Randy Risling / Toronto Star Order this photoThe Star discovered a disturbing tendency — particularly in group homes — to turn outbursts from kids usually suffering from trauma and mental health issues into matters for police
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Toronto group homes turning outbursts from kids into matters for police
Serious occurrences involving youth in the care of the Ontario government and privately run children’s aid societies often involve a call to police.
Randy Risling / Toronto Star Order this photo
The Star discovered a disturbing tendency — particularly in group homes — to turn outbursts from kids usually suffering from trauma and mental health issues into matters for police.
At Libby’s Place, an Etobicoke group home for troubled girls, a resident of more than a year was “desperate” to leave.
So she scratched two of the home’s cars, hoping the vandalism would get her thrown out and placed with foster parents. In a report on the incident to the Ontario government, staff from the home urged her legal guardians, the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, to find the girl a “suitable program” as quickly as possible.
In the meantime, the girl’s cry of distress landed her in police custody with two counts of mischief.
Across town, at a Hanrahan Youth Services group home in Scarborough, a boy with a “developmental disability” smashed his bedroom window during a “disagreement” with another youth. Staff called police, and the boy — also in the care of the Toronto CAS — was taken into custody and charged with mischief.
Another youth at Hanrahan did no more than refuse an order to go to his room, according to the home’s report. He was charged with failing to comply with court conditions imposed for a previous incident.
The incidents are described in reports that must be filed to the Ontario government by group homes, foster parents and children’s aid societies when children or youth in their care are involved in events considered serious. In 2013, 1,199 separate incidents were filed in Toronto — all of them obtained by the Star through a freedom of information request.
The results show a disturbing tendency — particularly in group homes — to turn outbursts from kids usually suffering from trauma and mental health issues into matters for police.
They raise concerns about caregivers being too quick to call police, feeding what studies suggest is a pipeline that funnels youths in care into the justice system.
There are 3,300 young people in Ontario group homes.
The Star aggregated the Toronto data according to the types of serious incidents, a task the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, which receives the reports, has apparently never done.
Fully 39 per cent of the serious occurrence reports involved police. In a quarter of those incidents, youths ended up under arrest.
Child psychologist Dr. Michele Peterson-Badali, an authority on Canada’s youth justice system, believes caregivers are calling police for behaviours that most biological parents would deal with in more compassionate ways.
“These kids who are in foster or group homes are getting charged because they are living in a particular type of institutional environment where that’s the consequence for your behaviour,” says Peterson-Badali, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
“By virtue of where they are, they are far more likely to penetrate the justice system more deeply than they (otherwise) would,” she adds. “It’s like we’ve set them up. It’s very distressing.”
Ontario’s Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, Irwin Elman, says the high rate of police involvement reflects “the culture of power and control” that reigns in many group homes.
Kim Snow, a professor at Ryerson University’s School of Child and Youth Care, believes it mirrors a lack of staff training in de-escalating situations in which youths act out.
“I can think of nothing worse than having a group home phone the police on their own children,” she says.
The link between youths in care and the criminal justice system has been studied in the U.S. but neglected in Canada. British Columbia is the exception.