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Whistleblower video shows assault on state care kids

Newsroom logo Newsroom 28/06/2021 Melanie Reid
a man standing in front of a sunset © Provided by Newsroom

They are the most vulnerable young people in the country, housed in care and protection units, but a whistleblower has come to Newsroom with videos of staff restraints on children he says are illegal and constitute assault.

The boy is around 13 years old. He takes a couple of steps towards the Oranga Tamariki staff member, who is wearing black gloves. The man grabs the boy’s legs and tackles him to the ground.

Two more staff members join in. The boy is held on the floor on his back. They hoist him up and walk him a few steps before pushing his face into a wall. Soon after, in a secure timeout room, his arms are twisted behind his back and he is again thrown to the ground.

Our whistleblower says if police did this to a young boy held in a cell they would be charged.

Another boy of a similar age is standing in a computer room. He punches one of the screens and a man standing nearby puts him in a headlock before this boy, too, is thrown to the ground.

Oranga Tamariki’s Care & Protection Residences are known as ‘the end of the line’, the last chance for our most vulnerable young people to receive the help they need.

These children haven’t committed a crime; they are not being held as a form of punishment. They often arrive carrying years of trauma, and are considered to have high and complex needs that require intensive support.

And they are being cared for by adults trained in very specific techniques designed to de-escalate tension, calm high stress situations and avoid the use of any pain-based restraints. The whistleblower who supplied the footage says the children in these residences frequently come from environments where violence is already the norm, children for whom this is their last chance at a future free from crime and punishment.

Newsroom has agreed not to identify the whistleblower, who is risking his professional career to bring these videos to light because he says what is happening contradicts their crisis management training, and he believes it’s only a matter of time until a child is hospitalised or worse.

All of the staff members caught on tape still have their jobs, and Newsroom is not aware of any disciplinary action having been taken against them. Care and protect?

There are three Care & Protection Residences in New Zealand, with an assessment 'hub', with roughly 100 children aged between eight and 16 going through the units each year.

They differ from our Youth Justice facilities, where young people who have been arrested, remanded or sentenced for criminal charges are held.

Both are secure facilities, meaning the young people can’t leave the premises, and children are educated onsite through a specialist school.

The whistleblower describes the young people in youth residences as our "most vulnerable".

“Many of these children have ended up in care through physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect, alcohol and drug issues within family and whānau, mental health issues. This is the top 1 percent of young people and children in our country needing our care. These children are traumatised.”

He says many are self-harming, and suffer ‘care drift’ - moving from foster home to foster home, or from staffed group homes, and have family who don’t have a lot to do with them or have limited resources.

The whistleblower says while there are some “amazing” staff, there is also a lack of qualified staff, good mental health services, trauma-informed practice, and “absolutely” a lack of leadership.

When showing Newsroom the videos, he describes the restraints used as unprofessional, inappropriate and abusive.

“If your child was in need of care and protection, and you put that child into our residence for the best possible care, would you accept that behaviour? We are caring for these young people trying to turn their lives around, not inflict further trauma upon them.”

“We expect that our staff do the same as what we expect of our parents in the community. If parents were to headlock their children, or throw them on the ground, as in the videos, Oranga Tamariki would send a social worker in.”

In response to Newsroom questions, Oranga Tamariki said the use of 'holds' in the residences had to be kept to an "absolute minimum and only be used in extreme circumstances". The agency's general response and outlining of its policies are outlined later in this story. Residences in the spotlight

Everyone would agree children should always be safe from harm, but professionals who spoke to Newsroom for this story say now more than ever this should be a reality in Aotearoa.

The Royal Commission into Abuse in State Care is in full swing, with horrific stories appearing in the news daily of children being tortured in state-run institutions.

Oranga Tamariki faces a reckoning over the way it operates after decades of alienating tamariki from whānau, uplifting newborns from their mothers without notice and retraumatising children by abruptly moving them multiple times.

The science is in on what’s best for developing brains, and how best to ensure children thrive even when they’ve had a challenging start.

Yet a report commissioned by the Human Rights Commission released just last year into the use of seclusion, restraint and force across care and protection, justice, corrections, police and health facilities shows our most vulnerable are still being mistreated in the care of the state.

Dr Sharon Shalev, from Oxford University’s Centre for Criminology, felt “disappointment and despair” at the use of restraint and seclusion on young people in Aotearoa’s secure youth residences.

She found the use of seclusion at Youth Justice facilities had more than doubled since her previous 2017 report.

In contrast to Oranga Tamariki’s aspirational talk of ‘mana-enhancing’ practices, Shalev said the use of seclusion in youth facilities was ‘mana-stripping’.

Data provided to the review by Oranga Tamariki showed that in the six months to December 2019, there were 366 use of force (physical restraint) incidents in its Youth Justice facilities, and 184 in its Care & Protection Residences.

Oranga Tamariki did not provide Shalev with further information, including ethnicity and age of the children and young people against whom force was used, as these were not recorded – which contradicts Oranga Tamariki’s own requirement to record all details of any incidents involving restraint and use of force in their facilities. It’s no worse than rugby, right?

Our whistleblower knows that the average Kiwi watching these videos might not see much of a problem with the use of force involved.

“We come from a rugby playing nation where we’re used to knocking people around and we have a bit of rough and tumble culture. But these are people who are employed to care for our most vulnerable children and young people. We’re supposed to be showing them another way of living; another way of being different from the abuse and trauma that they’ve suffered prior to coming into our care.”

The way he describes it, although these children might have disturbing or challenging behaviours, the staff are paid professionals to look after and care for these young people.

“We are not allowed to do anything that the public is not allowed to do.”

Another public servant with specialist knowledge and training in child restraint, who wished to remain anonymous, says those tempted to say ‘What’s the big deal’ when watching these videos need to understand just how damaging these kinds of forceful restraints can be - for everyone involved.

“Restraining people when they’re agitated and they’re full of adrenaline is just a recipe for disaster. The appropriate thing to do in that case is to back off and observe from a safe distance.

“If a child’s being non-compliant or being naughty, and the response is physical restraint, then what that’s teaching them is that as long as you are bigger and stronger than the other person, you can make them do what they don’t want to do.”

He says what we’re seeing in this country is the cheapest labour providing what should be the “most sophisticated responses”, and this is happening not just in youth residences but often in schools and elder care as well.

“It’s important to bear in mind that most staff are often under a lot of pressure. Those sorts of situations can be pretty distressing and sometimes quite frightening. But that’s why you need people who are well-trained, who are able to not just respond instinctively but respond in a way that actually helps that person.”

He also points to the risks to both the person being restrained and people doing the restraining, including the possibility of broken necks, concussion and psychological harm.

MAPA trained

Every staff member on the floor in a Care & Protection Residence is trained in MAPA: Management of Actual or Potential Aggression, a trademarked technique centred around de-escalation, owned by US company Crisis Prevention Institute.

The aim is to calm the person, and the situation, using things like verbal cues or physically removing yourself from the space. Holds are only ever used as a last resort, and they are designed to be non-pain inflicting.

Oranga Tamariki contracts The Crisis Prevention Institute to provide MAPA training to its youth residence workers, and Oranga Tamariki’s own website is unequivocal:

“If there’s a situation with a tamaiti or rangatahi, staff must try to resolve the situation verbally.

“The use of physical force or holds while dealing with te tamaiti or rangatahi in residence must be kept to an absolute minimum and only be used in extreme circumstances and when staff have reasonable grounds for believing that the use of physical force is necessary.

“The use of excessive or inappropriate physical holds is not permitted. Only techniques approved by Oranga Tamariki that are MAPA must be used to hold a tamaiti or rangatahi.”

The whole basis of MAPA is disengagement. When it comes to restraint there has to be two people holding either side of a standing or sitting person in need of calming. In young children there is one hold that can be undertaken which involves crossing the arms in front and holding them from behind.

MAPA emphasises disengagement techniques in situations where someone might try to get physical.

In the first video, for example, the staff member should have moved away from the young person as a first point of call, and not tackled him to the ground, which carries the risk of causing back and neck injury.

Our whistleblower says having policies and processes is one thing, “…but it’s no good having them in place if it’s left to the manager’s discretion about whether or not you implement them. We are public servants. We don’t have the discretion about whether we follow policies and processes. It’s very clear what we should be doing.”

De-professionalisation of the workforce

Newsroom has been contacted for more than two years by social workers and other professionals concerned about the lack of trained staff being hired to work in youth residences.

In a Newsroom investigation published last year, we spoke to a highly qualified social worker who went for a job interview at Te Puna Wai - a Christchurch Youth Justice facility run by Oranga Tamariki that has faced high staff turnover.

He said he was told at the interview he could be employed as a youth worker but not a social worker because they were no longer hiring qualified social workers.

Social workers have told Newsroom there are endless examples of experienced social workers being replaced with youth workers (there are no specific requirements to become a youth worker, such as having a relevant qualification), but that management were moving away from a social work model and looking for staff who would ‘comply’.

At the time of the story, in a 24-hour period at Te Puna Wai, fewer than five of the 55 staff on the floor were qualified social workers. This is backed up by both our whistleblower and former social worker and youth residence manager Vivienne Martini’s experiences in the sector.

“Many of them aren’t qualified. They’ve come in with perhaps life experience or, dare I say it, that they know someone that works in the residence and they’ve been encouraged to apply,” says Martini.

The whistleblower explains that in one Care & Protection Residence, people are being hired without any relevant background.

“In my experience, things have gotten worse over the last three years with people coming in who don’t actually understand our work. They’ve come from selling washing machines, or working for the waterworks. But it’s not a business, it’s about children’s lives.”

The gloved man in the first video is a youth worker and is not a social worker. Youth workers don’t need any qualifications, and are cheaper to employ than those with relevant qualifications.

Spinning the stats

Newsroom has obtained evidence that shows deliberately misleading reporting concerning the use of restraints in another state-run youth facility.

The restraint report from last year shows one child at the facility had been restrained 50 times, and another 44 times, both within the space of 18 months.

Because the 10 other children at the unit - all of whom had been there a much shorter time than the first two - had fewer recorded restraints, the report suggested using the median number as “the best ‘average’."

The author interpreted the two children with dozens of restraint reports as “extremes” and concluded: “...a fair summary statement would be that ‘the average number of restraints per current student is 3.”

The whistleblower says this selective spinning of information - and lack of accountability - is just the tip of the iceberg in Aotearoa’s youth facilities, and believes there is a ‘cover your backside’ attitude throughout the sector.

“There was an incident where a young person was restrained to the ground and suffered significant carpet burns around his face. It now turns out that those two cameras, which had that footage on it, have been deleted. All the other cameras in the residence are functioning.” Calls for change

The Children’s Commissioner’s 2019 report into youth care and protection residences,‘A Hard Place to Be Happy' gathered the voices of some of those in the facilities: “Children and young people told us that, when staff are doing restraints, sometimes things go wrong and injuries can happen. One young person told us [the Commissioner] they were happy staff aren’t allowed to take people to the ground anymore and that there are new restraint techniques. Others said staff still need more training around restraints.”

The commissioner, Andrew Becroft, has called for a move away from secure facilities for vulnerable children multiple times, calling conditions "prison-like".

One hundred young people have run away from Oranga Tamariki Care and Protection Residences since 2016, one of them just 10 years old, a statistic that assistant Māori children’s commissioner Glenis Philip-Barbara said showed the residences were not meeting the needs of these young people.

Last year, a youth worker at the Epuni Care & Protection Residence was caught having sex with a 16-year-old girl living at the facility.

Our whistleblower is worried: “National office for Oranga Tamariki don’t really understand our business. They’re not qualified social workers or psychologists. Human resources has a big influence on decisions being made in the residence, but they don’t actually understand their practice. They’re not child-centred and child-focused. They’re not mana enhancing as they say we are. They’re more about protecting the agency and how it may look instead of caring for the children and young people who are the most vulnerable in our country.”

Oranga Tamariki's view on restraints

Oranga Tamariki told Newsroom it was "dedicated to ensuring the safety of children and young people in our care" and said staff's MAPA training was aimed at keeping the young person and staff members safe.

"The use of holds while dealing with a child or young person in our Care and Protection Residence must be kept to an absolute minimum and only be used in extreme circumstances and when staff have reasonable grounds for believing that the use of a hold is necessary."

When holds are used, more than one staff member had to be present to ensure the young people were "protected from the potential misuse or abuse of such holds" and the least restrictive form of holds had to be adopted.

Crucially, the Oranga Tamariki statement says: "Physical force must not be used when a less intrusive form of intervention is adequate."

When a hold was used, a debrief (using video footage if available) was conducted "to ensure best practice has been followed" and if any concerns were raised an employment process could be undertaken.

If Oranga Tamariki's code of conduct was breached, an investigation could follow and police would be notified under the agency's Child Protection Protocol "where necessary".

"Findings of serious misconduct may result in summary dismissal of the employee," OT's statement said.

A total of 223 holds had been applied in residences in 2019 and 170 in 2020.

It said a total of 12 restraint-related injuries had occurred in Care and Protection Residences over the past two years, but noted these figures could include "minor bumps and scrapes".

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