Kyle Kuiti, residence manager at Te au rere a te Tonga, awarded Public Service Medal for his work with youth in the justice system.
Kyle Kuiti has never met a kid he thought he couldn’t crack.
When a boy charged with murder walked into Te Au rere a te Tonga, Oranga Tamariki’s youth justice facility in Palmerston North, Kuiti was caught off guard by his attitude. Most kids who come into the residence are ashamed of why they are there, but not him.
“He thought he was the man.”
But by the time the boy left the residence after 18 months he had gained NCEA Level 2, learnt to play the guitar and represented the residence at a speech competition.
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Stories like these are the reason why Kuiti loves working with some of the country’s most vulnerable youth. Day to day, he sees the kids people have given up on, go on to achieve what no one believed they could.
Although Kuiti only has one daughter, he has become a father figure to many through his role as youth justice residence manager at Oranga Tamariki. New Zealand’s youth justice residences are for young people aged 13-16 that have broken the law, usually multiple times.
They provide a safe space for the residents to get their life back on track, and it is Kuiti’s work that transforms them from volatile, prison-like environments to one that is supportive and welcoming.
Kuiti’s philosophy at Te Au rere a te Tonga is simple; he treats the kids in the centre how he would want Tayla, his 16-year-old daughter, to be treated if she were ever in their position.
Public service and youth justice were not areas Kuiti anticipated working in. He started working part-time as a residential youth worker 15 years ago when his cousin offered him a job at a new youth justice residence in Palmerston North. Before that, he was working in Feilding as a meatworks packer.
It became clear to Kuiti that working with kids was his passion. He loved seeing the small changes in the residents when he invested time to connect with them. The new job didn’t pay as much as his old one in the meatworks, but Kuiti was happy to take on more shifts to cover the lost income.
At the start of Kuiti’s career, youth residences were under-resourced, under-staffed and operated like prisons. He recalls a full-blown riot in 2004, where a large group of kids assaulted staff. It only ended once police attended.
“As soon as I went there, I was like ‘what, you get paid for this?’… and then a few weeks later when things started to kick off I was like ‘oh this is why you get paid for this’.”
When Kuiti took over as manager seven years ago, he knew the culture and practices of the residence needed a drastic overhaul. He wanted to create an environment where the kids felt safe to let their guards down.
“When they’re safe they’re allowed to be kids.”
One of the first changes he made was to reverse the ban on contact sports. Instead of viewing rugby as a breeding ground for violent behaviour like his predecessors, Kuiti actively encourages involvement in sport.
Kuiti and his team regularly run a six week programme, called Hidden Face of Sport, with each iteration of the programme focussing on a different sport. He has managed to get the community involved; when the residents were learning rugby, players from the Manawatū Turbos came in to help the kids hone their skills.
Rugby has played a huge role in Kuiti’s life. He was a long time player and club captain for Foxton Rugby Club, and played representative rugby for Horowhenua Kapiti.
Teaching sport means more to Kuiti than allowing the kids to let off some steam. He uses sport as a vehicle to teach the kids about discipline, hard work and respect during the values sessions, a part of the programme that is just as important as the training and skills sessions.
At the end of the programme, the kids take part in an inter-unit tournament. Kuiti then selects a rep team, the Te Au Rere Tigers, who compete against teams from schools like Palmerston North Boys’ High School and colleges in Foxton, Kuiti’s home. These games sometimes happen on weekends in Kuiti’s spare time, depending on when the other teams are available.
People only get selected for the Tigers if they live the values they have been taught during their day-to-day life at the residence.
“When they make the Tigers, they make it based on how well they display the principles, not how good you are at the sport.”
It worked: “They were trying harder to behave because we were dangling the right carrot for them, that carrot was being a part of a rep team.”
Team leader Tommy Malu started working in youth justice at the same time as Kuiti.
Malu said Kuiti has been instrumental in changing the culture of how youth offenders are treated in New Zealand because “he’s got his heart in the right place”.
“No issue is too big for him, he’s not up in the clouds.”
Humour is Kyle’s secret weapon. His laugh is deep and loud and his jokes self-depracating. It’s an essential tool when you’re dealing with “staunch” young offenders.
Building rapport is everything, and Kuiti isn’t afraid to make a joke out of himself to create a relationship with the kids. To Tayla’s embarrassment, he often joins in when the residents in the girls unit are dancing.
“When the kids come in and see me, they think ‘who’s this big b——?’ Then they find out I’m the boss – that makes it even more daunting for them. Next minute I’m sitting there cracking funnies with them (and) they mellow out pretty quick smart.”
Tayla is very much a reflection of her father. She possesses his wicked humour, as well as his willingness to help people. She believes his success in building meaningful relationships with the kids lies in his sincerity.
“He’s just himself, he doesn’t need to be a different person, he just makes them [the residents] feel comfortable, and like their lives are worth living.
“He’s all for the kids.”
When Kuiti walks around the residence, the kids all take time and say hi to the man they call papa and uncle. He doesn’t try too hard, and he doesn’t need to; it is his no-nonsense approach that gains their respect.
Kuiti doesn’t need to try to be relatable. As he passes through the units, he shakes hands, shares jokes and never looks out of place. He’s a natural-born role model, someone can get through to even the hardest of kids just by showing them who he is.
Kuiti doesn’t see his residents as bad kids, but as kids who have done wrong in their lives. He is not surprised that the ones he deals with end up involved with Oranga Tamariki – many of them have come from violent homes.
“I feel a lot of empathy for our kids because of their journey. At the same time I balance that with wanting them to be accountable for their actions.”
Running the youth justice centre has become a family affair. Kuiti’s family are familiar faces at the residence, and Tayla once accompanied a resident to an overnight event as a support person.
Kuiti’s continued commitment to improve the lives of youth offenders earned him a nomination for one of the first New Zealand Public Service Medals.
The attention from winning the medal clearly makes Kuiti uncomfortable. If he had it his way, this interview wouldn’t even be happening; it was his colleagues who wanted his achievements to be recognised publicly.
The New Zealand Public Service Medal was awarded for the first time in November, and is a part of the New Zealand Royal Honours system. When Kuiti found out he had been nominated, it didn’t cross his mind that he actually had a chance of winning.
Even when he was selected in the top 10, he thought it wouldn’t go further.
“I thought that’s a pretty awesome achievement, I’m happy with that.”
But, he felt uneasy about taking credit for something he believes was a collective effort. His nerves were only exacerbated after finding out Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was presenting the medal.
“Nothing that happens in our residence is down to one person, it’s a team effort. It has to be. I felt a little bit whakamā (embarrassed).”
Kuiti was awarded alongside five other recipients at a Parliament ceremony. They were selected for their outstanding commitment to New Zealand.
Isabel Evans from the Ministry of Education, Matalena Leaupepe from MBIE and Brodie Stubbs from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage accepted their awards alongside Kuiti. Miriama Evans, of Ngāti Mutungā and Ngāi Tahu was awarded the medal posthumously.
The State Services Commission acknowledged the enormity of his contribution to Oranga Tamariki.
“Kyle’s energy is boundless and infectious. He is constantly innovating and seeking to improve the service the residence delivers. His impact goes beyond Te Au rere a te Tonga, and lays a strong foundation to achieve Oranga Tamariki’s wider goal of youth offenders not reoffending.”
The next day at work, embarrassment gave way to pride. Kuiti was welcomed back by the residents and staff with kapa haka and “a few tears”.
“I realised straight away that actually it’s not my medal, it’s all of our medal and everyone got a chance to celebrate it. It really sunk in for me then that it was our achievement as a residence.”