In support of prisoners and prison justice activism in Canada
Youth Group Homes Gateways to Jail

[2 articles]

Troubled kids `criminalized': Report
Inadequate group home care blamed for first charges such children will face
March 8, 2007
Moira Welsh, Toronto Star

Nearly half of all Ontario youth being held in open custody came from the province's child welfare system, says a report by the Office of the Child Advocacy.

Judy Finlay, Ontario's child advocate, says kids taken into care from troubled, abusive or neglectful homes are not properly managed by the child welfare system. Instead, she says, they end up being criminalized by minor charges that lead to detention in open custody units.

"The system is penalizing kids for their background and moving them into the youth justice system where it will be very difficult for them to be successful for the rest of their lives," Finlay said in an interview.

"I think we have to acknowledge that these kids have complex needs, have to acknowledge that they need special care and special programming, so they can be successful."

The findings came from a January review of open custody care in Ontario, in which 209 boys and 39 girls were interviewed by Finlay and her researchers.

While most gave favourable reviews of open custody settings (where young people convicted of minor crimes are sent for detention), researchers found that 48 per cent came from the child welfare system, and many were charged after staff in the group homes called in police to deal with their behaviour.

In one case, police were called to a group home 400 times over one year, the report said.

It gave examples of youth who were charged with failing to comply with a bail or probation order, by not following the "routine or discipline of a residence" by refusing to end a telephone call or by refusing to read when directed to do so by staff. In one instance, a youth was charged with assault for throwing a tea towel, the report said.

"Kids are telling us that their first charge is in group care," said Finlay.

"So they have been taken out of their family, they are in child welfare care, they are acting out behaviourally and we are charging them and moving them to the youth justice system. There's something wrong with this system."

Part of the problem, Finlay said, stems from inadequate standards in group home care, an issue that is being addressed by changes to the Family and Child Services Act, which governs child protection in Ontario. Children and Youth Services Minister Mary Anne Chambers said the legislative changes will increase accountability and enforcement through licensing of homes and provide a better complaint process.

"It is very unfortunate that there are group homes out there that are making these kinds of decisions, heavy-handed decisions in some cases, because if those kids are in a home with families and seen as part of the family, I don't think they would be calling the police," she said.

The legislative changes will put more emphasis on permanent care and more stable homes for children in need of protection, Chambers said. Finlay said the changes could "go a long way" if the government puts enough resources into place so homes have the training and expertise needed.


Kids see group homes as 'gateways to jail': child advocate
March 7, 2007
CBC News

Almost half of Ontario's young offenders in detention for minor crimes came through the child welfare system, a report from the Office of Child and Family Service Advocacy shows.

The trend is a concern for child advocates across the country and Ontario Child Advocate Judy Finlay said many of the province's young people are beginning to think of group homes as "gateways to jail."

"We're taking them out of very difficult family circumstances, bringing them into state care and then we're charging them for their behaviour. It's very concerning to me," Finlay said.

The report, which was obtained by CBC News, lays much of the blame on group homes that rely too heavily on police to resolve problems that could be handled by staff.

Kids have been charged for everything from refusing to read a book or hitting someone with a tea towel, Finlay said. One group home in Ontario called police 400 times in a single year.

Don't call police for minor disturbances: minister

Ontario's Children and Youth Services Minister Mary Anne Chambers says calling police in to deal with trivial problems is never justified and would not happen if those children were living at home.

"It's very important to understand that these kids should be treated as though they're in homes, not in institutions," said Chambers. "When we have children in, for example, the province's child protection system, we the province are their parents."

While some in the child welfare field have said low wages and poor training of group home workers are part of the problem, Chambers rejected the claims. "I don't think you should need any special training to understand that some of those behaviours are quite minor, maybe a little anti-social, but minor," said Chambers, adding that rates of pay in group homes are "not shabby."

Another problem facing the often troubled and vulnerable children entering group homes is the lack of mental health support, says Jeanette Lewis, the executive director of Ontario's Association of Children's Aid Societies.

"The childrens' mental health centres are facing some very long waiting lists and child welfare clients, even though they are children who are wards of the state, often do not get to the top of these lists," said Lewis, adding she wasn't surprised by the child advocacy office's statistics.

Teen says workers provoked him

Ontario is not the only province that needs to fix the system, Finlay's report says.

A sampling of facilities across Canada found that 57 per cent of young offenders had a connection to the child welfare system, the report said. In British Columbia, a recent study put that number at 73 per cent.

While some teens acknowledge the more serious charges may be warranted, they complain that too often, staff lack the training to deal with troubled kids and resort to calling police.

A teen, who can't be named under federal law, said workers would often provoke him. After he was charged, group home workers had an easy way to threaten him by suggesting a breach of his bail or probation conditions would mean a return to a young offenders facility.

"They threaten you and say you better read that book or you're going back to jail. Come on, what kind of system is this?" the teen said.

Finlay is calling on the province to collect data on police calls from group homes and the charges that result.

She also wants to see a mental health worker attached to each group home and higher standards for an industry that costs taxpayers more than $200 million a year.