Child, Youth and Family is accommodating young criminals in motels under the watch of security guards.
Sixteen young offenders aged between 13 and 17 stayed in motels on 20 separate occasions from July 2010 to June 2011, figures released under the Official Information Act show.
They were referred to the Youth Court or put through the family group conference process for a variety of crimes, including assault, threatening behaviour, burglary, theft, drink-driving, resisting police and escaping from custody.
Many had been charged with multiple offences.
CYF says it is forced to use motels when there is no appropriate specialist caregiver or residential facility available, or when the accused has to travel to attend Youth Court. The average length of stay is one night.
Deputy chief executive Bernadine MacKenzie said not all the offenders were accompanied by security guards.
"In cases where it is determined that a security guard is not required a tracker [a minder with local knowledge], parent or other family member will accompany the young person. In every case the safety and wellbeing of the child or young person is held as paramount, alongside the safety of the public."
Rethinking Crime and Punishment spokesman Kim Workman said being kept at motels could traumatise young people.
"Especially if their presence became known to other occupants. It would make them feel ashamed and I think there is a real potential to stigmatise them."
Young criminals would feel more comfortable in an institution because they would be with their "own kind".
"Nobody would think it was unusual or would comment."
It showed there was a shortage of facilities for youth offenders which needed to be addressed "fairly promptly".
There was also a need for more specialist caregivers.
"If this is increasing in frequency, there needs to be some plan around getting better accommodation."
However, Associate Minister of Social Development Chester Borrows said he had no concerns about the young offenders staying in motels.
"It is a practical response."
CYF was only able to provide figures for the past financial year as the Ministry of Social Development has only recently begun to report the motel stays.
A former police officer, Borrows said it wasn't a new practice and had occurred "from time to time" when he was on the beat more than 12 years ago.
But the establishment of new secure beds in recent years meant motel accommodation had not been used for a time. The youth was unlikely to be alone with a security guard, he said.
"There's always a social worker, frequently a family member too and a tracker, depending on the flight risk. If they are violent, they may well need a security guard who is able to take that into account."
Social workers were aware of the need for discretion, Borrows said.
"When you have in mind a security guard you might have in mind somebody in uniform, that might not be the case at all. In my experience, it is usually very subtle."
Details on the cost of motel accommodation could not be provided because CYF did not specifically code or centrally collate expenditure on motels and security guards.
CYF houses just over 100 young people in youth justice residences in South Auckland, Rotorua, Palmerston North and Christchurch.
- Sunday Star Times