A Children's Commission report has called New Zealand's youth justice and children's homes "outdated" and called for a revamp of the system.
Some of New Zealand's child protection and youth justice homes have been described as "prison-like, dated and bleak" in a report by the Children's Commissioner. And its call for change is now also being backed by the Human Rights Commission, Labour and the Greens.
While conditions for children in the country's five care and protection and four youth justice residences are improving overall, the quality is "far too variable" and "fundamental" change is needed, the annual State of Care report says.
It found no evidence of systemic abuse in the residences but said more money was needed to fund further visits by inspectors "given the bullying and all-too-common undercurrent of violence".
Although an investigation could not find conclusive evidence, one interviewee described staff hitting residents and bullying. "There are fight clubs and staff punch young people in the body where it won't mark; they do it away from the cameras."
It was one of a number of multiple "concerning" incidents reported to inspectors, along with assaults not being reported and residents fleeing.
The report found five of the seven residences it had looked at had improved since its 2016 report, while one was worse and one unchanged – saying there were "pockets of excellent practice".
Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft says while there is no doubt staff are doing their best and some of the young people involved had very complex issues, significant change is needed. "Bringing them together in secure institutions, and in the case of the youth justice residences effectively in prisons, makes positive interventions difficult," he said.
Prime Minister Bill English told TVNZ the new Ministry for Vulnerable Children was already working on improvements and would take the report's recommendations on board. "It's a fine balance that the community is safe, the kids are safe – including from each other – but that you do it in a way that enables them to get back on track," he said.
The Human Rights Commission is now backing the Children's Commission's call for more funding for investigators
"The State of Care report is another important indication of the need for changes to be made when it comes to how we are treating some of our most vulnerable. Particularly children and young people," Commissioner David Rutherford said. "It is vital that the services they need, and the environment they are spending time in is conducive to developing positive and well-rounded adults."
Labour's spokeswoman for children, Jacinda Ardern, wants stronger oversight by the Children's Commissioner. She also supports recommendations including better monitoring, better advisory services and more focus on Maori children.
The Greens have a similar view. "The Green Party, in government, will ensure that the office of the Children's Commissioner is funded appropriately so that each residence can be thoroughly monitored on a more regular basis," said Jan Logie.
15 May 2017