This guest post from Professor Anita Gibbs (University of Otago) outlines her view of practices in Youth Justice residences. Her personal and professional experiences inform her findings.
I have been a social worker for over 30 years now and hold dear to values and practices that are consistent with international conventions on children’s rights, especially disabled children’s rights. I have a child living with severe neuro-disabilities, and I have become a well-known disability advocate because of our family experiences of systems. I research, publish, teach, and raise awareness in this mostly unrecognised area of social work. It is because of this background that I cannot be a bystander when I see practices which continue to harm children and youth who are disabled and vulnerable. Those with FASD for example are 19 times more likely to be in trouble with the law than other people, and NZ and Australian studies emphasise the exceedingly high numbers of children and youth incarcerated in justice facilities with brain injuries, ADHD, ASD, FASD and other conditions.
In 2020, one research study reported on appalling abusive conditions in NZ’s YJ residences and of course in 2021, there were the headlines of violence in one Care and Protection residence. Sadly, these conditions of violence, including assaults, verbal threats, theft of property, damage and self-harm, are not one offs at all; they occur all the time in our residences, not only between children and youth placed in them but sometimes from adults who are lacking in significant disability training. Untrained and with little neuro-informed practice, staff, at times, can become overwhelmed and resort to overly punitive action leading to the harm of those young people with complex neuro-disabilities. I can talk about it because I have experienced it first-hand on many occasions with my own whānau members.
The following practices are harmful:
- The use of Secure Care. Children with neuro-disabilities and severe anxiety who self-harm, verbally abuse or sometimes physically abuse others are removed from the open units (by force if necessary). They are placed in a cell (I can’t bring myself to use room, because they are locked in often for more hours than the guidelines suggest). These cells have had children with neuro-disabilities kept in these conditions for up to 6 days. This is so damaging for their mental health. These cells have a mattress on the bed; they have a chalkboard with some chalk; occasionally there might be a radio; and there is a toilet. They are not allowed pens, pencils, books often don’t seem to get in either. If they wear glasses then these might be taken off them. They can get exercise in a small courtyard and occasionally educational materials. When they are allowed out they can’t mix with others who are also in Secure and they mostly undertake what is known as Pack work. In short, none of us would put our disabled children in solitary confinement yet many children experience endless spells in solitary confinement for meltdowns directly related to their ASD or FASD, which get completely reframed by untrained staff as deliberate reasoning or wilful behaviour to act poorly, rather than understood as severe anxiety-based episodes. A neuro-informed practitioner would use soothing, sensory-based and de-escalation responses, instead of immediately removing a child to solitary confinements.
- The Pack Work. This is the term children use to describe the intensive and detailed work they must to do to get out of Secure – it is based on reasoning principles with some restorative aspects (eg. the need to apologise), but it is not neuro-informed; no easy read or picture-based versions are supplied for those with learning needs or dyslexia or communication issues. Children are not let out of Secure until they satisfy an neuro-typical adult’s expectations of having completed this highly challenging but not suited to their learning abilities work. It’s a one size fits all approach.
- The BMS (Behavioural Management System). This is also a one size fits all regime which is based on rewards and losses (punishments/deprivations), and totally unsuited to those living with neuro-disabilities. Every time a child goes into Secure they drop to the lowest levels. They have to work much harder than those who are neuro-typical to get up the levels at any time in residence. They often don’t get to level 3 which means they have less call time with whānau and they can’t do certain activities; they get less music listening privileges, and they are deprived of any chance of day release activities. BMS is a model based in classic social learning psychology principles for neuro-typical children, a complete fail for those with neuro-disabilities.
A recent UN comment suggests those with neuro-disabilities should not be in justice pathways at all but if they are they need individualised plans, not the same regime for everyone, i.e. bespoke to the child – ie. child-centred!
- The abuse of contact rights and keeping whānau informed of the well-being of their child. In some justice residences, call time is limited to 10 minutes per day, specifically between the hours of 6-8pm but that time is also for showering and other life admin. If 10 kids are queuing for a family call it might not happen. If the kid is in Secure then quite often they are deprived of the call anyhow which sometimes leads to a meltdown and more time spent in Secure. Additionally, whānau are often not told any details of why a child is in Secure or how long they will stay there. If whānau complain, they can find they get even less contact with their child and the child becomes more distressed and harmed as a result. Residences also control how often children see their family members – where and how and for how long – they have masses of flexibility and discretion. Our own whānau experience has seen both abuse and generosity, in terms of contact with our loved one.
- The Zero Transition process. Children are in 24/7 round the clock monitoring one day, then let out of residence the next, with varying degrees of none to some community supports or stable placements awaiting them. But there is no gradual or staged reintegration process back into unlocked and unsupported living arrangements – surely this is not good practice?
- Large Residences. Our Justice residences usually range from 15-45 children and youth; these numbers are still far too high. Some operate as no more than Units of 10 youth. But with even 10 youth, who have high and complex needs, this is placing vulnerable with vulnerable and daily incidents of disorder still occur. These vulnerable youth need to be placed in situations where they are not harmed or bullied by others who are struggling. The accessibility of care personnel or psychiatrists/ psychologists needed to support the physical and mental health needs of the young people is variable. My whānau member waited three months to see a psychiatrist in one residence but was well served with psychiatry and psychology support in another.
One exception to the daily harm I know exits, is the operation of the new Kaupapa Māori justice residence in South Auckland. This justice residence avoids the use of punitive practices and works with youth who have extremely high and complex needs. Secure facilities are rarely used, and the residence avoids the intensive academic pack work, emphasising instead core Māori principles of well-being, respect, doing the right thing, and forgiveness. However, at times, even this new residence struggles to keep the kids from harming one other or self-harming; thus, still indicating, and echoed by Andrew Becroft, when Children’s Commissioner, no locked residences are fit for purpose. Instead, we need community homes in children’s hometowns that have well-trained staff and as few security measures as possible. The most a helpful way forward is to abolish all locked residences for under 18s. Over 75% of those in justice residences are on remand. Most of them remain unsentenced for many months, which is disruptive for the 25% who are on sentences. All of these remanded youth should be elsewhere in remand homes in the community as they haven’t even been convicted; not to mention that 70% are rangatahi Māori which is catastrophic and needs urgent action in its own right. Other than that, we need to ensure all staff are highly trained in working with those with neuro-disabilities with weeks of training, not a few hours.
I have prepared a submission to the Royal Commission of Abuse in Care Inquiry on recent Care experiences around neuro-disability; submitting that those with neuro-disabilities are additionally vulnerable, even in modern systems of Care. If social workers and other allied professionals do not upskill their knowledge and skills around working with families where FASD, ASD, ADHD and brain injuries are major challenges, then the profession is failing to provide the disability accommodations necessary; these kids then run the risk (as I have seen in my own whānau situation) of becoming the next generation of care to prison pipeline survivors, which I for one will not watch from the sidelines.