Two years ago, when I heard the news that an 11 year-old boy living in a group home in Prince George had been Tasered by police, I remember asking myself: “how could that possibility happen?” Last week, BC’s Representative for Children and Youth answered that question with agonizing clarity in her latest report: “Who Protected Him? How B.C.’s Child Welfare System Failed one of its most Vulnerable Children”.
The story of this young boy is an extreme example of an all too common trajectory for many of this province’s poorest and most marginalized young people who move quickly from being labeled a vulnerable child, to a troubled youth, to a dangerous criminal. The systemic problem of vulnerable Aboriginal children facing harm and criminalization at the hands of government officials charged with helping them was further highlighted with the release of a Human Rights Watch report titled "Those Who Take Us Away", a translation of the word for police in the Carrier language, which documents abusive treatment and neglect of Aboriginal women and girls at he hands of police in Northern BC. Taken together, these reports point to a need to examine the State’s continued role in “taking away” Aboriginal children, youth and adults, first under the guise of protection and eventually under the guise of public safety and criminal justice.
The Representative for Children and Youth recognizes the direct relationship between child welfare system involvement and criminalization. In 2009 she wrote:
There is no youth crime crisis in B.C. However, a large and very vulnerable group of children and youth, many of whom are Aboriginal and in the care of the government, are at a higher risk of ending up in jail than their peers. Often, these children have been removed from their family home and have experienced instability and poor attachment to positive peers and adults.
According to the Representative for Children and Youth in BC, more youth in care in B.C. become involved with the youth criminal justice system than graduate from high school. One in six youth in care had been in youth custody (lock up, remand or sentenced) compared to less than one in 50 of the general population of their age peers. Like the boy who is the subject of the Representative’s report, nearly one-third of the youth in the youth justice system are Aboriginal, and this over-representation is replicated in the adult prison system as well.
Many of these youth, like the boy who was the subject of the report, begin life facing significant disadvantages including poverty, discrimination, and parents who themselves have been let down by the child welfare system as young people. The boy who is the subject of the Representative’s report faced additional challenges including hearing loss and significant developmental delays. His story is one of disrupted attachment, including 15 different foster and group home placements by the time he was 12, unmet medical and educational needs, and punitive responses to behaviours beyond his control. While the incident that prompted the report was unusual, many of the challenges he faced were not.
As time went on, and the impacts of disadvantage and trauma compounded, this young child was increasingly institutionalized. By age eight, a psychologist has concluded that he could no long remain in regular foster care as a result of his “reactive attachment disorder”, and he was placed in a group home designed for housing street and criminal justice system involved teens. One of the professionals quoted in the representative’s report described group homes as “warehousing children until they aged out of the system.”
It was also at the age of eight, soon after moving to a staffed “residential resource”, that staff began to rely on the police to manage the child’s behaviour. Although he was too young for the Youth Criminal Justice Act to apply, police were called during outbursts, or after particularly inappropriate behavaiours, often transporting him to hospital where he was given a series of medications.
Soon after the young boy was Tazered, the Representative stated that in reviewing that particular incident, she became concerned about a wider issue of police being called by group home staff to attend and act as a disciplinarian of sorts and noted that some group homes in the province appear to be repeatedly using police to help manage or discipline children with complex needs and behaviours. This practice does not seem to be limited to British Columbia. In Ontario, the Office of Child and Family Service Advocacy found that there was a pattern emerging where youth are being brought into care and then being criminally charged for their behaviour. The report found that group homes rely heavily on the police to handle day-to-day behavioural issues that would come up in family homes: “Kids have been charged for everything from refusing to read a book or hitting someone with a tea towel.”
Perhaps most concerning is the use of isolation and restraints to manage the child. A child psychologist who worked with him had stated that the use of a “calm down room” may be indicated as part of a therapeutic plan with clinic oversight, it appears that the use of these isolation rooms were a routine occurrence in the child’s life and were at times used as a punitive measure by untrained, low-wage staff. The representative notes repeatedly that the facilities in which the ministry has placed this child have used this tactic despite the fact that there is no policy or legislation in B.C. that permits use of isolation outside of mental health facilities. She goes on to state that giving group home staff the power to confine “raises fundamental issues about the rights of children with special needs.”
One of the most troubling aspects of all criminalization of young people in the foster care system is the extent to which they are “held to account” for their behaviour while those who harm them and put them at risk are ignored. One social worker reported to the Representative that she believed the child whose life was being reviewed was locked in the shed for undeterminable periods of time and held face down in a bucket of water by other children in an early foster home. Both his biological family and many community members complained. While the foster home was eventually closed, no police report was ever made, and no criminal or civil charges were ever laid.
The Human Rights Watch report looking at the same northern communities documents treatment of “young offenders” which includes a 12 year-old Aboriginal girl bitten by a police dog, a 17-year-old girl said she was repeatedly punched in the face while in the back seat of a police car and a 15-year-old girl's arm was allegedly broken when an RCMP officer tried to put her in handcuffs. At the same time, the report alleges that disappearances and violence committed against girls in these communities goes unaddressed by those charged with protecting the public.
In reading this report it is striking how much the conditions facing this young boy in foster care mirror the conditions facing adults in our prison population. From his earliest experiences in the foster care system this young boy faced overcrowded conditions, suffered from lack of attention to health, and faced violence from his paid caregivers as well as from others around him. The representative even condemns the use of “safe rooms” to isolate the boy, in a practice eerily similar to prisoners being placed in segregation for bad behaviour. In many ways it feels like this boy has already been in prison his whole life.
This young child, at least at the time of the Representative’s report, had not officially entered the youth criminal justice system, but many more like him make that transition every year. While it is easy for politicians to talk about getting tough on crime, it is much harder for government to talk about the failures of child welfare system that institutionalizes and traumatizes youth long before become involved with the criminal justice system. Rarely do we get the chance to read such a thorough review of how difficult life can be for the most marginalized members of our society, and rarely has the government looked so ineffective in providing them the care that would disrupt the route from protection to prison.