03/24/2015 05:27 EDT | Updated 05/24/2015 05:59 EDT

Youth In Care Should Not Be Criminalized

Judge holding gavel in courtroom
Chris Ryan via Getty Images
Judge holding gavel in courtroom

I've always believed that in order to be good at something, you must be driven. Driven by the will and the want to succeed, driven by tragedy or heartache, driven because you're the underdog, or driven because you simply want to do better.

I was driven to become a paralegal student because when I was a Crown Ward, dozens of foster parents and group home workers (I lived in 16 different placements over seven years) consistently told me I would amount to nothing. In fact, one foster mother went as far as telling me she predicted I'd be dead or in jail by the time I turned 18. Fortunately, none of those things happened.

I'm quite proud of what I've been able to accomplish and I am consistently striving to do better in order to prove myself right and my former caregivers wrong.

The reason I have decided to become a paralegal is to advocate. Why? Because I was fortunate enough to have a lawyer who advocated for me and because Ontario's Provincial Advocate for Children & Youth taught me how to advocate for myself in addition to also stepping in to advocate for me when things became too complicated and too complex.

There were dozens of times as a Crown Ward in which I felt like I couldn't be helped either because people thought I was unworthy of being helped or because I thought that of myself. At first I thought it was simply a perception, but now that I've left the care of CAS I have learned this is a reality.

As a paralegal student I frequently observe court and last week I saw one particular hearing that troubled me.

A 15-year old Crown Ward of the Hamilton Children's Aid Society was charged in November for mischief under five thousand dollars. This was his very first time being criminally charged and since being released on bail last year he's allegedly breached his conditions seven times. The reason why he was before the court this time is because he allegedly stole a motor vehicle which not only constituted new charges, but it also meant he allegedly breached his bail conditions.

This young person has a troubled history, he was diagnosed with mental illness and is currently receiving treatment for it. What's more sad though is that he was removed from the custody of his mother who is a drug user.

He keeps getting released from incarceration back into the care of CAS and his group home. When the prosecutor and defense lawyer asked his caregivers what they were going to do to help ensure he wouldn't breach his conditions again, the CAS and group home said their hands were tied. They said the youth had to learn to make decisions for himself and face the consequences of those decisions if they were the wrong ones.

The group home was questioned about whether or not they could supply a 1-1 worker for the youth and the answer was no because of the lack of funding.

Due to the CAS and group home being unable to offer assurances to the court that the youth would be adequately supervised if released and because the court thought there was a high likelihood the youth would re-offend again upon release, bail was denied.

The Justice of the Peace (JP) commented that he believes the rate of recidivism for youth in care was much higher than for youth not in care. The JP also noted he was concerned that the very organizations tasked with protecting our community's most vulnerable youth appears to be having a difficult time in doing so.

I share the JP's concerns. Based on what I observed in court, this kid is not a criminal. Rather he's a young person in dire need of assistance that can't be found in custody that has resorted to doing criminal activities as a desperate plea for help and attention.

The very organizations that are funded by your tax dollars and my tax dollars are not living up to their obligation to take ownership of these children's problems. Instead, they're taking them into care, passing them off to the youth correctional system, and throwing their hands in the air going "They can't be helped" or "We don't have the funding." According to people I know that work in the child protection system, what I have described happens in courtrooms every day across the province.

Enough is enough Ontario, kids in care are society's children and we all must be ashamed at the care and treatment they are receiving. These kids have enough on their plate, the last thing they need is to become criminalized. Our child protection system needs to steer kids away from a life of crime but instead they're doing quite the opposite.

Our kids deserve better!


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