6 Jul 2023

Oranga Tamariki staff organise fights between youths to show who's boss, ex-resident says

12:01 pm on 6 July 2023
Oranga Tamariki

File photo. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Oranga Tamariki staff arrange fights between residents as a "scare tactic" and to show there is a pecking order in a facility, a former resident says.

Despite having no criminal convictions, Arapuni Mana spent years living in youth justice facilities, because Oranga Tamariki had nowhere else for him to go.

Now he sits on an advisory board for Oranga Tamariki and he told Morning Report he was not surprised by the most recent fight, nor a claim that a staff member filmed it.

The agency's facilities have been in the spotlight again over the last two weeks over the video of two youths fighting, plus several youths getting up on the roofs of youth justice facilities in Auckland and near Christchurch.

Minister for Children Kelvin Davis said he hoped a review - to be carried out by former police commissioner Mike Bush - would help unearth further problems and fix them.

Young people on the roof at Korowai Manaaki Youth Justice Residence in Wiri, Auckland, 2 July 2023.

Young people on the roof at Korowai Manaaki Youth Justice Residence in Wiri, in Auckland, on 2 July 2023. Photo: RNZ/ Bailey Brannon

At least 11 staff of the Oranga Tamariki facilities have been stood down in the past week.

Four of those suspensions relate to a smartphone video filmed by a staff member, of two teenagers involved in a martial arts-style fight.

Davis said he was unhappy staff were allowed to take phones into the facilities.

He was also concerned that staff, visitors and young people could not be searched for contraband.

Davis said he wanted the review to expose all inappropriate behaviour.

While Arapanui Mana is now on an advisory board, he did not believe any progress was being made and the board's advice to OT "went in one ear and out the other".

Regarding the video, he said he was not surprised the fight took place, or the filming of it by staff.

"When these things happen they are staff arranged. It's something that would usually happen in introductions to these facilities and tend to be used as a scare tactic in these places to show who's boss."

RNZ approached Oranga Tamariki who refused to comment on the latest allegations.

But yesterday Oranga Tamariki deputy chief executive Tusha Penny told Morning Report actions of the staff member who filmed a fight were "totally unacceptable and there are no excuses for it".

She said four staff members were removed from the facilities and that it was the only incident she was aware of that was videoed by a staff member.

Mana said he had been told by a person who appeared in the current video two managers were present during the fight.

While there was a role for the OT facilities, the current ones were not meeting the needs of the young residents, Mana said.

It was "too easy" for people to be hired to work in them and the lax recruitment process was failing the young people.

He believed the most recent rooftop incident was a protest by the youths who were unhappy about their treatment by staff.

Union wants better training, improvements to buildings

The union representing Oranga Tamariki youth workers said they were being sent into challenging environments without enough training.

Public Service Association organiser Joe McCrory said the work was both mentally and physically demanding.

Youth workers needed more modern training so they could respond to troubled youths, and there also needed to be some simple changes to the buildings to improve safety.

The current facility in the spotlight was built for younger teenagers (16 and below) but was now taking bigger, stronger 17 and 18 year olds which has created huge challenges to the working environment.

The physical environment (such as interlocking doors) and the staff training were key to handling difficult situations that arose during threats, assaults and group unrest.

"We don't have that at the moment."

The union supported the review and he hoped it would lead to "urgent investment" in the sector.

"It's a real wake-up call for Oranga Tamariki and the government to commit to a safe working environment that properly supports the rangitahi and tamariki that depend on these facilities for rehabilitation."

Staff were doing their best with what they had and were often short-staffed as well.

Call for OT facilities to be shut down

Whānau Ora commissioning agency chair Merepeka Raukawa-Tait.

Merepeka Raukawa-Tait. Photo: Supplied

The chair of the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency, Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, said the roof incident and the fighting video were another chapter "highlighting dismal failures of a system" in a long sequence of problems that had not been resolved.

She said the appropriate staff were not being hired - people who understood inter-generational trauma and disconnected families.

"It's very sad but it's not unexpected ... another review will be done and nothing substantial will happen."

Raukawa-Tait said she supported a call by the former Children's Commissioner Judge Frances Eivers for the five youth justice facilities or what she called "children's jails" to be shut down.

She hoped Mike Bush's review would recommend this and then the country would have to come up with solutions.

The young people needed to be returned to the community, their family situation needed to be looked at and supported as well as much stronger wraparound services provided. Hapū and iwi should be closely involved as well, she said.

"You have to invest in those children right now, as soon as possible... You can't try and fix them for want of a better word without having family input."

In Europe similar facilities had been turned into wellbeing centres, with psychologists and other health and education professionals providing treatment or guidance, Raukawa-Tait said.

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