WARNING: Graphic content and suicide references
Children and teens have described prison-like conditions, self-harm, bullying and sexual behaviour in a stark new report into secure youth care homes.
Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft says the current model of "care and protection residences" must be made a thing of the past following his agency's distressing new study: "A Hard Place to Be Happy".
The Commission's latest report is a collection of descriptions of the facilities in their residents' own words.
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Care and protection residences are locked facilities run by Oranga Tamariki for youths put in state care by the Family Court.
The Ministry for Children currently homes 39 people aged nine to 17 in four facilities of various sizes. Barnardos operates a fifth for teens.
They house young people - usually for between two and six months – who have come from abusive homes and suffered severe trauma, and are considered to be at serious risk of harm from others or themselves.
Unlike youth justice facilities none of the occupants have been sent there by the Youth Court.
"None of these children and young people are there because they have done anything wrong," Becroft said.
While Commission's the report – based on 52 interviews with young people in 2017 and 2018 - found the physical conditions among the facilities varied from residence to residence, some teens described steel doors, metal toilet seats, hard plastic-wrapped mattresses, and strict schedules.
"I think they are setting ourselves up to fail. We will have to do things on our own. We can't cook, we can't keep our fitness up. We can't do anything," one girl said.
"I think it will affect my life when I'm older."
Others told interviewers about self-harm and suicide.
"Ninety per cent of kids in here are suicidal for being in residence and the experiences they have in life. And no one does anything about it," one youth said.
"I've tried to kill myself … and I hurt myself, many times … when I go on walks, I pick things up, just to hurt myself," another added.
Some said they had been bullied "non-stop", one describing being choked, another giving an account of frequent sexual behaviour among other residents.
"They have sexualised comments and everyone has relationships. And they feel each other up in front of each other," the girl said.
The facilities are staffed by care workers, health staff, psychologists, cooks, teachers and social workers and the children gave both positive and negative accounts of their experiences.
"I've had so many staff that have impacted on my life in a huge way, to the point where I feel sometimes they saved me," a young woman said.
"I talk to my social worker a lot. We are just, like, best friend," said another.
Others were critical, saying they wished the facilities had never existed, and complaining about the use of restraints which left them with carpet burns, sprained wrists and bruises.
"I don't like restraints 'cause some people do it hard. And, like, they don't mean to, but when [staff member] did my restraint, he left a huge bruise on my arm … He was swearing at me and he told me I couldn't talk," one young woman told interviewers.
Another young man described the conditions in a cold, "dirty and boring" special secure unit in the facility.
"Secure is dirty as – it's worse than the police cells. There was this little boy … who used to throw s*** on the walls. People piss all over the floor and stuff," he said.
Becroft described the report as extremely difficult to read.
"The voices of the children and young people contained in this report are insistent. They are distressing. We must take them seriously," he said.
He said records showed large-scale care homes had not served children well.
"The voices gathered here confirm our present institutional model of care must become a relic of the past," he said.
"These children and young people would be better placed in small, child-centred homes where they have continuous access to a wide range of supports, like mental health services."
Becroft pointed to plans by Oranga Tamariki to phase the facilities out in favour of smaller community-based group homes, and the repurposing of the Whakatakapokai residence in Auckland.
"For children and young people like those whose voices this report shares, this change cannot happen quickly enough," he said.
In a statement, Oranga Tamariki said the facilities provided an opportunity for youths to settle before moving into a longer-term home.
"The work we're doing right now to transform the way we care for children and young people in our residences is centred on their needs and the needs of their whānau," deputy chief executive of care services Trish Langridge said.
"We always welcome scrutiny of our work with children and young people and take seriously what they say about living in our care and protection residences. While the report does not make any specific recommendations, it acknowledges that we need to hear their concerns and make constructive changes".
The Children's Commissioner's 2018 State of Care report called for the phasing out of residences over time.
Where to get help:
• 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 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Samaritans 0800 726 666
• If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.