Toronto Star

Youth facing new hurdles in justice

Advocates say COVID-19 has left the vulnerable in more precarious position

- JASON MILLER LOCAL JOURNALISM INITIATIVE REPORTER

After months of reduced programmin­g and suspended inperson visits to detention centres, young people stuck facing the criminal justice system are facing even more hurdles to get back on track amid the pandemic, lawyers, advocates and youth mental health workers are warning.

It’s a situation that’s left vulnerable young people with a more challengin­g path to get back on track, especially those who are already marginaliz­ed, advocates say.

Youth mental health court worker Lul Omar normally deals with youth struggling with behavioura­l, mental and developmen­tal disorders that require hands-on, in-person attention — but that now has to be done by phone or video.

“A lot of those youth need to be seen face-to-face, so some of those families and youth are not being serviced the best that they could be,” said Omar, who works with Lumenus Community Services out of the Metro West Courthouse in Etobicoke.

Agencies in COVID-19 hot spots have had to scale back work even further amid new lockdowns, she said. “I have had a few kids who have gone under the radar because they don’t have access to technology,” she said. “It’s been very hard to get in contact with those youth — for court appearance­s and making sure we can connect them to services.”

Locally, both Peel and Toronto have entered the province’s strictest lockdown classifica­tion amid the pandemic’s second wave. That means agencies caring for youth have had to dial back on all in-person appointmen­ts.

Brampton is also home to the Roy McMurtry Youth Centre, the province’s largest youth detention centre, housing both

male and female young people.

Lawyer Justin Yuen, who represents young offenders out in the community and some housed at Roy McMurtry, says a string of services including counsellin­g for some of his clients has been put on pause. That’s left those who are unable to afford private counsellin­g at a disadvanta­ge, he said.

“What would’ve been a couple of sessions that would take normally a month is now being put over for almost half of a year,” Yuen said, describing the dilemma faced by one of his female clients who is under the care of children’s aid. “Individual­s who are disenfranc­hised have it tougher.”

Child and youth lawyer Emma Rhodes said some things are slowly getting back on track. Some of her clients were granted bail due to the special circumstan­ces brought on by the pandemic, but she’s concerned about depression and anxiety creeping in for those still in detention through the winter, especially considerin­g they can’t see family in-person.

She said the system does recognize that young people who “need that human contact,

aren’t going to have it, so the vulnerable youth are going to slip through the cracks”

In a statement, a spokespers­on for the Ministry of Children and Youth Services said the in-person visits and volunteer activities have been cancelled at provincial detention centres including Roy McMurtry.

“Work is currently underway to explore resuming non-essential in-person visits for youth in youth justice settings,” the ministry said. “Exceptions for in-person visits can be made for special circumstan­ces (humanitari­an and compassion­ate grounds) on a case-by-case basis.”

The ministry said that some programmin­g — such as the homework club and job readiness training — continues. Some external agencies continue to offer programmin­g through video chat as well.

Still, young people at the detention centre now have to stay in contact with their lawyers, family and friends via phone and video calls.

“It’s been good to have that resource in order to talk to your client and arrange for a confi

dential call,” Yuen said, adding Roy McMurtry was “relatively quick” to pivot to remote contact. “Some programs are still happening, but they’re not as frequent as they used to be,” he said.

Roy McMurtry currently houses 61 youth, well below the facility’s total capacity of 96 youth. The facility has had seven confirmed COVID-19 cases so far, and has one active case, according to the province. No hospitaliz­ations have been reported.

For the most part, Omar said the majority of youth she sees have adjusted well to the pandemic, and even as a segment is struggling to stay on track in school, others have taken advantage of virtual classes to get credits. “There are some positives to it, but a lot of downfalls as well,” she said Omar, who provides services at the Metro West Courthouse. Jason Miller is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering crime and justice in the Peel Region. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach him on email: jasonmille­r@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @millermoti­onpic

 ?? RENÉ JOHNSTON TORONTO STAR ?? Lawyer Emma Rhodes represents youth clients who are having a hard time navigating the youth justice system during the pandemic. She’s concerned about depression and anxiety creeping in for those still in detention through the winter.
RENÉ JOHNSTON TORONTO STAR Lawyer Emma Rhodes represents youth clients who are having a hard time navigating the youth justice system during the pandemic. She’s concerned about depression and anxiety creeping in for those still in detention through the winter.

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