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Ontario child advocate wants youth assessment centre replaced.

TORONTO -- Ontario Child Advocate Judith Finlay will report to a coroner's inquiry that "peer violence generated by idleness, limited meaningful programming, inadequate staff supervision, vigilance and intervention, and inattention to basic-care needs is the most profound issue confronting Toronto Youth Assessment Centre at this time." The Advocate wants the Ontario government to shut down the Etobicoke detention centre for young people awaiting trial, saying conditions there are violent.

In a report to Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Monte Kwinter, she recommends that the government stop sending young people to the Toronto Youth Assessment Centre "immediately," remove all "vulnerable and special-needs youth" before it is closed, and fund monitors from her office "to insure the safety of youth during the transition period."

Kwinter acknowledged that the 130-bed centre is not acceptable, adding that plans are proceeding to replace it with a new facility.

A senior official at the centre testified in court in August 2003 that violence was a regular occurrence, with between two and 20 incidents a week, some involving gangs, weapons, innocent victims or serious injuries requiring hospitalization.

Finlay's report says the peer violence at the centre, which a family court judge once called "a hellish institution reminiscent of both Dickens and Lord of the Flies," takes two principal forms.

In one form, called "soldiering," one youth forces another, under threat of assault or intimidation, to assault a third. In the other, called "holding court," a mock court is held in which those accused of offenses, such as "ratting," are given a sentence of physical punishment that could include a punch in the face, or forcing a youth to drink urine or lick semen or saliva off the walls.

Kwinter said that, "She's calling for the closure of it. I have no problem with that; the problem I have is that you can't build a new facility overnight and secondly, we do have some financial constraints. He added that the new building is years, not months, away. Kwinter said he has asked for a review of the facility, to ensure that treatment of young people improves pending the construction of the new building. "This is what the child advocate is stating and we're going to investigate all of the considerations that have been brought up in the report and see that we fix them."

Transferring the youths in the Toronto Youth Assessment Centre to other spots around the province is unrealistic, Kwinter said, because many of the young people require family contact as part of their rehabilitation. The duty of the Child Advocate is to ensure that youths who are in custody understand their rights and that laws are followed that protect them from abuse. In her report's executive summary, Finlay writes that "This has created a culture of care that is chaotic, unsafe and lacking in the necessary rehabilitative orientation," she writes. "The only reasonable conclusion is to close the facility and relocate youth to environments that ensure safety, and a respectful, rehabilitative milieu."

Finlay notes that in spite of a slate of previous recommendations she made in a report to the government in 2000 to protect young people, the institution "does not appear to have a strategy to address peer violence" and that those youths who felt safe explained that "they knew people" or that they were on a safer range.

Public attention has been focused on the facility with the death of "a young person in custody," Finlay's report said. In a lawsuit against the centre and the Ontario government, the family of 16-year-old David Meffe alleges that jail staff failed to prevent the mentally ill boy from hanging himself while in custody, even though they had been warned he was suicidal. The allegations have not been proved in court, and the government says it will fully defend the case. The centre is bound to come under close scrutiny at an inquest that's scheduled to begin on Jan. 19 into David Merle's death on Oct. 2, 2002.

Don Ford of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/NUPGE) said OPSEU is "very pleased" with Finlay's recommendation to shut down the facility because the building is not "appropriate" for incarcerating young people.

Ford said correctional staff, who are represented by OPSEU, feel a sense of "utter hopelessness and defeat" because they can't do the job they are supposed to do, "which is protecting young persons from other young persons."

"This is an emergency situation moving them elsewhere and separating them from their families."

Two staff members received commendations for their bravery in extricating a youth from serious violence, while at the same taking several other youths to court hearings.
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Title Annotation:Child & Family
Publication:Community Action
Date:Jan 19, 2004
Previous Article:"Skip generation" households, grandparents raise children's children.
Next Article:Youth offenders for children's ministry.

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