Oranga Tamariki strip-searching children in Youth Justice

Some of our most traumatised young people are being made to strip off all their clothes in Oranga Tamariki's Youth Justice residences.

Young Kiwis like Hamish Falekaono have been through it.

"It does feel shameful and embarrassing," he told Newshub Nation. 

He worries that for some kids the effect of a strip-search could be long-lasting.

"I'd say phase it out. Get rid of it. Find another way."

Both Lady Tureiti Moxon, who has led calls for change at Oranga Tamariki, and the Children's Commission want the practice to be stopped immediately. 

"These are our children. Whether they are Pakeha or Māori, they are our kids and we are treating them like they don't matter," said Lady Moxon.

"What you are doing is adding to their trauma. It's horrendous and it has to stop," Assistant Children's Commissioner for Māori Glenis Philip-Barbara said. 

Documents obtained by Newshub Nation under the Official Information Act reveal in the six months from July to January, Oranga Tamariki conducted 41 strip searches; 12 in Auckland, none in Rotorua, one in Palmerston North. Three quarters of them - 28 - took place at one facility in Christchurch. It says it doesn't happen in its care and protection residences.

"That number in Christchurch - 28 - that's screaming failure of practice to me," Philip-Barbara told Newshub Nation. 

Hamish Falekaono
Hamish Falekaono. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

Youth Justice Residences general manager Ben Hannifin acknowledges the numbers are confronting but says there is some justification.

"Christchurch is an environment where young people are particularly challenging to manage and do really well. So there is a discrepancy in the numbers, but there is some reason for that," he said.  

Items found ranged from broken glass, a sharpened felt-tip and marijuana, to ripped clothing and string.

Oranga Tamariki says it can guarantee every one of those 41 strip searches was necessary.

 "I can. I mean, like I say, staff don't want to do strip searches. It's the final tool of the toolkit," said Hannifan. 

But he admits the practise is traumatising.

"That's why it's a last resort. It's not pleasant for the staff, it's not pleasant for the young people."

Oranga Tamariki strip-searching children in Youth Justice
Photo credit: Newshub Nation.

Pressed by Newshub Nation, the agency revealed it tried and failed to get the practice banned by the previous minister responsible - Tracey Martin. It's now with Kelvin Davis for consideration.

"It requires legislative change but operationally we can do that before that comes into effect," said Hannifan. 

The Children's Commission says it's a "step in the right direction" but the practice should be stopped "immediately".

Here's what's still concerning - Newshub Nation asked for three years of data, not six months. Oranga Tamariki declined, saying that information is held in logbooks all around the country.

Without a transparent, centralised record, there's a risk that any abuse of strip-search powers remains hidden away. 

Have you got something to add to this story? Get in touch with the reporter by emailing annabracewellworrall@tv3.co.nz

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