Small steps toward a normal life in Pasifika youth court

After spending a heartbreaking, yet humbling, morning in the Pasifika youth court, Councillor Efeso Collins looks at how we can address the gang problems re-emerging in South Auckland

About a year ago I had the opportunity to address all the district court and youth court judges in New Zealand. I told a story of how much my life and perspective changed when we had our daughter. I closed with a challenge to those present to consider our journey as a family whenever they had young people standing before them in court. Somewhat perplexed and dismayed by the increased shootings and trouble in my hometown area over the past six months, I welcomed the chance to spend all of Tuesday morning as an observer in the Pasifika youth court. It was heartbreaking, confronting, shattering and hopeful. Judge Ida Malosi was the presiding judge.

Each case begins with the court officer calling the case file and individual's name. Doors to the side of the building open and the young person would walk in with their lawyer, lay advocate, social worker and support people. There are Pasifika elders in the room who assist with proceedings and speak all the languages of our homelands. The elder welcomes them and their families in customary ways which ushers in a certain of kind of mana. The judge begins each case by speaking directly with the young person about how they've been since the last hearing. Then she moves around the room inviting comment from the police, social worker and family. 

This court room is nothing like the drama of Suits. These are real young people who've made poor decisions, but with the wraparound support of the system and their families, are making steady efforts to turn their lives around. The Pasifika youth court sits in a community hall in Mangere. Unlike my ideas of a judge behind an elevated bench, this courtroom has everyone on the same level. Patterned island material drapes the tables and tapa cloth is all over the room, both on the walls and the floor. There's a weird sense of cultural familiarity I feel in this room, and I wrestle with my thoughts: 'You're not supposed to feel comfortable here.'

I find myself leaning into the room whenever someone rises to speak and address "Your Honour". She asks the young boys how they're feeling with their progress and about connections to their family and culture. I sit up with great expectation at times, when listening to the reports of the police and social workers as they speak of measures that would help these young people beyond the hearings and courtroom visits. As a critic of a 'system' that all too often works in isolation to the people it's supposed to serve, I am encouraged to see it working well in partnership with young people and their families.

After the judge gathers the evidence needed for the appearance, the elders are invited to close the hearing. In all the cases I see, they offer words in their heritage languages and then in English. They speak to the young people and their families with honour and dignity. Heads are lowered in humility. There's something deeply spiritual about sitting under the teachings of our elders. There's also something soothing and therapeutic about hearing one's first language. Emerging health research reveals that the speed at which someone recovers from illness is greater when a patient is able to engage health professionals in their native tongue.

I attend the Pasifika youth court feeling despondent about the current spate of shootings in South Auckland over these past months. Part of me came to the court with the idea that this is the place where the end begins. Instead, I am moved by the brokenness of parents, the vigilance of police, the diligent efforts of overstretched social workers and the judge's desire to pull everything together. It was a staggering experience.

We need to get serious about how to address the gang issues that have re-emerged in South Auckland. Youth worker funding was cut two years ago and here we are again. Poverty is a key driver of anti-social behaviour and we must do everything possible to end this torment. Bringing youth workers back is an immediate action we can take, but preventative measures will do much more in the long run. The community has many ideas of what can be done in this space and the gang leaders themselves have ideas on how to keep their sons from this kind of life. The solutions will require upfront investment from the Crown. A couple of ministers and philanthropic organisations are trying to come up with ways to help find healing and calm. This is also a chance for mainline churches to get involved - surely we collect enough in tithes to help out.

Back in court, the hearing ends and everyone steps out into a small grass area where people share in deep embrace, shed some more tears and continue to talk amongst themselves. One small step away from the courtroom and another towards leading a new, normal life by maintaining the orders imposed on them by the court. Restorative justice works, and I see it in the way deliberate actions are taken by every person in the courtroom - especially the young men - to realise genuine change and remorse.

I leave the courtroom through the same door. Overwhelmed. Broken. Expectant. Shutting the door behind me and walking away from the building, I look up to see a statue of Mary on the opposite side of the grassed area. It seems like an odd encounter to have leaving the courtroom, as the hall is not connected to a church. I stop and study the statue contained in a large wooden frame and adorned with a fresh flower lei. As I stand there I reflect on the words of my parish priest, who ends each mass with the charge: "Now go in peace, to love and serve the Lord." Indeed, a fitting challenge as you leave the Pasifika youth court. 

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