British Columbia·In Depth

Youth crime and domestic violence: Families in crisis glimpsed through Surrey's court

They aren't the cases that make the headlines. But when teens are in trouble or families are dealing with domestic violence the issues are all consuming.

They rarely make news but youth crime and domestic violence are constant issues in Surrey's court

Publication bans mean that domestic violence and youth court proceedings rarely see much coverage. But the details reveal portraits of families in crisis. (CBC)

Within the next two decades, Surrey is poised to overtake Vancouver as B.C.'s biggest city. The last municipal election showed a desire for change, fuelled in part by lingering concerns about public safety, the future of the RCMP and the direction of growth. This week, we asked reporter Jason Proctor to spend time at Surrey's courthouse to see how the cases heard inside reflect the challenges facing the community.

It's Wednesday morning and the lineup outside the Surrey courthouse looks like the queue for a concert, complete with a weapons-check for the teenagers waiting to get inside.

It's youth day and the courtroom is filled with teens and parents awaiting hearing dates and news of charges.

It's on days like this that Surrey's court provides a window into families in crisis.

A courtroom downstairs dedicated to domestic violence is one of the busiest in the building. And the crowd outside a room where parents argue over custody details never abates.

Inside all of them, couples once bound by love now squabble over concerns for their children's future or bicker bitterly about custody arrangements and financial support.

These aren't fights that usually make headlines, but when they happen to you the pressure is all consuming.

'That's so funny ...'

The youth court is located on the third floor. On the morning we attended, a slight girl with mauve hair and matching Kappa tracksuit slides into a bench with a friend in a black hoodie who has come to offer support.

In the row in front, a boy with glasses and short hair sits with his mother, who wears a headscarf. In front of him, one of the members of Surrey's so-called WRAP program turns to offer some advice and a smile.

Bans are placed on the names of young offenders to protect the identity and future of youth. But teenagers themselves may not be aware of the danger of spreading that kind of information. (CBC)

The WRAP team is a partnership between the Surrey School District and the RCMP to identify and support youth at risk of gang-related activity. The boy is called up along with his mother, who says she's aware of the proceedings against him. He's 16. The matter is put over, and the boy gets ready to leave the courtroom. The police officer shakes his hand.

Another name is called and the mauve-haired girl lets out a theatrical gasp.

"That's so funny," she whispers, reaching for her phone and typing out the news of another classmate's arrest.

The names of youth are protected by publication ban, so the consequences of bad childhood decisions don't follow them for the rest of their lives.

The bans work for media, but the teenage grapevine — Instagram, Snapchat and old-fashioned text message — is clearly another matter.

Sexual interference up for teen boys

B.C. Prosecution Service data shows that — like adult crime — youth offences are generally on the downturn.

A couple of exceptions stand out: for boys, charges of sexual interference — touching directly or indirectly the body of someone under the age of 16 — rose from eight in 2007 to 48 in 2016.

The Surrey provincial courthouse is one of four locations in B.C. with a specialized courtroom to process domestic abuse cases. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

The increase parallels a decrease in sexual assault charges — which suggests Crown may be treating old offences under a different part of the Criminal Code.

Regardless, when it comes to teenage boys, sexually-related offences are clearly not on the wane.

Female youth pale in comparison to boys when it comes to the volume of general charges. But the one offence that has seen an increase in the past decade is failing to comply with an order of the court.

The most common charges against both genders are crimes like simple assault, uttering threats and mischief.

'All of it was a charade'

On my first day observing the Surrey courts, a defence lawyer told me that many of her cases involve dysfunctional families. And many of the predominantly male clients she represents lack role models.

The details of those kinds of situations are on display in Surrey's domestic violence court, which sits every day downstairs in courtroom 104.

The details of domestic abuse and youth crime cases often reveal portraits of families in crisis. (Shutterstock)

The initiative was launched in 2016, one of four specialized courtrooms in B.C. dedicated to adopting what the court describes as a "collaborative, therapeutic approach" to handle domestic violence files in order to speed up the process and get the best outcomes for both victims and offenders.

On the day we watch, a 34-year-old woman is being sentenced for stabbing her partner three times with a kitchen knife. She's a minority in a courtroom where males offenders vastly outnumber females.

A parade of men are brought out, seeking bail or accused of breaching the terms of their release. One short Spanish-speaking man is ordered to remain behind bars as authorities investigate his presence, in violation of his bail conditions and his immigration status, under the bed of the woman he is accused of assaulting.

A trial is taking place in another room, where a woman claims her former boyfriend beat her, despite a police statement to the contrary that she gave after he was initially charged.

"It was all to get him off the charges," she tells her former partner's defence lawyer.

He reads a portion of the earlier statement in which she told police she slipped on the steps at Surrey Central's SkyTrain station and banged her head on a railing.

"Is that true?" the lawyer demands.

"No," she says. "All of it was a charade. A lie."

'I know there's a problem there'

If there's a running theme through many of the stories unfolding in all these courtrooms, it's the role of drugs and alcohol.

In yet another case — this one a custody battle — a woman who wants permission to move her two young boys to a northern town is calmly detailing the battle she and the children's father fought with cocaine. She says she's clean now and has a job offer.

But her boys are acting out.

Judges at Surrey's courthouse often have to make difficult decisions involving the lives of families in crisis. (Getty Images)

"My six-year-old son picked up an antique wooden dresser and threw it across the room one day," she tells the judge. "I know there's a problem there."

Her former partner's anger is palpable as the judge asks the woman to describe her current relationship. The man shakes his shaven head and mutters as she talks about the new love she has found with an old friend.

He has a binder of papers in front of him, ready to dispute her version of their former life together. She points to the breakdown in their communication as the start of their son's anger issues.

Some wounds never heal

The conflicts seeded in these kinds of domestic disputes don't necessarily lead to the youth courtroom upstairs. But judges weighing the fates of young offenders are often told the histories of children who begin life burdened with their parents problems.

The last case in youth court this morning is an odd one. A murder from 1988 and a youth — now a man — who was found unfit to stand trial after he was initially taken into custody.

He has to come back every year to certify that he is indeed still unfit to stand trial.

Like all the others cases here, the name is covered by a publication ban issued in the man's own interest.

After more than 30 years, the crime he allegedly committed as a teenager is far behind him. But witnesses will still have to provide evidence and old scars will still be re-examined..

The goal of any of these hearings is to ensure the past doesn't necessarily become the future.

But as anyone in this building can attest — some wounds never heal.

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.