Royal Commission into the Protection and
Detention of Children in the Northern Territory

 Commissioners visit New Zealand to inquire into alternative approaches to youth justice

The Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory visited New Zealand this week to gather information on the country's approaches to youth justice.

Placing children at the centre underpins New Zealand's approach to youth justice and protection issues, together with a focus on immediate and broader family involvement, particularly in Māori and Pacific Island communities.

Police Youth Aid

Commissioners Margaret White AO and Mick Gooda heard throughout the visit about the importance of keeping children out of the justice system. This is managed by specialist Police Youth Aid officers who have a range of options available to deal with low level youth offending, instead of proceeding instantly to arrest.

Options include a warning, family involvement or direction to a community diversion program.

According to New Zealand officials this approach has led to the decriminalisation of thousands of children.

The success of this program in diverting a high percentage of alleged offenders has allowed the courts and the Family Group Conference program to concentrate on the most serious offences and offenders.

The Commissioners met with managers of the Youth National Prevention Centre, which oversees Police Youth Aid, to discuss the successes of the program and their plans for a new focus to encompass a child-centred, trauma-informed system with youth voice advocacy.

There are 249 specialist, trained Police Youth Aid officers across New Zealand who complete a Diploma in Youth Services (of several years duration) and a further qualifying course through the NZ Police College.

Commissioner Margaret White AO being greeted by Elders from the Pasifika Court 

Commissioner Margaret White AO being greeted by Elders from the Pasifika Court

Family Group Conferences

Family Group Conferencing may occur either through the Youth Justice Court or through the Family Court. A youth justice family group conference occurs where the young person has engaged in more serious conduct and does not deny the charge.  It also takes place under the auspices of the Family Court for those with a need for care and protection. 

Both are designed to empower and strengthen families to support children who are offending or who are at risk.

The Commissioners met with teams of Family Group Conference Coordinators in Auckland and Wellington. They were told that the program is designed to reduce the risk of re-offending and to divert children from the justice system.

At a youth justice Family Group Conference, there are a number of people who may attend including the young person, their family, their lawyer, police, a social worker, other professionals including a health professional, a teacher, and the victim and his or her support people.

For Māori children this could also include iwi (tribe).

Together, this group talks about the offences, considers what the young person can do to make things right and develops a plan on how that will happen. The plan is approved and reviewed regularly by the court.

According to the coordinators, a "good plan" is in the preparation of the family and the young person prior to the conference.

The role of Family Group Conference Coordinators is legislated.

Commissioner Mick Gooda speaking with the Elders from the Pasifika Court 

Commissioner Mick Gooda speaking with the Elders from the Pasifika Court

Pasifika Court

The Commissioners also took the opportunity to view a hearing in the Pasifika Court, which works within the Youth Court structure and where the same laws and consequences apply.

There the similarity ends, with the court based on traditional Pacific Island cultural practices. The room is decorated with island artworks and floral cloth, the floor is covered with a 'tapa' – a traditional mat that now bears the signatures of children who have completed their plan successfully.

Pasifika Youth Court has been in place for six years and is for young people from independent islands including Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands.

The court brings three things together: culture, law and church.

The judge is supported by a group of Elders from each of the islands who offer young people and their family encouragement and guidance.

Commissioner Mick Gooda with Judge Ida Malosi, District Court Judge presiding over Pasifika Court 

Commissioner Mick Gooda with Judge Ida Malosi, District Court Judge presiding over Pasifika Court

The Commissioners met with a range of other people including judges, public service representatives from the Ministry of Social Development and New Zealand's Children's Commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft.

Commissioner Margaret White AO speaking with New Zealand’s Children’s Commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft.. 

Commissioner Margaret White AO speaking with New Zealand's Children's Commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft.

They also visited youth justice and care and protection residences to view the facilities and learn about the approaches each take to care for young people in detention or care.

According to the management of Whakatakapokai Care and Protection Residence, the centre "de-institutionalises institutionalised children" and has an underlying principle about "what is in the best interests of the child". The centre has young people with complex disorders and offers a different range of intervention approaches.

Commissioners visiting the Whakatakapokai Care and Protection Residence 

Commissioners visiting the Whakatakapokai Care and Protection Residence

Watch a brief introduction into how young people are dealt with by New Zealand's Youth Courts.

The Royal Commission now continues its research into best-practice models in other jurisdictions and thanks the New Zealand professionals who provided invaluable insights into the achievements and the challenges ahead.