Chief Children’s Commissioner Judge Frances Eivers says she is “frustrated” to see the Government’s plans to build more “prison-like facilities” for young offenders - the exact opposite of what she and successive commissioners before her have called for in asking they be shut down.
It also comes as a New Zealand delegation to the United Nations speaks of a report in which the Government claims Oranga Tamariki is “committed to reducing the use of secure care”.
Meanwhile, a clinical psychologist who has interviewed dozens of youth that have recently been through the system says any new systems need to be focused on family and community-based interventions along with highly-trained staff if they are to have any positive impact.
Dr Julia Ioane has also called for a more holistic approach - including tackling poverty - with her latest research revealing the key driver for youth offending was to get money for food.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis this week announced two new high-needs units will be built within youth justice residences aimed at older teenagers.
Hipkins said the units were in response to a recent spike in youth offending - such as ram-raids - and also needed after the introduction of 17-year-olds into the youth justice system in 2019, which had “created challenges”.
The move has been criticised by National and Act as rushed and lacking detail, while the Green Party and a raft of justice-reform-focused NGOs have accused the Government of ignoring the evidence and simply trying to appear “tough on crime”.
Hipkins said the policies - among a wider law and order package being unveiled over three days this week - were focused on “prevention, protection and accountability”.
They would also make youth residences safer and more secure, along with more focus on family group conferences and other early intervention measures to stop young people from getting into the system in the first place.
It followed other policies unveiled on Monday around youth offending and prosections, and new laws today to make ram-raids a specific offence and allow 12 and 13-year-olds to be charged in the Youth Court - meaning they could end up in ankle bracelets if required.
Hipkins said these changes were targeted at the small group of young offenders for which other intervention programmes had not worked so far.
Today’s announcement also included expanding intervention services, such as the successful “Circuit Breaker” fast-track intervention programme.
Eivers said she was “frustrated” at the policies to build more youth justice units, saying they went against what the Government was currently telling the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, where it was before the Committee Against Torture (Cat).
A Government report to the committee from 2019 stated that Oranga Tamariki was “committed to reducing the use of secure care and making secure units look and feel less stark”.
“Secure care is contrary to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children, and as recently as February 2023, the UN called on the NZ Government to invest in the development of community-based residences and to strengthen the use of non-custodial measures for offending,” Eivers said.
“This plan runs completely contrary to what the Government’s own report to the UN Cat Committee states.
“The report supports a position of therapeutic care based in communities, not increasing the number of residences.”
Eivers - as with previous commissioners - has consistently called for a reset of the entire youth justice system, and for Youth Justice residences to be phased out.
“Building more prison-like facilities for young offenders is a short-term, reactive measure. I urge the Government to focus on what would be best for young offenders and public safety alike and invest in addressing the causes of the offending.”
Eivers said it was also concerning to see the policies launched while police were currently investigating allegations of mistreatment of mokopuna in Oranga Tamariki residences.
“Yet before we even have an understanding of the extent and depth of the harm our mokopuna have experienced in these residences, there is a plan to build more?”
Eivers said given the over-representation of Māori in youth detention residences and responsibilities under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, she was disappointed to see nothing in the announcement that honours those commitments.
Eivers said there had clearly been a spike in youth offending over the past 12 months, mainly in Auckland, Hamilton and Christchurch.
Despite this, the rates of youth offending are still significantly lower than they were a decade ago, and prior to the pandemic in 2019, the rate of youth offending had decreased by 64 per cent.
“I urge the Government to rethink these measures.
“On July 12, there were 134 young people in youth justice residences in New Zealand. We don’t need to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”
Dr Julia Ioane, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in psychology at Massey University, said there was a concerning lack of detail in the Government’s plans, including what the model of care would look like and who exactly what the “high-needs units” would be for.
Ioane has just published a research paper based on the experiences of two dozen Pasifika in youth justice residences.
She found that residences and use of secure care could be effective as long as they were informed about trauma and culture, included family and community-based interventions and had well-trained staff.
“You are dealing with kids who have been disconnected from families, schools and community.
“Sometimes secure care can be effective because they get one-on-one interaction ... and sometimes that’s what these young people are seeking, to be able to have a relationship.
“The findings from my research showed that when things worked well within the justice system, it was because of the relationships they had with police, social workers, youth workers [and] staff who actually were there, that they believed and who supported them, who they had trusting relationships with.
“Where the experiences were negative, they often didn’t get that support, they were being over-promised and [the system] under-delivered. There was a lack of communication.”
She also urged them to consider long-term commitments, including training and adequately resourcing staff.
“They can’t be a quick fix, because of the complexities that the children and young people are dealing with. That’s why they’re in care.
“These are kids who have come from such horrific histories.”
Ultimately though, Ioane said the issue needed to be looked at holistically, with more focus on early intervention to stop children entering the justice system in the first place.
In her research, she found the key driver for offending was money, and most often to be able to buy food. Those she interviewed were either homeless or in families living on the breadline.
“That was the initial driver, money to buy food. But then [when] they became good at it, they realised, ‘Actually, I can get clothes with this, I can get electronics, I can get stuff and I can sell it off to gangs or other people, and I can get money’.”
One young person told her: “I wanted to do street work [using a bike to transport packages] to get cash for Nana.”
Another said before going to court that he and his two brothers were homeless.
“That’s why we done all this stuff [stealing] … surviving … it was just mainly money, things that we could, like, sell for money … some would go on food.”
“But then these kids are also just not thinking about consequences, which is part of brain development,” Ioane said.
“So it’s recognising the role of poverty. It’s not causation, but it’s a contributing factor.”