Law allowing youth to be held in police cells must be 'repealed urgently' - Children's Commissioner

In the 12 months to 30 June last year, more than 110 teenagers were detained in police cells for at least 24 hours.
In the 12 months to 30 June last year, more than 110 teenagers were detained in police cells for at least 24 hours. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Katie Doyle of RNZ

Warning: This story contains reference to suicide and self-harm

The Children's Commissioner wants to repeal a section of law enabling the youth court to remand young people in police cells.

In the 12 months to 30 June last year, more than 110 teenagers were detained in police cells for at least 24 hours.

During that time, five young people self-harmed or attempted to commit suicide in the cells, with the youngest being just 14 years old.

Growing up, youth advocate Tupua Urlich was no stranger to the cells. They were not healthy spaces, even if police tried to look after those in custody, he said.

"You're in there with people who are often high on drugs, super aggressive and if you could just imagine being locked in a cage and you know, they're not quiet places.

"People are banging on the doors, picking up their whole mattresses, slamming them on doors," he said.

"It's always noisy. There's swearing, there's yelling. There's so much anger in that space and for a young person to be in there, it's super unhealthy."

After a childhood in care, he faced the world as a teenager dislocated from relatives and said the state did not invest time into restoring his family relationships.

Angry and frustrated, self-harm became a part of his life.

"There was one incident where I had to be detained by the police. I totally agree that it was necessary at that time but I wasn't provided the support that I needed.

"I really needed specialist support there, rather than being strapped into a chair in a cell."

Iwi and communities assistant police commissioner Chris de Wattignar said police didn't want to put young people in their cells.

"It's absolutely not ideal and I think we'd be the first to say we'd rather not have youth in custody."

De Wattignar said police were working hard to reduce the number of young people detained in custody, and the figure had been dropping.

The total number of young people who came into police custody in 2017 was just over 2100, according to police data. At the end of last year that had fallen to 1899.

Efforts were also underway to stop young people from entering the system in the first place, including by youth development teams.

"So where a young person may make a mistake, instead of ending up at a family group conference, or heaven forbid a youth court, there is actually a range of other things that we can do now, that we haven't done in the past," de Wattignar said.

As a young district court judge, Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft presided over the death of a teenager in police custody.

In the early hours of the morning, the young person took their own life in what was thought to be a suicide-proof cell.

It was a case that would draw tears from stone, said Judge Becroft, and it had a profound and enduring impact.

"I've never faltered in my view since then that we shouldn't be putting children and young people in police cells."

Becroft said there were times when a cell stay might be needed, such as before a first youth court appearance or afterwards while waiting to be transferred elsewhere.

But he wanted to repeal a section of law enabling the Youth Court to remand a young person into police custody.

"It was only ever put in as a stopgap in 1989, as a court order into a police cell that can be for several days and in the old days sometimes weeks," Becroft said.

"Now that should not continue, it could be easily repealed and it ought to be repealed and my plea is that it be repealed urgently."

Detaining young people in the cells was also an unarguable breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child, according to Becroft.

He said the convention, which New Zealand ratified in 1993, made clear children and young people should be treated in a way that was consistent with dignity and age.

It also stated they should not be subjected to inhumane or degrading treatment.

"I think being put in an adult police cell with spartan facilities, sometimes with the lights on 24/7 to ensure line of sight, to ensure there is no self harm, with limited access to family, education and good food in every way constitutes a breach," he said.

Tupua Urlich wanted to see wider social change, so young people did not get to the point where they needed to be in the cells.

"It's really easy to look at behaviour without understanding it's source, because actually, the source is on us all as society," he said.

"Our young people are feeling these ways because of things in their environment and we are their environment."

Oranga Tamariki youth justice system director Phil Dinham said no young person should be held in the cells for more than 24 hours.

"Police and us are working really hard together daily to make sure that these are minimised," he said.

"And not only have we over halved the number in the last couple of years, you have to understand that's with the inclusion of 17-year-olds as well.

"So that added about 20 or 25 percent volume of young people going through the youth justice system."

Oranga Tamariki had also introduced overnight rapid response teams in areas of high demand like Waikato and Rotorua.

Those specialist youth justice staff could respond at police stations to check on the young person, and assess if they were showing signs of trauma, risk or distress.

But in some cases, Dinham said holding young people in a cell worked better for the person involved.

He reflected on a situation he had recently been involved in, where a teenager was arrested just after midnight on a Sunday.

By the time the young person's parents and a representative had arrived at the police station, it was early afternoon the next day.

The interview process for the teenager only wrapped up at 5pm that night.

"At that time we secured a bed for him, it was clear that the charges were serious and there was going to be an objection to bail the next day in court," Dinham said.

Oranga Tamariki were willing and able to transport him to a residence, but it would have required an hours-long car journey.

So staff decided to ask the boy how he felt.

"He said he'd had a long tiring day, he knew he was facing a long day in court the next day," Dinham said.

"He didn't fancy a three or four hour car journey, to spend three or four hours in a bed with us, and then get back in a car and be driven back to court the next morning..."

After Oranga Tamariki spoke to him, his family, and police and carried out all of the necessary safety assessments, everyone agreed it was better to stay where he was.

Dinham said that was an example of an on-the-spot decision staff were making, where young people in police cells were being consulted on what was best for them.

Where to find help and support: 

Shine (domestic violence) - 0508 744 633

Women's Refuge - 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE)

Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737

What's Up - 0800 WHATS UP (0800 942 8787)

Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email or online chat

Samaritans - 0800 726 666

Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757

Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Shakti Community Council - 0800 742 584