There were about 1,250 visitors at the Victoria Youth Custody Centre last year, contrary to claims that young offenders are largely neglected by their families, government statistics show.
Of those visitors, about 800 were relatives or friends, while 465 were social workers, probation officers, volunteers, agency officials or others in the community.
Supporters of a recent decision to close the Victoria facility and move the young offenders to the Lower Mainland have argued that the youth — who often come from families battling poverty and addiction — receive relatively few visitors anyway.
But government statistics show that 32 of the 50 youth from the Greater Victoria had 229 family visits in 2013-14, while 17 of 35 youth from north of the Malahat had a total of 180 visits. One visit can include several family members.
Of the 85 youth in the facility, 36 did not receive a single family visit, but may have had others from the community checking in on them, the ministry said.
Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux announced on April 28 that with fewer youth ending up behind bars, the government could no longer afford to keep the jail open. The facility, which was built for 60, is staffed to house a maximum of 24 youth, but held an average of 15 on any given night last year.
The ministry will save $4.5 million a year by closing the jail and transferring youth to one of the remaining youth custody facilities in Burnaby or Prince George.
The government’s plan has been opposed by local mayors, police, First Nations, the provincial health officer, B.C.’s representative for children and youth and all 13 municipalities in the capital region. Among the concerns is that youth will lose touch with their family and friends.
Cadieux said that Island families will be able to stay in contact with their children by phone or videoconferencing or through subsidized in-person visits. The ministry’s family visitation support program approved all 27 of the applications it received in the past two years, she said.
“As a ministry, we encourage families to maintain contact with their children who are in custody,” she said in a letter to the Times Colonist.
“We work with them on an individual basis to successfully visit their loved ones because we understand the value of family support for these vulnerable youth.”
But critics say Skype video calls and the occasional trip to Burnaby pale in comparison with what exists now. They fear shipping youth to the Lower Mainland will cut them off from family and ultimately undermine their chances at rehabilitation.
University of Victoria professor Sibylle Artz, an expert on youth violence, said extensive research on preventing delinquency and recidivism has shown the importance of maintaining connections with families and communities.
“It just does not make sense to remove people from those necessary connections if you’re looking into their future,” she said.
A recent ministry-funded survey found that B.C. youth in custody did far better when connected to family and community. The report was updated in February 2014, two months before the provincial government announced it was closing the Victoria Youth Custody Centre.
> Family bonds crucial, B.C. report says, A3