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Children's Commissioner pushes for closure of large care and protection residences

Radio New Zealand logo Radio New Zealand 9/12/2020
a group of people posing for the camera © RNZ / Meriana Johnsen

The Children's Commissioner has backed a call for the closure of New Zealand's large care and protection residences and the eventual abolition of the four youth justice detention centres.

It comes after a report for the Human Rights Commission found that the use of seclusion in the youth justice residences reviewed had doubled since 2016, while seclusion in the care and protection residences reviewed had declined slightly.

a man wearing a suit and tie © RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

It is a follow-up to a previous report in 2017 by the same author, Dr Sharon Shalev, which was followed by a set of recommendations.

Judge Andrew Becroft said the research emphasised the need to stop using seclusion and restraint on distressed children and young people.

"These facilities, and the legal basis of seclusion and restraint, have their origins in the children's homes and borstals of last century. They are out-dated and have no place in the provision of compassionate, therapeutic care."

Assistant Māori Commissioner for Children Glenis Philip-Barbara said the report raised serious concerns about the treatment of children in youth justice and care and protection facilities.

"For most New Zealanders these residences are invisible, and they operate below our radar. Most staff do their conscientious best but in the context of a flawed model.

"Some of the treatment and conditions these children and young people are subjected to are plainly unacceptable, as this report and our residential monitoring shows. These children experience more restrictions on their freedom than almost any of us."

Seclusion rooms also ran counter to the principles of Tikanga Māori, the report stated. It also found women in prison are segregated at a far higher rate than men, and Māori women are segregated for longer and at a higher rate than other women.

Dr Shalev said it was not clear why that happened and the answer could be complicated, but she hoped she could do further research in this area.

Philip-Barbara said these restrictions had severe implications in particular for Māori, who are more likely to be in residences.

"Our office has long advocated for the phased closure of secure care and protection residences and the dramatically reduced reliance on youth justice residences.

"In a future without secure residences, whānau, hapū, iwi and wider family groups and specialised community-based approaches would be resourced and supported to care for children and young people."

The Human Rights Commission said seclusion and restraint were used too often, for too long, and more frequently against Māori and Pacific people.

Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt said Māori must be involved in the solution and called for fresh training to correct any unconscious or conscious bias.

"In consultation with Māori, we have to figure out therapeutic alternatives to restraint and solitary confinement. Restraint can really seriously damage people in the long term and so can solitary confinement," Hunt said.

"We must acknowledge there has been some progress [since the 2016 report] ... however, overall, the picture remains alarming and disappointing.

"There needs to be fresh training and some things can just stop. I cannot understand why we cannot stop solitary confinement ... for children and young people. There's so much evidence that this is seriously damaging in particular young people and disabled people."

While he said he detected a willingness from the government for change, it was important to make sure that intention was followed through with action.

The Māori Law Society supported calls for seclusion to be eliminated from these practices, and said any change must be led by Māori.

With Māori accounting for 62 percent of secure care admissions in care and protection residences, 56 percent of segregation units in prisons and 51 percent of seclusions in health and disability facilities, the report made for "disturbing reading", said co-president Jamie-Lee Tuuta.

He said the report highlighted missed opportunities to deliver better outcomes for tangata whenua.

"In 2020 this is unacceptable. Our whānau and communities deserve better."

Co-president Carwyn Jones said seclusion was no place for tangata whenua to be under any circumstances.

"Māori society is fundamentally based on inter-connectedness," Jones said.

"Prison and other detention settings are already difficult environments for our people to survive. Couple this with days, weeks and sometimes months with extremely limited contact with whānau on the outside and little of no meaningful activity, it must become unbearable.

"This report needs to be seen in the context of a number of reports which are telling the government that their systems continue to fail Māori."

'Vicious cycle' of seclusion

Seclusion or segregation is defined in the original 2017 report as involving social and physical isolation for between 22-24 hours of the day, limited meaningful human contact, increased institutional control and limited personal autonomy.

Judge Becroft said residences often provoked the behaviour that the seclusion rooms and restraint techniques were supposed to manage.

"None of us would want our own children to live in these places, and we should demand the closure of large, institutional residences. In the meantime, seclusion rooms must be radically improved in line with the recommendations in Dr Shalev's report."

a man wearing a suit and tie: Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft. © Provided by Radio New Zealand Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft.

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Dr Shalev also said the use of seclusion triggered a "vicious cycle" of back and forth responses that were supposedly meant to be brought under control through the use of the rooms.

"I think sometimes what happens is instead of being seen vulnerable, they are being seen as disruptive. They react to situations and are being put in a cell, which is retraumatising them, making things much worse and then they react to that, and then the prison reacts to them, and it just goes on and on in this really vicious cycle."

"On the ground I actually found that very little has changed" - Dr Sharon Shalev (4 min 18 sec)

She told Morning Report that while her research found some positive developments since the last report - including an effort to reduce seclusion and restraint - very little had changed or got better since 2016.

"I find the use of seclusion and restraint with children particularly troubling. I always ask myself 'would we do it to our child?' just to put things in context... [The room] is pretty much identical to a prison cell.

"So the use of these facilities in justice facilities for young people up to the age of 18 has doubled. Although there is a positive in that there were many more shorter stays ... there were also significantly more longer stays, including some of up to 17 to 20 days.

"We now have very sophisticated brain imaging and we can see that the brain in isolation actually shrinks."


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