State-of-the-art teen jail under fire for secrecy

After years of allegations from teens at Ontario's largest youth jail about everything from undercooked chicken to excessive use of force by staff, the provincial youth advocate wants to strip the controversial centre of the ability to investigate itself.

Ontario facility touted as 'jewel' of rehab system fails to meet basic needs: report

Ontario's youth advocate has released a critical report highlighting problems at the province's largest youth detention facility 1:32

After years of allegations from teens at Ontario's largest youth jail about everything from undercooked chicken to excessive use of force by staff, the provincial youth advocate wants to strip the controversial centre of the ability to investigate itself.

"It's just kind of obvious to me," said Irwin Elman. "There needs to be a fair, equitable, effective and transparent process, which means it's not the centre doing its own investigation."

Secrecy was one of the troubling issues identified by Ontario's senior youth representative after years of back and forth with the Roy McMurtry Youth Centre. Among the concerns was that the centre refused to provide access to internal reports on allegations that staff assaulted youth, citing staff privacy.

In one recent incident, what the Brampton, Ont., centre termed an investigation was no more than a "paper review" looking at details of an allegation, the report says.

It also found that though the centre said any youth allegations of assault by staff were passed along to police, the advocate's office said it later learned the centre gave summaries to the police on a weekly basis, sparking worries the complaints were reflected through the lens of the centre.

At Queen's Park on Wednesday, Ontario's Minister of Children and Youth Services Teresa Piruzza said her ministry has worked with the advocate's office to make changes over the years at the ministry-administered centre and will be reviewing procedures in light of the report.

"I can't speak to specific instances that may have occurred. We will look at investigations," said Piruzza. "Investigations do take place whenever there's any complaint of excessive force. Police are called in for investigations as well. So certainly any record of that would be on file."

Second critical report

The advocate says investigations should have to adhere to the same standards as those done by child protection workers, such as interviews with the alleged victim, the alleged perpetrator, witnesses and more.

Irwin Elman, provincial advocate for child and youth for the province of Ontario, said the province's largest youth jail 'should be the promise of the whole system.' (Michelle Siu/Canadian Press)

The office of the provincial advocate for children and youth issued the findings in a report released Wednesday, giving detailed stories from youth over the past two years. All those detained at the institution were charged while aged 12 to 17.

The advocate began receiving complaints weeks after the opening of the 192-bed, $93-million facility in the summer of 2009 — and the complaints have continued ever since.

This marks Elman's second report criticizing the centre's operations. The first was released in 2010.

This report is based on a review conducted in 2011 in which the advocate's office interviewed 75 youths aged 13 to 21. Since then, the office has also met with, interviewed and/or received complaints from over 200 youth at the centre.

In an interview with CBC News, the youth advocate described the province's largest youth jail as the "jewel" of Ontario's youth rehabilitation system.

"That centre should be the promise of the whole system and we should be looking at them for best practices," said Elman.

But the report found that the centre still fails to meet some of the basic standards — and complaints flooding in from youth at the centre still echo concerns first heard four years ago.

'Nothing has changed'

Nearly half of youth commented on excessive use of force by staff, more than a third reported violence happening daily or several times a week and 27 per cent said they felt unsafe because of staff.

The average age of youth at the Roy McMurtry Youth Centre is 17, but can range from 13 to early 20s.

"It shows that nothing has changed," said Luis Carrillos, a youth program director at the Hispanic Development Council who served on a committee during the centre's planning stages. "The findings that the advocate found should be a point of concern for all people who work with youth and their stakeholders: parents, family, community and workers like myself."

When the 86-acre property opened its gates, it was heralded as much for its silver LEED-certified state-of-the-art building as for its unique relationship-building programs — all centred around creating an atmosphere focused on rehabilitating rather than punishing youth, in hopes of keeping them off the streets.

But there's no escaping that it's a prison. Youth clad in maroon prison uniforms sleep in small, white-painted cinder block cells outfitted with brown plastic shelves and matching bed sets. Bathrooms, while private, are equipped with a small metal viewing hatch for employees to peer in, if needed.

During a tour arranged by the ministry of children and youth services, which oversees the centre, the regional board-run school had many classrooms occupied by a single student taught by a teacher, sometimes accompanied by a teacher's assistant. Youth centre employees walk the halls or sit at classroom windows keeping a watchful eye on the class, where youth are earning high school credits or learning trades, from robotics to landscape design.  

Seventy-three youth currently live at the facility. While the average age is 17, some are as young as 13 or as old as 21.

'Growing pains'

Some youth complained that the centre failed to offer more than two meals a day on the weekends — brunch and dinner —leaving 19 hours between meals at some points.


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It's an issue the centre said it addressed, but when the advocate checked in in late 2012 he found breakfast still wasn't available. During a tour, centre staff said the issues rests with teens given an option to wake up for provided breakfast — and they say that cereal and fruit is always available to hungry teens.

"We've never had a youth lose weight here," John Scarfo, regional director of youth justice services for the ministry of children and youth services, said during a tour.

Teens also complained that staff overused isolation, which is intended as a last resort, and most were not told they had the right to call the advocate. Some of those who knew and asked to call were refused that right, says the report.

"There's always going to be kids complaining that they want something done different," said Marg Stanowski, who co-chairs a group of 30 organizations working with the centre. But she says she's "very much impressed" with the facility and "we have people clamouring to get involved."

Andrew Bacchus, a youth worker who has been a self-described fixture at the centre for the past three years, acknowledged that the centre's approach was more reactive when it first opened, but says it's become more proactive. He puts it down to "growing pains."

Piruzza said the centre has "come a long way since it opened" and "there have been a number of changes that have been made" in recent years.

"We're currently working with over 30 community agencies to assist our youth reintegrate back into society once they leave the centre," said Piruzza, who said the centre was set up to help youth by giving them the opportunity to succeed.

Piruzza said the ministry will review all the recommendations in the report. "Improvements can always be made," she said.

A 'tipping point'

However, the province's youth advocate fears that the centre is at a "tipping point" — and he worries that the continued concerns won't be addressed.

"To be fair to the institution there's been some progress," said Elman. "My biggest concern is that the progress hasn't been made for everyone. It still leaves some people not getting what they need."

"My worry is we're going to give up. We're not going to try to solve this and fulfil our promise as an institution."

A large part of the youth advocate's report focuses on the inconsistent and unpredictable care youth receive from staff.

"That [approach] can't be the standard for an organization that is the hallmark of our youth justice system in Ontario."

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With files from Joseph Loiero