I am not a bystander….abuse in care still continues: it’s not just in the past

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.