Generation of hopelessness: Youth workers say children need help amid crime wave

Youth workers are warning against coming down hard on children involved in a spate of ram raids – saying they need help, not harsher punishment.

They’re warning of a “generation of hopelessness” that is turning to crime as a way to cope with disconnection, depression and poverty.

The comments follow almost daily ram raids, in which stolen cars have been used to smash into shops and steal goods.

Very young children are increasingly involved, and police fear a tragedy could be imminent.

In a recent case an 11-year-old was found to be driving, and this week police attended a Hamilton shopping centre break-in to find four children aged 7, 10, 11 and 12 clutching stolen toys.

Police also say social media is a motivating factor, as offenders post their exploits to platforms like TikTok.

Now youth workers are warning against more punitive measures like locking kids up in a misguided attempt to fix the problem – saying that won’t deal with root causes like trauma and desperate poverty.

Aaron Hendry, who’s been a youth worker for a decade, said it was easy to assume those involved were just bad kids who needed to be punished.

But he had learned there were “no bad kids, only hurt ones”.

“No matter how tough, scary, big, or bad, a young person may seem to you, when you take time to listen and hear what’s going on under the surface the reality is a child who is hurting and just asking to be seen.”

Young people – rich or poor – who felt disconnected or ostracised were more likely to get into crime, he said. That could happen when kids felt scape-goated or when little was expected of them, which was currently being seen in public discourse.

Kids needed adults other than their parents to be involved and invested in them, he said.

Addiction, poverty, homelessness, desperation and mental health issues were also to blame. He pinpointed disabilities like foetal alcohol spectrum disorder as being particularly harmful and said sufferers did not get enough support.

“If we fail to provide people with support to manage the complexity of their lives, they will find ways to survive,” he said.

“It might not seem rational to you, but when a person is suffering and finds a strategy that can ease the pain, they’ll use that strategy. For some young people, taking risks, stealing cars, doing a [burglary], it becomes one of those strategies.”

Hendry wanted everyone to have the right to housing, a liveable income and access to the health, disability and mental health services they needed to thrive.

Youth worker Hadleigh Pouesi echoed those comments, saying young people were part of a “generation of hopelessness” who were looking for a way out.

Speaking to TVNZ, Pouesi said the crime wave was the result of some “really harsh social environments” but the public often only saw the problem, not what had caused it.

He had been doing the job for 18 years and said when he was growing up the dream was to do things like buy a house and raise a family. That was no longer attainable, he said.

And he agreed that social media played a huge part in encouraging the crime wave, because everything else young people lived for – like social interactions, sport, art and music programmes – were deemed non-essential by the pandemic.

“Your social life [now] belongs on your phone. Your affirmation belongs on your phone. What will you go through to get that affirmation?” he said.

“They’re not getting that sense of belonging anywhere else; they’re not getting that sense of community, so they’re looking for their phones, they’re looking for the @s, they’re looking for the likes and the comments.”

He sat down with such kids every day and said the public needed to remember these kids had had it tough.

“These are people who have had their backs against the wall. These are people who don’t have the same starting line as everybody else,” he said.

“I know it’s hard to give people time, patience. There are a lot of things that need to be done between now and finding that solution. But anger doesn’t solve.”

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