Rangatahi, whānau and professionals talk about communication assistance
in the New Zealand
youth justice system
Hello, my name is Kelly Howard. I’m a clinical psychologist who trained at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. My research involved speaking to rangatahi (young people), whānau (family) and professionals about communication assistance. Communication assistance is a form of support for rangatahi and pakeke (adults). It’s support to help with the talking and listening needed in meetings with lawyers, in Family Group Conferences and in court. The purpose of this website is to share some of my findings. I have also written some articles that you might be interested in. I have worked in different roles in the criminal justice system and am passionate about helping to create a more effective system.
What is communication assistance?
See https://www.benchmark.org.nz/guidelines/communication-assistants/ for more detailed information. See also https://talkingtroublenz.org/ and https://www.moretalk.co.nz/
Read more about communication assistance in the following article:
Howard, K., McCann, C., & Dudley, M. (2020). What is communication assistance? Describing a new and emerging profession in the New Zealand youth justice system. Psychology, Psychiatry and the Law, 27(2), 300-314. https://doi.org/10.1080/13218719.2020.1719378
Why does communication assistance matter?
Research shows that at least 60% of young people who offend have communication difficulties. Communication is key to safe and effective justice. Strong talking and listening skills are required at every step in the process: from being questioned by police, talking to a lawyer or youth advocate, being part of a family group conference, a court hearing, and any rehabilitation processes. It is important that we find effective solutions that enable rangatahi and whānau to participate in youth justice processes. Communication assistance might be one solution.
Rangatahi and their whānau
I interviewed five rangatahi and five whānau members who had experienced communication assistance in in at least one youth justice process (for example, in meetings with a youth advocate, in a Family Group Conference or in court). The main finding was that communication assistance was a transformative and empowering experience for the rangatahi and whānau interviewed. They considered that communication assistance made it “easier” in a youth justice system that was otherwise “hard”. For them, communication assistance meant sharing in and being part of the process, rather than being an outsider to whom the process was done. The findings overall suggest that communication assistance has a valuable and ongoing role to play in the New Zealand youth justice system and may be one means of addressing the needs of those with communication difficulties.
Here’s what they said:
“It was pretty easy because [the communication assistant] was there to help” (rangatahi 1)
"It was easier wording that what the judge was saying" (rangatahi 4)
"…he drew pictures. It was good. It just made a huge difference I think" (whānau 1)
"Said how I was feeling then…I put down nervous ((laughs))" (rangatahi 1)
Researcher: What makes her [your lawyer] easy to understand?
Rangatahi 3: She does the same thing as that lady [the communication assistant].
"Because I’ve been in and out of court and jail, so I know what they’re on about [in court]. But I couldn’t break it down to where he [my son] could understand" (whānau 5).
"The seriousness of the charges was my concern. And I just needed [my son] to understand everything that was going on. What the lawyers were talking about, what the lawyers and the judges were talking about, so that he understood every part of what was happening through that whole process. Because this was his life. His life. A big chunk of his life" (whānau 2).
"She [the communication assistance] gave us a few pointers and a few flashcards which gave us ways of communicating with [my son] with other services that we were going to use afterwards, after the court case. We were going to be using other services and the flash cards were ways the other services could communicate with [my son] to make it easier for him… That was something that I thought was really good and really helpful, but the other services didn’t use them… that really pissed me off" (whānau 2).
These findings are discussed in more detail in Howard, K., McCann, C., & Dudley, M. (2020). "It was like more easier": Rangatahi (young people) and their whānau (family) talk about communication assistance in the New Zealand youth justice system. Youth Justice. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1473225420923763
I interviewed 28 professionals who work in the NZ youth justice system: judges, lawyers, social workers, youth justice co-ordinators, lay advocates, psychologists, police, a court registrar, and communication assistants.
Professionals were overwhelmingly in support of communication assistance and shared encouraging stories about young people who were better able to share their views and participate in justice processes affecting them as a result.
He was suddenly a participant in his process as opposed to being on the outside of it. He felt that he had some level of control. He could understand. He could appropriately respond to me whether he wanted something because he understood what we were talking about. Whereas none of that would have been possible without the CA [communication assistant] being there (lawyer).
I was happy for it to occur, it was more than welcome. Because the young person has to, you know, it would be hopeless if that young person didn’t understand what was going on, everyone was talking around him and not to him (lawyer).
Professionals did highlight however challenges in relation to how communication assistance was functioning in practice. These challenges included being a new profession with a developing identity; figuring out who needs help and when; no standard practices or processes exist; and not everyone knows about it.
The findings of this study have been written about in the following articles:
Howard, K., McCann, C., & Dudley, M. (2019). ‘It’s really good, much needed, why hasn’t it happened earlier?’ Professionals’ perspectives on the benefits of communication assistance in the New Zealand youth justice system. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 53(2), 265-284. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0004865819890377
Howard, K., McCann, C., & Dudley, M. (2020). ‘I was flying blind a wee bit’: Professionals’ perspectives on challenges facing communication assistance in the New Zealand youth justice system. The International Journal of Evidence & Proof, 24(2), 104-120. https://doi.org/10.1177/1365712719877893
Howard, K., McCann, C., Ewing, A., Dudley, M., & Brookbanks, W. (2019). Two legal concepts collide: the intersection of unfitness to stand trial and communication assistance. New Zealand Universities Law Review, 28(3)
To my supervisory team at the University of Auckland: Dr Clare McCann and Dr Makarena Dudley
Thank you also to Carol Green, Auckland based illustrator and designer who drew the images for this research that are included on this site