Warning: This article is about youth suicide and may be distressing for some readers.

The agency charged with protecting vulnerable children took a "step back" from supporting the teen who took her life after an intense relationship with a teacher, an email shows.

The now defunct-Child Youth and Family service did so while telling police it had staff with children who had been taught by the same teacher so would make the file "confidential" in its office.

The decision has led to questions over CYF's decision-making by Moira Macnab, the lawyer acting for the family of Reiha McLelland, who took her life aged 13 in 2014.


Macnab said it was impossible to know if CYF's involvement would have made a difference in caring for Reiha after the relationship with teacher Sam Back was discovered.

"But you've got to look at the fact they stepped back from their normal procedures and didn't take the steps they normally should take."

She said there did not appear to be an understanding as to how traumatising the relationship with Back had been and CYF could have brought an expertise that others did not.

She said the family's concern was to ensure there was appropriate multi-agency support for children in Reiha's situation.

"There's a high population of vulnerable children in Gisborne. I see inquests as the start of a conversation - what can we do better? How can we work constructively towards next time?"

CYF became involved when Reiha was receiving care at Gisborne hospital in April 2014, after hospital staff saw her and teacher Sam Back holding hands. Photo / Supplied
CYF became involved when Reiha was receiving care at Gisborne hospital in April 2014, after hospital staff saw her and teacher Sam Back holding hands. Photo / Supplied

CYF became involved when Reiha was receiving care at Gisborne hospital for mental health issues in April 2014, after hospital staff saw her and Back holding hands while lying on her bed.

It was the sighting which led to a referral to CYF and the discovery by Reiha's mother, Hinemoa McLelland, of text messages between the pair which appeared to refer to her sleeping over at his home.

CYF notified police which launched an investigation into the nature of the relationship.

Police found no evidence to support charges, although there was concern over the nature of the relationship and the 4000 text messages Reiha and Back exchanged in just three months.

When the investigation was launched, an email sent by a CYF manager in Gisborne to the trainee detective handling the case stated: "After some deliberating here, our position would be to take a step back from our usual practice of actively investigating and interviewing Reiha and of having these discussions with her parents ourselves."

She went on to state that it was important to bring the issues up with Reiha in a "coordinated way" would show "sensitivity and tact" given her mental health issues. It would also "preserve the collation of information/evidence".

"One last thing, as I said, we have historical and current staff members here whose children are taught by Sam so (staff member) has also made this case on our site confidential."

Ministry for Vulnerable Children deputy chief executive Alison McDonald said there was no "formal review" of CYF's involvement but "the agency did informally take a look at its practice".

"No shortcomings were identified regarding any of the staff involved. They acted appropriately and professionally."

McDonald said the ministry was working to carry out the recommendations the coroner had made in relation to a loophole in the Vulnerable Children's Act.

The coroner's recommendations said a change to the law was needed to broaden requirements on people seeking to work with children beyond simply notifying employers or community organisers of their current membership in professional bodies, such as teacher registration.

The law change required would see that requirement extend to those who had been kicked out of those bodies - like Back, who has been banned from working as a teacher.

"The Ministry is committed to working with other agencies to implement these recommendations, with the goal of ensuring that a tragedy like this does not happen again."

A spokeswoman for Minister for Vulnerable Children Anne Tolley said she was waiting on advice from officials but expected to take action before the election.


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.


LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• SUICIDE CRISIS HELPLINE: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)