First a disclaimer. I don’t pretend to be an expert on youth justice or residential care but as I mentioned many moons ago on this blog site – you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. I would like to say that the recent revelations suggesting sexually exploitive behaviour, young people breaking out to the roof of the Korowai Maanaki residence and video of cage-fight style violence apparently over-seen by staff is shocking and appalling. It is of course, but sadly I think that ‘predictable’ is a better descriptor.
The current Minister and the Deputy CEO of Oranga Tamariki, Tusha Penny, have described this situation as unacceptable. What else could they say? Kelvin Davis has announced a wide-ranging review of residences. This will be led by retired Police Commissioner Mike Bush and will be ‘aimed at flushing out inappropriate behaviour’. I wish I could say that this inspires confidence, but I can’t. This reluctance is not a reflection on the competence of the people involved. It is rather that the scope of problem at hand is not about poor practice and the identification and removal of bad apples. The problem is systemic. It lies in the very nature of institutional care and the structural conditions which underpin its use. I have written about this before.
We are awaiting the final report of the Abuse in Care Royal Commission. If this exercise isn’t a damning indictment on the practice of institutional care for children and young people, I don’t know what is. Although the neoliberal Expert Panel review process of 2015 led directly to the destructive practice seen in the Hastings uplift debacle and subsequent backlash, practice changes directed at support for care-leavers and raising the age of entry into the adult criminal justice system were worthy objectives. However, of course, simple solutions to complex problems are seldom effective. Raising the age of adult criminal responsibility has created serious challenges for the Youth Justice system.
We know that treating young people in the same way as adult criminals does not work. We know that prisons don’t work for that matter. We also understand that contemporary life is a different place for young people that it was last century. We now have an economy that is explicitly structured by insecurity and uncertainty. We have a social world alive with social media information and a range of illusions about choice and self-responsibility. We have deep divides in terms of wealth and opportunity that are structured by class, gender, and ethnicity in Aotearoa. We also have a greater recognition of neurodiversity and socio-educational discrimination. It takes a lot longer to ‘grow up’.
However, this growing up does not happen on a level playing field. We continue to have a liberal capitalist political and economic structure that excludes a section of the population from effective participation. This is where the young people who occupy Youth Justice residences are drawn from. This is not a new phenomenon. Youth residences have always been populated by the children of the poor in this country as the Royal Commission process attests to. Youth Programmes like Whakapakari in the 1990s covertly encouraged fighting and rituals of domination. State institutions routinely used ‘natural hierarchies’ and physical violence to embed ‘discipline’ – behavioural compliance and awareness of place. All of this was hidden by the fact that this underclass group of young people were effectively afforded a lesser set of human rights.
The question of what has changed comes to mind. There has been an outcry in response to the latest revelations, but it is an outcry ‘of sorts’ because we are dealing with a group who are classified as socially less deserving. Imagine the noise that would be provoked if a group of middle-class kids had been set up to give and receive severe MMA style beatings in a leafy suburban secondary school. Young people on the disadvantaged edges of our society do look for excitement, identity and status by committing offences, compiling rap sheets, and bragging rights. This isn’t new either – if social norms don’t work for you, you find a place on the outside.
Despite aspirations for change the history tells us very clearly that residential institutions for young offenders tend to gravitate by default to this culture of conflict, threat, and coercion. It is what ‘these kids’ understand, right? It is what staff who have lived insight into the worlds of these young people understand, right? No, it shouldn’t be!
If institutional responses that look to instil compliance through a culture of violence and humiliation are not the answer, what then should be done? As said, I am no expert, but I think two things are clear. We need to significantly dismantle secure institutional care for young people. It doesn’t work for anybody. The previous Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft urged this. He argued for the development of smaller therapeutic group home facilities. I believe there has been some initial investment in this in the child protection area, but not enough and not with a youth justice focus. I understand that hard-end young offenders are difficult to manage but if we really want to disrupt our racist pipeline to prison system the state needs to seriously invest in alternatives. Secondly, we need to address poverty and social inequality in ‘good kiwi’ land. This is what really generates fodder for the world of criminal justice. All of this involves more than the detection and removal of bad apples – it is the barrel itself that is infected.
Image credit – Alex Luyckx