Northland’s Rangatahi Court carving out new pathways for troubled youth

By Shannon Pitman, Open Justice reporter of NZ Herald

The team of social workers, lawyers, forensics, police prosecution, registrar, kaumātua and kuia who oversee the progress of youth in Taitamariki Court with Judge Greg Davis. Photo / Mike Cunningham

The team of social workers, lawyers, forensics, police prosecution, registrar, kaumātua and kuia who oversee the progress of youth in Taitamariki Court with Judge Greg Davis.
Photo: Mike Cunningham

Like many parents, Peter Davidson struggles to get his 15-year-old out of bed.

It’s even harder getting him to his course every day, but today, the Northland man and his son Marshall Davidson are on time. It’s important they aren’t late for the pōwhiri ahead of Marshall’s hearing to address his offending, at Terenga Paraoa Marae in Whangārei where Rangatahi Court, known in Te Tai Tokerau as Taitamariki Court, is sitting.

Their early appearance is unlike that of 15-year-old Soloman Harris who, despite multiple calls from his lawyer, says he can’t get to the marae because his father has recently been locked up.

All too familiar with the difficulties his young clients face, lawyer Jarrod Griffin drives to Otāngarei to pick up the boy who is home alone, on a 24-hour curfew and with no way of getting anywhere.

When he does appear, he is alone, with no support and the weight of the world on his shoulders. Soloman’s circumstances reflect the extreme battles some kids are facing behind the glare of public scrutiny around youth offending.

The teens are just two of around 2000 teenagers every year who head to a marae to try and change their behaviour for the better in a ground-breaking and internationally recognised approach.

Like those before them, they have committed a crime and admitted their offending in Youth Court, but what comes next is where meaningful intervention begins.

Once a young person admits their offending, a Family Group Conference (FGC) is held with several stakeholders, and a plan is formed for how the young person can take responsibility for what they did, as well as working out a plan to make sure they don’t reoffend.

Any young person, regardless of their ethnicity, may have their plan monitored on a marae in the Rangatahi Court, by police, lawyers, forensics, social workers, whānau and local kaumātua and kuia, until the child has proven they are on track.

When the plan is complete, in either Rangatahi Court or Youth Court, that matter is deemed to be finalised.

The Rangatahi Court process is more intense and personalised than a standard 15-minute time slot given in Youth Court, with the young person expected to participate in pōwhiri, recite their pepeha and interact with all stakeholders throughout the hearing which, depending on the kōrero that may arise, can sometimes take up to three hours.

Chief District Judge Heemi Taumanu.

Chief District Judge Heemi Taumanu set up the first specialised court in Gisborne in 2008.
Photo: Supplied / District Court of New Zealand

The specialised court sits in 16 marae around the country, sparked from the vision of Chief District Judge Heemi Taumanu, who set up the first one in Gisborne in 2008.

Judge Taumanu’s vision encouraged a wider appreciation for the value of culturally responsive justice by embedding the Rangatahi Courts in the New Zealand criminal justice system.

In 2017, Judge Taumanu received the prestigious Veillard-Cybulski Award, an international tribute recognising innovative work with children and families in difficulty.

‘Magic is unlocked’

Over the past 10 years, the Youth Court has tracked a 64 percent reduction in offending by young Māori and initial research suggests those who came through the Rangatahi Court committed 14 percent fewer offences and were 11 percent less likely to commit new offences.

Still, Māori disproportionately appeared in the Youth Court in the past year – at a rate of 76 percent nationally, with 81 percent of youth offenders being boys.

The numbers of Te Tai Tokerau Youth Court appearances have been trending down since 2013, but jumped in the past year from 72 young people to 81, the majority of them aged between 10 and 16 years old.

Across the country, matters finalised in the Rangatahi Court have dropped by more than 100 in the past five years, while Te Tai Tokerau has also experienced a downwards trend.

Judge Greg Davis, from Mid-North hapū of Ngāti Manu, conducts Rangatahi Court within Te Tai Tokerau and says the taitamariki he deals with come with complex problems well outside normal teenage life.

“We’ve got to do something more and something different, and I don’t know what the mix is. We’ve had punitive responses in the adult court and they’ve gotten more punitive. We’ve had more punitive responses in Youth Court and where’s it got us? Arguably, to a crime spree,” Judge Davis tells NZME in an exclusive interview.

“The profile of most people who come into Rangatahi Court [is they] come from families that are in chaos, there’s a lot of complex underlying issues within the whānau that they’re not often comfortable talking about in a court setting. Bringing them into an environment where we are all sitting around, at the same physical level, talking to each other, has this remarkable effect of allowing young people and their whānau to engage more fully in the process,” Judge Davis says.

“Whānau dealing with whānau and that magic is unlocked in our Rangatahi Court.”

At his hearing, Marshall is up first, with his father, a man understandably frustrated with the stresses of raising a 15-year-old boy.

“We argue, every day. I try and wake him up to go to the course and he just doesn’t want to go,” Dad tells the group.

Judge Davis asks Marshall to choose a wharenui carving he would like to sit under, and his eyes light up as he is drawn to the Ngāti Hine chieftainess, Hineamaru, the tupuna he descends from.

Under the gaze of Hineamaru, Marshall admits he is not on track and no longer interested in the literacy course he agreed to do as part of his plan.

“When you look at this whare and you think of Hineamaru, ask yourself, do you think your tūpuna would have travelled all the way from the Hokianga to Ngaratanua, do you think they did all that to see their moko in court? They believed their descendants would rule the world,” Judge Davis tells Marshall.

“It’s important for you to understand where you fit in the world, where you fit in the scheme of things, this is why we want you here in Rangatahi Court, so you have a better understanding of where you fit in the world, of our ambitions for you to be a leader.”

A new plan is discussed, one he is visibly excited about, one that involves outdoor activity and reconnecting with his whenua but with some firm words from one of the kuia on the panel he shares whakapapa with.

“You are just about going to be with the big boys. Sort it out. We are running out of patience,” she says to the boy, who nods in agreement, staring at the ground.

“I want to say to you [Dad] it’s sometimes hard for teenagers because they think they’re no longer babies and they’re too young to be adults and they’re stuck in the middle and whatever you want him to do, he’s going to rebel, you want to give him a kick up the backside.”

Judge Davis says the specialised court has seen remarkable turnarounds because the young person is being held responsible by their whānau, especially elders, and it has an impact.

“No system is going to be universally 100% successful, but what we often see with our young people is they may not necessarily be concerned with what a judge may say, but when a nanny starts talking, they listen. When one of their Pāpā starts talking, they listen.

“It’s a measure of accountability that often people who are disengaged from society generally are held to account by people they recognise, even if they don’t know specifically who that nanny is.”

Judge Greg Davis and Matua Mokena Peeni outside Te whare o Kaka Porowini at Terenga Paraoa Marae in Whangārei. Photo / Mike Cunningham

Judge Greg Davis and Matua Mokena Peeni outside Te whare o Kaka Porowini at Terenga Paraoa Marae in Whangārei.
Photo: Mike Cunningham

‘That boy’s got hope’

As morning tea comes to an end, Judge Davis can’t help but notice Marshall picking up a tea towel to help in the kitchen, alongside police, without being asked. Willingly.

“That tells you a lot more than you would see, you don’t get this sort of interaction in the Youth Court. People would say, ‘that has no weight’, but that has so much more weight in a tikanga sense.

“What does that tell you about him? Is this a boy who’s done dumb stuff or is it a person on the conveyer belt to the big house? When you see a fellow that knows, he should get the tea towel and do the dishes, that boy’s got hope. That boy’s got promise and you never see that in the Youth Court.

“In terms of how you incorporate those intangibles, I don’t know. We’ve seen some young fellas with spectacular offending and we just weren’t making headway when they came to the court,” Judge Davis says.

As Soloman takes a chair for his hearing alone, a nanny from the the panel moves next to him and takes his hand. She plays a vital role in the process as so many, like Soloman, are urbanised Māori with no solid connection to their marae communities.

His father was recently arrested, creating turmoil at home, and he is struggling to get himself to and from the course he committed to, as well as being on a 24-hour curfew. Big responsibilities for a 15-year-old to manage alone.

Despite those odds, his progress report is exceptionally positive and acknowledges he has been tracking well, turning up every day to course, abiding by his bail conditions and staying out of trouble.

Soloman’s chaotic home life is a prime example of why a more empathetic approach is needed for the youth.

“He’s living in O.T [the suburb known as Otāngarei, Whangārei)” Judge Davis says. “O.T has caught him. There is an O.T factor that you can’t escape.

“He’s not starting from the same point as the boy from Maunu or whatever. He’s not likely, if he goes to school, to be able to come home and ask mum to just go and buy a Chromebook – he’s not starting from the same starting point, he’s never going to catch up. In fact, he’s going to get further and further behind.

“It’s not like in the old days on a computer, you press the reset button. No system is ever going to claim to be able to do that, but if we can pull back more from the precipice, then for me, it’s a success,” Judge Davis says.

“The question we need to ask is, ‘Why were they there in the first place? Why are they at that precipice? Why is it they have to get there before we decide to do something?’

“I can’t say that these young fellas have had the same privileges that we had, and yet we say we should treat them just the same as everybody else?

“If we don’t have the proper interventions for them, they’ll be the next wave of serious offenders.”

– This story was first published by the NZ Herald

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