Epuni is a CYF care and protection residence in Lower Hutt for young people aged between nine and 16 who are at risk and have no alternative place to stay in the community.
Young people generally spend around three months in the facility, but stays can be as long as a year – or longer – a significant period of time outside “normal life” for young people who have extreme needs but have not been placed in a facility because they’ve broken the law.
Regulations under the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act state that these young people can complain (“lodge grievances”) when they’re unhappy about any element of their life inside the residence – anything from finding a hair in their food to being forced to spend time in isolation in the “secure unit”. The Regulations also say that young people must be able to access an advocate to help them make their complaints.
Yet the use of advocates in care and protections residences around New Zealand is somewhat ad hoc. Each residence is expected to source volunteers from the community to fulfil these roles. But without independent, community-based advocates, the role of “advocate” often falls to residence staff members. This can obviously be problematic as young people might be reluctant to seek help from a staff member, or might be actively discouraged from making a complaint – particularly when the grievance concerns staff behaviour or structural issues within a residence.
Until 2012, Epuni had no independent advocates visiting the residence. As a result, Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley (CLWHV) collaborated with the Family Court and Youth Court Judges to establish an independent advocacy programme at the Epuni residence.
We would like to thank Tui Dunlop, Kaihāpai Hapori at CLWHV, and volunteer advocates Matthew Martin, Andrew Grieve, Bernadette Scanlon, Caitlin McKay, Hannah Jeffries, Echo Haronga and Kate Stone for their commitment to establishing the advocacy programme at the Epuni residence since 2012.
This year, Ione Gill, Community Education Worker at CLWHV, has taken over coordinating the advocacy programme and works with seven new volunteer advocates to provide the service: Benjamin Voltz, Hinetaarpora Moko-Mead, Khaylen Huriwai-Teleaga, Reweti Kohere, Kalcie Kelly, Karli Rickard and Julia Whaipooti.
Young people want advocates they know and trust. So it’s crucial that our advocates visit regularly and build relationships. CLWHV staff and volunteers drive out to Epuni every two weeks in rush-hour traffic to eat dinner with the young people, chat about their weeks and play cards or touch rugby, or whatever other game is flavour of the day.
Over the past year, advocates have helped 10 young people lodge 22 grievances. Grievances can result in a variety of policy changes and practical outcomes, anything from portion sizes to the way disciplinary policies are applied to the young people in the residence.
By establishing and developing this advocacy programme, we believe that we’re helping vulnerable young people successfully navigate the grievance process and ensuring that their voices are heard. Any connection young people have with responsible allies outside the residence will also certainly contribute to these young people feeling more empowered to make changes in their lives.