As Wairarapa police are confronted with an alarming decrease in the age young people committing offences, the Times-Age talks to community leaders, support agencies, and criminal justice experts to discuss what can be done to address the issue… Beckie Wilson reports.

Since August last year, the Wairarapa community has become agitated after a spate of vandalism, theft and attacks on property and other innocent children, committed children as young as seven.

With police often between a rock and a hard place when it comes to dealing with these children, local agencies such as Connecting Communities and the Ministry for Children Oranga Tamariki step in and work with families to offer support for the children.

Masterton Mayor Lyn Patterson admits there is no easy solution to reducing youth offending in the region.

“But because there’s no easy solution doesn’t mean we don’t try and address it,” Mrs Patterson said.

“I know there are the community agencies, with police and many others that are concerned about what’s happening, and they will work collectively to try and address the issue.”

Mrs Patterson said the question was: “What can our community do collectively with all the agencies and all the resources we have to make sure that the youth offending doesn’t occur?”

Her biggest concern was centred around the age of the offending and what factors in a young person’s life lead them to offending.

Historically, Wairarapa had always had youth that offended but in the past six weeks, Mrs Patterson has grown more concerned about the number and age of young people resorting to violence.

“A real concern for me that we have younger and younger people, and some wouldn’t classify as youth, that are being involved in really bad anti-social behaviour.”

As the mayor, Mrs Patterson said she needed to be confident that the region had “sufficient” police and local agencies resources to deal with this evolving issue.

Masterton District councillor and past-principal of Masterton Intermediate School (MIS) Frazer Mailman said the recent “attack” involving two 12-year-old boys and the threat of a knife was “very disturbing and disappointing”.

He agreed with Mrs Patterson that youth offending had always been a reality in the region, but the intensity and frequency of the offending was becoming a concern.

About 20 years ago, a handful of Masterton businesses had problems with groups of youth “idling” outside stores.

“A coordinated approach through police and CYF (predecessor to Oranga Tamariki) and schools, and council, certainly saw a huge reduction in the number of young people that were on the streets at night.”

Partner agencies work together

Connecting Communities Wairarapa general manager Gretchen Saulbrey said while the agency did not deal with youth offenders directly, the work it did with families could have a positive flow-on effect to them.

The purpose of the agency is to help a family and identify what it needed as a whole to help a child succeed, Ms Saulbrey said.

That can range from budgeting advice, mental health help, parenting advice, and learning everyday skills to improve the family environment.

Once a family comes to Connecting Communities, a multi-agency approach kicks in to offer the family what it needed, Ms Saulbrey said.

In Wairarapa, agencies such as police, Youth Aid, Oranga Tamariki. and Connecting Communities work together.

Connecting Communities offers support such as youth groups, and free holiday programmes, funded by Masterton District Council.

“It’s about improvement from a community development perspective,and improving [the children’s] environment so these things [offending] start to reduce,” she said.

Anyone can seek help from Connecting Communities from right across the region, she said.

Allan Boreham. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Oranga Tamariki deputy chief executive of youth justice Allan Boreham said the ministry played a significant role when a young person had a conflict with the law.

Once a youth had been dealt with by police a number of times, they would be referred to Oranga Tamariki, he said.

While many offences were not serious enough to be referred to the ministry, they were still recorded and followed up by engagement with the family by police.

“Most young people first picked up by police never come back to our attention, which is a great thing.”

But once a youth has carried out a number of offences and been referred to the ministry, a Family Group Conference (FGC) is the next step, involving the police, family, the ministry, other people involved in the youth’s life, and, in some cases, the victim.

Mr Boreham after a plan was put in place from an FGC, there was generally a reduction in offending, and and when it occurred, offending was generally less serious.

Arrests are not the answer

One of the country’s leading advocates for reform in the corrections system, and a previous Masterton police officer, Kim Workman, said sometimes a region can experience “a little glitch” of young repeat offenders causing disruption.

The rate of youth offending nationally had not increased, he said.

Due to this young age of offending, to arrest and charge them would not be beneficial. as it would “feed their ego”.

After years of research and experience, Mr Workman said the most effective approach was a “multi-systemic approach’ that explored the factors that drove a particular youth to offend.

“It’s best to involve the community and parents, and trying to substitute the negative values they have for positive ones, and [find out] do they have any specific individual needs around education or circumstances in their homes that are more likely to bring about a result.”

Not a crisis, say police

Wairarapa acting area commander Scott Miller said he did not see youth offending as a “crisis”.

“I don’t want the members of public thinking there is a problem where there isn’t.,” he said.

But some young people are identifying with gangs, including the Killer Bees, which is a group with members aged 17 or older.

Recently, police have discovered young people as young as 10 identifying with the gang.

“We have groups of kids on bikes, whether they are Killer Bees or not they might wear a piece of yellow or a piece of black and they say to people “we’re the bees”.”

After an aggravated robbery on a Masterton dairy late last year, police identified three members of a new youth gang.

Members were aged between 14 to 18.

After Youth Aid and the CIB investigated, seven offenders were put before the Youth Court, while six were remanded to a secure youth facility.

Since then, the gang has dissolved.

Read further coverage ‘Offenders getting ‘younger and younger’’.