Comment: Closing youth centre would add to trauma

The representative for children and youth and the provincial health officer are deeply concerned about the B.C. government’s recent decision to close the Victoria Youth Custody Centre.

We have written to both Justice Minister Suzanne Anton and Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux to express our concerns, and to recommend that this decision be reconsidered. We believe that closing this facility will pose a risk of imminent and protracted harm to some of B.C.’s most traumatized children.

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In our joint special report, Kids, Crime and Care (2009), we pointed out that aboriginal youth and youth in the care of the government were at a higher risk of ending up in custody than their peers.

We also drew attention to the fact that youth in care in B.C. were more likely to be involved with the justice system than they were to graduate from high school.

These are often children struggling to overcome trauma from neglect and abuse and it is common for them to be challenged by mental-health issues and developmental disabilities.

Among the best strategies to prevent them from further anti-social or problematic behaviours is to ensure that they are treated appropriately according to their unique developmental needs.

An examination of the youth currently housed in the Victoria Youth Custody Centre makes it clear that that these young people are facing enormous challenges because of the prevalence of conditions such as fetal-alcohol syndrome, cognitive delays and mental illness.

When the announcement about the closure of the centre was made, youth immediately began to contact the representative’s office to seek assistance. The proposal to move youth to a larger mainland centre, where incidents of violence are more common, increases youth fear (and indeed likelihood) of being victimized. In addition, they will be housed with more criminally experienced youth who may be members of organized criminal gangs.

For young people, some of whom have never left Vancouver Island, the move will be both destabilizing and isolating. They will be cut off from family and friends. Furthermore, closing this facility will also mean a loss of critical services, including daily alcohol and addictions counselling, which is offered only in Victoria.

Cut off from their communities, some of these young people will likely elect to remain on the Lower Mainland at the conclusion of their sentences and be drawn to the Downtown Eastside, a dangerous path to street life, poverty and addictions.

Exposing young people of either gender to police cells and adult offenders, and subjecting them to effective isolation while in detention will be particularly harsh and might have significant, long-term impacts on their mental health, as well as compromising their capacity to meaningfully participate in legal proceedings.

When these young people return to their communities to face trial, there will be no suitable place for them to be housed. We support the decision of the Victoria Police Department in declining to house young people in their cellblock in direct proximity to adult offenders.

Among other reasons, this proposition is in direct conflict with the principles of the Youth Criminal Justice Act and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

This planned closure also defies the core value on which all our child-serving systems are built — that decisions should be made based on the best interests of the child and not primarily on issues of economic expediency.

If lower rates of youth incarceration make maintaining the Victoria Youth Custody Centre solely for that purpose uneconomic, then this represents a unique opportunity to repurpose the facility to address any number of well-identified needs in our communities that could support children and youth struggling with addictions and mental-health issues.

Proceeding with the decision to close the centre will arguably mean the revictimization of young people who have already suffered a lifetime of trauma and have often themselves been the victims of violence.

If the object of the youth justice system is to rehabilitate offenders, adding to each child’s burden of trauma will not produce the desired outcomes or address the best interests of the children.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is B.C.’s representative for children and youth. Dr. Perry Kendall is B.C.’s provincial health officer.

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