22 Jun 2018

How to stop youth offenders from ending up in jail

From Checkpoint, 5:43 pm on 22 June 2018

Teenagers sent to youth justice residence Te Au Rere a te Tonga will almost certainly end up in jail, if their offending doesn't stop. In the second part of this series, John Campbell goes inside the centre to talk to the offenders and the people helping them to be better.

Te Au Rere a te Tonga, a Youth Justice Residence on the outskirts of Palmerston North, is run by Oranga Tamariki, - not Corrections - but the children aged 14 to 17 could end up in jail if their offending does not stop.

There are four of such centres in the country with a total of 140 beds.

Given the coverage of youth offending of late dairy robberies, car thefts and high speed police pursuits, Checkpoint's John Campbell investigates where some of our most at-risk, and high-risk, young people end up.

Oranga Tamariki asked for the children and their victims to not be identified.  

The young people who receive care at the centre usually come from homes where violence, drug and alcohol addiction issues and economic deprivation have defined their childhoods.

For many of the youth at the centre it becomes their last chance to break the cycle of violence and crime before they are treated as adults.

A 14-year-old at the centre said he lived an "upside-down" childhood and even on the streets because of his dad.

"[I] didn't really have the best family that was there for me, only person that was there was my Nan," he said.

Another boy at the centre described his life growing up with his dad, a patched gang member, who smoked meth and the violence his family endured as a result.

"Family separated. [He] started smoking crystal meth, destroyed my family apart," he said.

"My mum just left [dad]. [She] got sick of it."

Many of the children at the centre left home, and some of them ended up on the streets. Dads were a common factor behind this - neglectful dads, violent dads, addicted dads, gang dads.

One of the girls at the centre said she felt safer when no one was around.  

"When I was by myself … no one could touch me 'cause I could look after myself."

However, looking after themselves sometimes can mean prostitution for the girls, and frequently theft, including aggravated robbery.

The 14-year-old boy who left home because of his dad said he had to resort to other means to look after himself.

"When I was about 13. When I was on the streets for like a week I was stealing cars then when I had to take, robbing shops and that."

He also said he hadn't been to school for a year but that is shorter than most of the children at Te Au Rere. That is one of the ways how the Youth Justice Residence begins the process of attempting to make them safe; by putting them in a classroom.

One of the teachers Sarah said it all came down to just one person reaching out to them and being a champion for them.

"One day last week, I had a pretty moving experience when teaching with one of my fellow teachers here, and a young boy said 'Far, this class has been mean all week'. That's huge, that's a huge milestone," she said.

"When the public school system out there has been a place of negativity or somewhere they don't want to be, they're not welcomed, they're not part of the group, and then they come in here and have a moment like that, that's huge."

One of the young people currently residing at Te Au rere a te Tonga, in Palmerston North.

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Assistant principal Deanna also said it was a massive improvement for the children at the centre.

"Seeing kids that come in with no hopes, no dreams and no ambitions to start to have some idea of what they might like to do and to achieve is amazing."

However, the crimes that some of the children are charged with can be much more severe than they appear, Te Au rere a te Tonga Residence Manager Kyle Kuiti said.

"The most serious of crimes some kids that are charged with murder, rape, and whatnot, they're all in here, and then you have the other group of kids who are recitivist offenders stealing cars, theft that sort of thing."

As a result they arrive exactly as adult prisoners do, as if into a prison. If they cannot get along with the other residents, or they represent a danger to themselves, they're held in prison cells.

When the children leave, there is chance to make it right, and leave to safe lives for themselves and society, or they can get it wrong, and make more victims.

Youth worker Hamish Falekaono is one of those who made it right. He was once a resident at the centre about four years ago, came from a background of abject poverty.

"Like you're already on the edge from having no food, having no power, especially with teenagers, they get quite hungry and sort of have to find your own way to get food."

He said he ended up robbing houses just to be able to eat.

"Sort of where it started and sort of got in to fights a lot just because I was already stressed and that, 'cause of the stuff going on at home."

He was sent to Te Au Rere and found food, kindness and a sense of possibility and when he was leaving he could rely on Mr Kuiti for stability.

"[Mr Kuiti said] If you're good get out and do good and come back and I'll give you a job. That's basically what I took him up for," Mr Falekaono said.

The youth at centre still have hopes and dreams for more in the future just like normal children, but the boy whose Dad didn't stop him from leaving home for the streets, aged 13, who stole cars to sleep in, did not ask for much in life.

"Someone who will be there for me, a family. Just someone who put food on the table. Wouldn't ask for much more," the 14-year-old said.

As for the girl who got hidings, whose Mum and siblings got hidings, who learnt violence and then became violent and whose childhood had been a battle against ugliness, she wants to be a beauty therapist.

Then there is the boys who stole cars, aged 13, and were in involved in a police pursuit, they say their goal is to become mechanics.