Autistic teen kept in prison for days after health service 'failures'

Judge Gerard Lynch told the Palmerston North District Court the treatment of an autistic teen, who has been in prison ...

Judge Gerard Lynch told the Palmerston North District Court the treatment of an autistic teen, who has been in prison for nearly a week, was "outrageous".

A severely autistic teen spent nearly a week locked up in jail because there was nowhere else for him to go.

He may have been there even longer if not for a concerned judge, who labelled the situation "outrageous".

The teen's mum says she has now lost confidence in the health system and disability services, while the service that was caring for him says it couldn't take on another "complex case".

The 18-year-old, who has name suppression, had been in custody at Whanganui Prison since Sunday, charged with assault after allegedly lashing out at his mother.

Since then, community and justice liaison nurse Grahame Stillwell had tried in vain to find a better place for the teen to live.

Stillwell told the Palmerston North District Court he emailed  Idea Services, Enable New Zealand and mental health professionals on Tuesday morning in an attempt to find the teen somewhere to go.

Not one email was replied to, Stillwell said.

"It's just crazy."

Judge Gerard Lynch agreed, saying the situation was "outrageous".

"We are holding a young man in jail because services aren't stepping up to the plate.

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"I can't keep this boy in jail, but I want him to go somewhere."

By afternoon, Stillwell said a facility run by NZ Care in Levin would be able to take the teen. Police then withdrew the charge.

The judge said the matter had been an "utter frustration" for everyone involved.

"This has been a blunt tool to achieve what should have been achieved by [the organisations tasked with caring for the boy] much earlier than now."

When the teen's mother called police on Sunday, she thought it was the only way to get him help after support services were taken away, she said outside court.

Diagnosed with autism at a young age, and later identified as having other intellectual disabilities, the teen always had moments of violence.

He attended an after-school programme three times a week, a school holiday programme three times a week from 9am to 3pm, and stayed in respite care once a fortnight – all arranged by Idea Services.

But all of that was changed two months before Sunday, his mother said.

Now, respite care is once a month, school holiday programmes three times a week for two hours each day. After-school care was dropped completely.

"They just made the decision without me," his mum said.

All this while his behaviour was getting harder to control at home.

"I'm saying, 'more, more, more [support]' and they are saying, 'less, less, less'."

She knows Idea Services, who have dealt with him for the past five years, has respite care available on Sunday nights, and wants to know why it could not take him.

She was also mystified at the hospital crisis team being unable to assess him, as they had been able to do assessments on previous occasions.

"They have let us down.

"I have no confidence in them, even if they step up and help now."

An Idea Services spokeswoman said the agency could not comment on the teen's case specifically, but said it had no spare capacity to take on "a complex case" in Manawatu.

The co-ordinator of the needs assessment service was aware of the situation.

A MidCentral spokesman said it was aware of the teen's needs, but he did not need to be placed in a mental health facility.


* An autism spectrum disorder is a life-long developmental disability affecting social and communication skills. People with the disability may also have learning disabilities.

* The exact cause or causes are unknown, but genetics is believed to play a part.

* About 40,00 New Zealanders have some kind of autism spectrum disorder.

* Features of the disorder can vary widely from one person to another, but common symptoms are difficulties with social relationships and verbal and non-verbal communication.

* Conversely, people with autism may also display extreme talent in specific areas like music or mathematics, or have a remarkable memory for things that interest them.

Source: Autism NZ

* An earlier version of this article said Grahame Stillwell emailed MidCentral DHB about the autistic teen. Stillwell later informed Stuff that he mistakenly included the DHB in the list of organisations contacted, and that it was neither emailed nor expected to provide care for the teen.

 - Stuff

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