Nova Scotia

Lack of psychologists delays youth sentencing more than 6 months

Court-ordered psychological and psychiatric assessments are needed for treatment and sentencing.

IWK Health Centre's assessments should take 60 to 90 days but are taking up to 13 months

Brandon Rolle said the long waits to get psychological and psychiatric assessments are hurting youth because they have to wait longer to get proper treatment. (Shutterstock / Jan H Andersen)

Some young people in the criminal justice system are waiting months to get psychological and psychiatric treatment because of delays in court-ordered assessments from the IWK Health Centre.

The hospital is tasked with completing a wide range of reports for the court, including psychological and psychiatric assessments. 

Instead of taking 60 to 90 days to complete, as outlined by the IWK, some assessments can take six to 13 months to be finished, according to Brandon Rolle, the managing lawyer at the youth office of Nova Scotia Legal Aid. 

Assessments are usually ordered after a person pleads guilty to a crime or is found guilty. They can help a judge decide on sentencing.

Delays hurt young people

Rolle said the delays hurt his clients.   

"You're not going to get the sentence or treatment in place until you see this assessment," he said. "Maybe sometimes they're not getting the treatment or seeing the professionals that they need to see until sentencing takes place — which is being delayed sometimes by waiting for these assessments." 

The extensive reports examine things like mental health, trauma, drug addiction and family life. They also look at how likely it is that the young person might reoffend. 

The IWK says an influx of requests for assessments coupled with the maternity leave of two of its psychologists has led to the delays. (Shutterstock)

"There certainly is a sense of frustration from our end and from the court as well," said Rolle.

"It makes us think about whether or not we're going to order these and in most cases, if not all, it's in the client's best interest to have these. So when you start having to contemplate whether or not you're going to order it because of delay, you know that's a real concern." 

Spike in assessment requests

The IWK said it's doing all it can to work through the backlog of assessments.

There was a spike in requests for assessments in February and March of this year. There were 21 assessments in those two months compared to just eight during the same time last year. 

Two of the health centre's full-time psychologists are also on maternity leave, said Roz MacKinnon, the manager of youth forensic services with the IWK.   

"We have 3.25 psychologists available to us right now and they're currently working overtime every week trying to get these reports out," she said. 

IWK working through backlog

The IWK has hired outside contractors and brought in staff from other departments to help, but it's still a small number of people tackling a lot of work. 

"The number of people that have the competence to do this type of assessment is very, very low. The numbers are small. To be honest, most of them already work with us," said MacKinnon. 

Rolle says the psychological and psychiatric assessments help a judge decide on the sentence or treatment that a young person should receive. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

She said wait times have gone down since the beginning of the year, but it will still take at least until November to complete any assessments the IWK receives this month. 

The exception is assessments needed to help determine if someone should be granted bail. They are completed in the 30-day time frame set out by the health centre. 

Assessments are labour-intensive

Most psychological and psychiatric assessments require a battery of tests, interviews and background before they're ready. MacKinnon said it can take 40 to 80 hours to do most reports, but more extensive reports can take 100 to 120 hours.

Rolle said an assessment is a valuable resource for the court. 

"It's extremely helpful in presenting a clear picture of what the client is going through, what sort of mental-health issues they're going through before the judge sentences them.

"The judge can have that picture of what they're dealing with and the best way to sentence them."

MacKinnon said staff at the IWK are worried about the wait for assessments as well, but there is only so much that can be done to speed things up. 

"People have been quite understanding. They know that we're doing everything we possibly can to mitigate the situation and get those reports out to them as soon as we can. But it's impossible to create a resource where you don't have one."