events like this happening again then I will consider them very seriously.

"I have asked officials to provide me with advice on the recommendations made. I will decide how to proceed once I've received this advice."

The Vulnerable Children Act, passed in 2014, compels those seeking to work with children to declare membership of professional bodies, such as the Education Council, so they can be checked out.

But Coroner Carla na Nagara said the law made no mention of those kicked out of professional bodies, like Back, which meant the details of his relationship with Reiha could go unnoticed.


"If a person has been subject of serious disciplinary action by a professional body there is a real chance that they will no longer belong to that body.

"The disciplinary action and the conduct to which it pertains, will not be brought to the attention of the entity undertaking the safety check."

She called the loophole "troubling", saying the case involving Back and Reiha was an illustration of the gap in the law.

Na Nagara said the law needed to be changed to broaden checks beyond the professional bodies to which people currently belonged. The change would see those people wanting to work with children having to declare the organisations to which they previously belonged.

Her finding into Reiha's death did not conclude that the relationship with Back was the cause of the teenager's death, but that it was the "most startling of the factual matrix" preceding it.

Gisborne teacher Sam Back. Photo / Supplied
Gisborne teacher Sam Back. Photo / Supplied

The loss of the relationship was a "primary stressor to Reiha in the last three months of her life".

Na Nagara said Reiha had been suffering "low mood and emotional disregulation" through 2013.

When Back became aware of her struggles, he should have encouraged her to speak with her family or seek professional help.

Instead, his attempts to "be a mentor and counsellor" from October 2013 to February 2014 "isolated her from her family" and gave her a way to focus on her pain and distress instead of a means to work through it.

At the points Back could have ended contact, na Nagara found he worked to encourage further "entanglement" and to have Reiha keep their developing relationship secret from her family.

When the relationship was discovered, the failure of Back and his partner Angie Mepham to tell others what they knew of Reiha's struggles undermined efforts to help and treat her.

The "understandable" focus by police, mental health professionals and Reiha's family on discovering whether there was a sexual element meant there was a shift in the support the teen had been receiving.

The coroner said she did not accept Back's explanations or justifications. "He struck me as entirely concerned for and focused on his own needs and circumstances and lacking any insight into the impact of his conduct on Reiha."

Na Nagara said "Reiha was a loved and cherished child and that she in turn loved her parents, her siblings and all her other relatives".

But she said Reiha "struggled to feel emotionally connected with her parents" as she became the only child at home on the family farm 50km from Gisborne although she "clearly also loved her parents, and they her".

Reiha's parents Bruce and Hinemoa McLelland, told the Herald that Back betrayed their faith with the relationship he had with their daughter, and they feared he would do it again.

Hinemoa, a district nurse, said Back appeared to be "stunted" in his emotional growth, which could have been why he connected well with teenagers.

"The bit where he comes undone is when he starts crossing boundaries without being aware of it, or if he is aware of it.

"My fear is he will pick up a job somewhere like a church group. Those type of people tend to put themselves in a position where he's around young people and because he's white, middle class, he'll get away with it."

The lawyer acting for the family, Moira Macnab, said the recommendation to close the loophole was "the most significant part of the determination".

If changed, it would mean that any effort by Back to work with children again "would bring up this serious inappropriate behaviour".

She said the legal requirement that physical contact was needed to criminalise grooming failed to account for "serious psychological damage", such as that suffered by Reiha.

Back and Mepham previously said they had prepared a statement which they would release after the finding becomes public.

They responded to Herald questions about the case, saying: "We believe we mattered to Reiha. She came to us for support, and she was appreciative of the support we provided.

"We also believe that the loss of that support was difficult for Reiha."

The email from Mepham, which spoke for the couple, said they believed "the role we have been placed in with regards to the events that led up to Reiha's death is inaccurate".

The email said the couple had not "tried to isolate Reiha from her family or develop any kind of relationship past one of compassion and support".

Back said: "My relationship with Reiha was one of support. She reached out for support and I treated her as I would treat anyone; with respect, kindness and compassion."

Mepham said: "I agree; we allowed Reiha the space to be herself."


If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

Or if you need to talk to someone else:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (Mon-Fri 1pm to 10pm. Sat-Sun 3pm-10pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
Samaritans 0800 726 666