New-Zealand: teens in youth prison allege abuse cover-up

Teenage boys at a youth prison told visiting watchdogs how staff hit them “on the body where it won’t mark” during fight clubs held away from CCTV cameras.

The disclosure was one of several “worrying” incidents reported by Children’s Commission staff during inspections at secure government residences for young people in the past year.

Other issues included absconsions, assaults on staff, and assaults on young people that were not reported to police.

In its annual State of Care report released today the Commission said an extremely thorough investigation into the alleged “fight clubs” was eventually inconclusive, but it had prompted fresh concern about bullying and underlying violence.

“After the allegation was disclosed, people worked night-and-day to get to the bottom of it but it couldn’t be corroborated,” Commissioner Andrew Becroft said.

“But there’s a question mark…we know that for similar reasons that young people are less likely to make complaints about serious issues, they can also ‘clam up’ during an investigation.”

“‘Snitches get stitches’ was the all-too-often refrain from the young people we interviewed.”

The report is the Commission’s third about children in state care, this year with a special focus on Oranga Tamariki’s five secure care homes and four youth justice facilities.

Oranga Tamariki is the new agency for vulnerable children, replacing Child, Youth and Family.

Becroft said the transition between agencies was one reason it wanted to look at the residences, but it was also was prompted by an event at Don Dale Detention centre in Australia.

It emerged last year that young people at Don Dale were sprayed with tear gas - and one restrained in a spit hood for two hours - with the incident then covered up by staff.

Given New Zealand’s residences shared some risk factors in common with Don Dale - for example inadequate training - the Commission decided to investigate whether similar practices could occur here.

Becroft said while it had found no evidence of systemic abuse during its inspections, it was important to remember young people often didn’t report abuse or violence when in institutions.

He said while conditions at the residences were improving, it said practice was still far too variable, and the environment was dated and bleak - a particular issue in the care residences where children had not committed a crime but instead simply lacked family they could live with safely.

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