NZ still failing to keep teens out of custody - report

Increasing numbers of teenagers are being held in police custody for days, breaching United Nations protocols and sparking concern from human rights agencies.

Child, Youth and Family statistics show the number of young people held for more than 24 hours in police cells almost trebled in the past three years.

Last year there were 213 youths in police custody for an average of 1.9 days, up from 76 youths for an average of 1.8 days in 2009.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says those under 18 should only ever be detained as a last resort, and then for the shortest possible time.

An Independent Police Conduct Authority, Children's Commission and Human Rights Commission inquiry - to be released on Tuesday - is expected to make recommendations to address the problem.

The inquiry's findings follow a decision from Youth Court judge Mary O' Dwyer, after two Upper Hutt teenage girls, 14 and 16, were arrested, strip-searched and held in a cell for 36 hours.

She ruled they suffered a severe abuse of their rights at the hands of police, who described their own actions as an "aberration".

The pair were arrested in January after a complaint from two other girls, who claimed they had been attacked.

Both were denied bail, strip-searched, issued pyjamas and put in a cell, where the 16-year-old had to express milk for the 4-month-old baby she was separated from.

"The breaches of the act in this case were serious," O'Dwyer said.

"Both young people were subjected to the embarrassment of removal of their clothing while in police custody.

"Nothing was found on their person or in their clothing," she said.

The Joint Thematic Review of Children and Young Persons' Detention Issues - the first of its kind in New Zealand - was undertaken in 2010 to ensure New Zealand was meeting UN standards.

It looks at policy questions and practice and procedure relating to those under 17, but not individual cases.

The number of children detained, and the conditions they are kept in, have been criticised in recent years by the Human Rights Commission, and both the UN's Nations Against Torture and Rights of the Child committees.

The child's committee raised concerns New Zealand continued to detain young people with adults, and last year advised New Zealand to develop a broad range of alternatives for dealing with young people, and to seek assistance in the areas of juvenile justice and police training.

Unicef New Zealand advocacy manager Barbara Lambourn said the figures were worrying. "We need to ask ourselves if these children really need to be in custody at all."

Lambourn said she hoped this week's report would quickly address any shortcomings identified.

Former children's commissioner Dr Ian Hassall said children being held in custody was a problem when he was in the position in 1989, and children had to be kept out of police cells to protect them.

"It's a very brutalising process. Children, no matter what they've been getting up to, still find it destabilising to find themselves in a facility away from their homes."

He said a better alternative was to place young people with family, or within a family environment.

Sunday Star Times