By Jane Doe
The Youth Justice system in New Zealand is a restorative process which diverts young people from the punitive outcome of conventional criminal justice proceedings. Family group conferences address offending, bringing together young people, whanau, victims and other professionals to develop a plan which reintegrates young people into the community and provides wrap-around support (Youth Court of New Zealand, 2016). This plan requires participation of the young person and includes services such as counselling, alcohol or drug rehabilitation and mental health services. The role of the youth justice social worker in this process is to work alongside the young person, whanau and other professionals to monitor the plan, upholding the principles of the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act (1989).
This restorative process has reduced the number of children and young people in the youth court by 48% since 2011. However, the proportion of young offenders who identify as Maori has increased from 46% in 2006 to 62% in 2015. These figures suggest that Youth Justice social workers have more work to do in addressing the systemic factors which place young people at higher risk of offending.
In 2015, a 13-year-old boy was charged with the murder of a West Auckland dairy owner. A New Zealand Herald Investigation found that he had been exposed to significant drug abuse and neglect. Furthermore, he had sustained a significant head injury in the past, receiving minimal treatment or rehabilitation. What followed was a rapid change in behaviour including aggression, drug use and reports of suicidal ideation, leading to a mental health referral which was never picked up.
This incident reflects a larger issue within the Youth Justice system which must be addressed. Young people who have experienced trauma are at an increased risk of anti-social behaviours and conduct disorders which could lead to offending. However, the symptoms of exposure to chronic trauma are often overlooked as they do not conform to strict criteria for diagnosis, leading to the implementation of inappropriate interventions (Hodas, 2006). Consistent with this, Bender (2010) suggests that although around 92% of young offender’s report past trauma, agencies were significantly unequipped to address the long-term effects of trauma. In consideration of this research, it cannot be a coincidence that the proportion of Maori youth offenders has increased while Maori continue to experience lower health indicators, greater socio-economic disadvantage and higher rates of interpersonal violence .
To address this, Bender (2010) suggests that the trauma should be assessed and information shared across agencies. Efforts should be made to increase education on trauma-informed care and identify early indicators of trauma including school disengagement, running away, mental health concerns, substance abuse problems and association with deviant peers (Bender, 2010). Providing social workers with the tools to work with young people and whanau who have experiences of trauma could break the cycle and make meaningful, long-lasting change for all young people moving into the future.
Bender, K. (2010). Why do some maltreated youth become juvenile offenders?: A call for further investigation and adaptation of youth services. Children and Youth Services Review, 32(3), 466-473.
Hodas, G. R. (2006). Responding to childhood trauma: The promise and practice of trauma informed care. Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, 1-77.
Youth Court of New Zealand. (2016). Youth Justice: Youth Justice Principles and Processes. Retrieved from https://www.youthcourt.govt.nz/youth-justice/youth-justice-principles-and-processes/