Only a handful of youth offenders are being admitted to alcohol and drug programmes under the Government's Fresh Start initiative.
Around 3500 youths under 17 came before the courts last year, 80 per cent of them with substance abuse issues. But only 18 orders for treatment programmes were made by judges between October 2010, when Fresh Start was implemented, and April this year.
Fresh Start, which the Government allocated $84 million to over four years, enables youth courts to order drug and alcohol treatment, and monitoring and parenting programmes.
While the figures appear low, Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft said offenders were being referred earlier, after court-held family conferences rather than by judges at sentencing time.
Many referrals were made through family conferences last year, he said, indicating the legislation was working. "We could always do more, but it would be churlish not to acknowledge what has been put in place."
As of April, 2300 young people and their parents or guardians had received a range of court-ordered Fresh Start interventions. But Labour's social development spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern said less than 1 per cent of those were completed alcohol and drug programmes, raising questions about whether people referred through the courts were failing.
"We're very concerned, we want to see more investment and early intervention. But early community intervention methods are patchy."
Community organisations like the Drug Foundation and Odyssey House were struggling to cope. Odyssey House has a 27-bed residential facility for young people battling substance abuse, as well as a school programme in the Auckland region aimed at keeping abusers in education.
The biggest problem was solvent abuse, followed by cannabis and sedatives. Only 4 per cent of youths cited alcohol as their primary problem.
Odyssey receives around $10m a year in government funding for its range of services, a third of which is used for youth initiatives. Facilities are always booked to capacity with a regular waiting list, especially for male beds.
- Sunday Star Times