Whānau Ora chair Merepeka Raukawa-Tait accuses Oranga Tamariki of being a 'recidivist abuser' of NZ's young people

The chair of the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency has accused Oranaga Tamariki of being a "recidivist abuser" of children as the fallout from the second straight weekend of unruly teenagers spending a night on a youth justice facility roof continues. 

A group of five young people spent the weekend out in the cold and on the roof of the Korowai Manaaki Youth Justice Facility in Wiri. 

All the teenagers came down from the roof just after 10:30pm on Sunday after over 40 hours up there. 

Oranga Tamariki confirmed on AM the teens were given KFC and McDonald's to come down. 

It comes after a similar incident at a facility in Christchurch last week, where the teenagers were also given KFC to come down after damaging Oranga Tamariki facilities and a staff member suffered a fractured wrist.  

Whanau Ora Chair Merepeka Raukawa-Tait had scathing criticism of Oranaga Tamariki telling AM on Monday the Government department is a recidivist abuser of children in these youth justice facilities. 

"Oranga Tamariki is a recidivist abuser of our children in Aotearoa. I mean, all of the last 20 years, how many reports have we had?"

She said there are around 37 kids aged between 14-17 in the facility in Wiri who have nothing to do all day, nobody caring for them and come from families that have issues.

She told AM co-host Laura Tupou that unless the system changes, then this will continue to happen.

"Nobody is actually addressing the long-term implications of what's happening in those institutions for our children," she said. 

"You can't tell me that today those young people are not going to be slammed up against the wall, punched. That's what happens in these facilities and New Zealanders wonder why these young children up on the roof are now wanting to draw attention to what's happening to them?" 

She also believes the youth justice facilities in New Zealand are "children's jails" and are setting them for lives in crime. 

"These children have already been in care, many of them would have already been in care for such a long time and all we're doing now, they're in the pipeline just waiting to go into the adult criminal system," she told AM. 

"So that's what we have developed in this country and it's not going to get better until we actually acknowledge the fact that we have a serious issue here."

Whanau Ora Chair Merepeka Raukawa-Tait.
Whanau Ora Chair Merepeka Raukawa-Tait. Photo credit: AM

These claims come after two staff members were removed from Oranga Tamariki residences following serious allegations involving inappropriate sexual behaviour.

The offending came to light after an unannounced monitoring visit from the Children's Commissioner.

She believes the solution to fixing the problems in these youth justice facilities is to shut them down. 

"Iwi and the whānau need to decide what is best for them, but locking children up, locking these children up in jails is not good enough," she said. 

"These are youth prisons... we're going to turn these young children into criminals, even at this age and they're already on that track and what is meted out to them in these youth prisons is really just going to send them right off and into the adult criminal justice system."

Oranga Tamariki deputy chief executive Tusha Penny told AM following Raukawa-Tait's interview the Government department respects all commentary and needs to be held to account. 

She said it's a "non-negotiable" that these children need to be kept safe but also Oranga Tamariki staff need to be kept safe as well. 

When asked if the teenagers in the facility in Wiri had been abused, like what Raukawa-Tait said, Penny denied the claims.    

"I can honestly tell you I haven't been briefed on that at all. The youths that were on the roof and that we've just dealt with, we've been in negotiations with them over the entire weekend and there has never been any commentary," she said. 

"However, she does make a good point and we stand by it. We have to make sure Oranga Tamariki is an agency that is accountable and keeps children safe." 

Oranga Tamariki deputy chief executive Tusha Penny.
Oranga Tamariki deputy chief executive Tusha Penny. Photo credit: AM

When asked if there were any plans to shut down the youth justice facilities, Penny said nothing like that is on the table in the medium-to-short-term. 

"We have about 135 young people in those residences and they're put there by the youth court," she told AM.

"There is a statutory obligation, so without a doubt, we are looking, we need to make some change because, to your point earlier, we've had a number of incidents."

Penny admitted they've had seven incidents since January, including two rooftop events over the last week. 

"We have to make sure that people are safe, including the police and fire and the staff and those agencies did an incredible job over the weekend working with us to de-escalate this latest issue."