It is not new for troubled youth who commit offences or who display unacceptable behaviour (those children who are under the care of Oranga Tamariki), to be given McDonald's or special treats, which acts as a positive reinforcement for bad behaviour.

Youth Justice facilities are only part of the problem. Agencies that support Oranga Tamariki (OT) to provide caregivers and OT support workers also factor in the growing problem of unruly youth. They and the Oranga Tamariki Act, which controls OT’s policy guidelines, do not have strong deterrents that would lead young people away from crime. Instead, they reward bad behaviour with special treatment. 

Working with foster agencies as a carer for the past six years, I have seen the frustration from foster parents and experienced it myself when wanting stronger support, but ending up having the OT support workers reward lousy behaviour with takeaways or time spent on technology. Rather than rewarding this bad behaviour what is needed is consequences. What do the youth take away from this?  - If I act badly I’ll get takeaways. If I throw a fit at school, I’ll get stood down and get to play on the iPad or technology instead of being in the classroom. 

The question: how do we improve the balance between supporting troubled youth who have trauma; having expectations for them to overcome dysfunction; and protecting the community? 

Let’s then identify why youth crime is increasing and out-of-control youth facilities are failing. 

Section 208(2)(a) in the Act states that “unless the public interest requires otherwise, criminal proceedings should not be instituted against a child or young person if there is an alternative means of dealing with the matter”.

The go-to tool is the Youth Justice Family Group Conference (FGC). 

For every negative action that the young person acts out,  caregiving agencies fail to instill a meaningful consequence as a deterrent for future negative behaviours. Instead, a reward system is created that reinforces the idea that if a young person acts up they will be rewarded. This creates a cycle of reinforcement with each crime committed. 

Under section 245 of the Act, where a young person who has allegedly offended has not been arrested and charged, and Police believe that commencing criminal proceedings is required in the public interest, charges cannot be laid in the Youth Court unless a referral has been made to a youth justice coordinator to convene an Intention To Charge (ITC) FGC.

Research into a sample of 175 of these FGCs showed that 50% resulted in an initial decision to lay charges in the youth court while 47% resulted in diversionary plans.  Of these diversionary plans:

  • 70% were successfully completed.
  • 10% were not completed and Police subsequently laid charges in court.
  • 20% were not completed and the matters were not (or did not appear to be) taken further.

This data shows that the system is simply not working for at least 30% of the most troubled youth. Other statistics show that at least half of young offenders re-offend within three months, and 81% within 12 months, which suggests that in reality, the diversionary plans are not effective. 

Whilst more stringent consequences must be put in place, there is not enough focus on addressing the causes of offending among young people, which include:


  • Family dysfunction - No father in the home, single-parent families, trauma, and adverse childhood experiences.
  • Socio-economic disadvantage
  • Peer Influence
  • Substance abuse - drugs and alcohol
  • Lack of education and employment opportunities
  • Mental health and anger issues


While diversionary programs can address some of the above, they often fail to address the root causes that stem from the family environment where many of these learned behaviours first start. Only 25% of the 83 diversionary plans mentioned family needs. If we are to support and change behavioural patterns it is paramount that the family environment is considered when sending these young people back into the same environment. There will be no positive change if the environment is not changed. We do not set these young people up for success when their families do not have the tools or inclination to effect change.

Another important aspect of the research is that it showed a low level of family attendance is more likely when the young person has multiple previous youth justice FGCs, so developing strategies to improve family/whānau attendance in these situations should be an expectation.

Another aspect was that only 30% of all family members who attended ITC FGCs were male, and less than half of these were fathers. We know that fatherless youth are more likely to commit crimes and have higher levels of substance abuse and mental health concerns. Why are we not putting more resourcing into the role of the father? 

New Conservative believe that the driving factors of crime need to be addressed, in particular family breakdown and alcohol and drug abuse.  Our focus will be on addressing these areas, including:

- building strong families, supporting for example relationship and parenting training.

- early intervention for at-risk youth.

- fit-for-purpose education and training, including pathways for trades training and early entry to the workforce.

- effective mental health and alcohol and drug services.

Helen Houghton

Leader New Conservative