Thursday, August 17, 2006

How Old Do You Have To Be To Be A Criminal?

There’s a controversy brewing here, because our justice minister, Vic Toews, thinks children ages 10 and 11 should be brought into the criminal justice system.

Toews thinks youth courts should have the power to intervene in the lives of younger children who have fallen "under the influence of criminal elements." A judge could be given the power to "assist" a child by ordering treatment or some other "disposition," Toews said, adding that his main interest is treatment, not imprisonment. Courts should be able to step in before a child has established a pattern of behaviour that could have harmful, long-term consequences, he said. "I'm sometimes provided with anecdotes about people coming to the court by age 12 and they've had a horrendous involvement with the police and other social agencies, but the courts have been unable to intervene.
"There needs to be more flexibility in the act," he told reporters later. "We need to find ways of ensuring children are deterred from crime.

End of discussion. What intelligent person would have a problem with this? Children already demonstrating a pattern of repeated behaviour that has put them on an intersect course with the police don’t just get sent home and told to ‘sin no more’ but actually face consequences for their actions.

Of course, the critics disagree. "Kids need to stay out of the criminal justice system," Ontario child advocate Judy Finlay says.

Fantastic. Then Ms. Finlay can come over and clean up the part of our fence a group of youths knocked over and pay to have it replaced.

And while she’s at it, I’m sure she won’t mind picking up the garbage they dumped in our hedges.

Oh, and scrubbing the graffiti off the railcars at the train museum. Can’t say it looks terribly appealing to potential visitors.

We all know that there are patterns of behaviour in serial killers that emerge in childhood. The overwhelming majority don’t just wake up one day and say, “Oh, I can’t get a job at McDonald’s, so I’ll go kill a few people.”

Now, before anyone jumps all over me and says I’m anti-child, I’m not advocating that kids as young as 10 go to jail. What I’m saying is what our justice minister is saying, which anyone who took the time to get off their self-righteous high-horse and actually listened would hear. There needs to be a system in place to address kids that are repeatedly coming into contact with the police and demonstrating a pattern of unlawful behaviour. Obviously, these ‘repeat offenders’ aren’t being dealt with at home. Sending them back to that environment may not be the solution… Or, at least, there should be counseling, a special ‘youth probation officer’ of sorts – somebody to step in and keep an eye on things and try to address the root issues.

This is, after all, the real problem. The crimes are often the symptoms of much deeper problems. I mean, my niece is still, for all of 9 more days, 11. Yet she’s a smart kid and knows right from wrong. If she went and torched someone’s house or killed a cat, should we really just send her home and shrug our shoulders and say she’s too young to understand?

I don’t think so. I think that’s just ridiculous.

I sure as hell knew right from wrong by the age of ten. Okay, maybe not in every single situation in life. But there are basics. Like, if it doesn’t belong to you it isn’t yours and you don’t have the right to destroy it or break it.

I remember once we were visiting family friends. I was 8 or 9 at the time. These people had two children, a girl and a boy. Of course, their son was my age, their daughter my sister’s age.

Now, I can’t remember why their son wasn’t around… but I was pretty much shafted, because the older girls were shutting me out, hanging out in the girl’s room, listening to records.

So I broke the needle on the record player.

Do you think my parents just said I was misunderstood and needed more hugs? Hell, no. I paid to fix that needle out of my allowance. And you know what I learned? That, no matter how mad I was, I didn’t have the right to mess with something that didn’t belong to me, and if I did there were consequences.

It wasn’t a cruel lesson. It was a fair lesson. One that stayed with me. Part of the reason I’m so fucking annoyed at having neighbours who’ve stolen stuff off our property. Some people shouldn’t be allowed to have kids, and here they are, modeling their shitty lifestyle for two impressionable children, one of whom has developed a habit of taunting our dogs.

I can look back on my own childhood and honestly say that a lot of the kids doing bad things were crying out for help. I knew these kids – for the most part, you were in class with the same 27-29 children every year. This one girl, TM, was the bane of my existence at school. In grade 1 she stole one of my Christmas presents out of my desk. I told on her. The next year, she cornered me outside at recess and beat on me. That actually happened most years.

I’d venture to say the only problem about my ‘conditioning’ where that was concerned was that I wouldn’t hit back. You weren’t supposed to hit back. A philosophy that stayed with me to the night when I was 14 and was beaten to the point where I had permanent damage to my jaw. A week later I was hospitalized.

I remember being so angry that the schools did nothing to stop me from being beaten up. Most times, these kids didn’t get any punishment at all. I remember ending up in the office sometimes, filling in time so I didn’t have to be subjected to that. Others who had similar problems used to spend recess walking with the on-duty teachers so they couldn’t be caught alone.

It’s the innocent who get punished, not just as kids on playgrounds, but in society. Money and energy and time goes into dealing with the criminals, while there are people out there trying to figure out how to put their lives back together.

After the incident when I was 14, the government did step in. I became a case file. I was monitored. Through that, family therapy was to follow, though it didn’t do much good. You can’t fix people who like being broken, or have been that way for so long they think it’s normal.

But my case worker sifted through a lot of shit to figure out what the root issues were in my life. And she mandated a transfer to a new high school in a different town. I went from a school with 300+ kids, most of whom I’d been in school with my whole life, just a few grades behind them, to a school of 1000. Where I knew exactly 2 people – one of whom is my brother-in-law, who was already dating my sister way back then.

But through the move, I connected to a lot of other ‘case file’ kids. Many of whom I’m still in touch with now, because we had that foundation. We understood each other.

I wasn’t a criminal, but I got lucky. Back then, all I saw was that I was getting out. Away from some of the people who’d been abusing me for years. All that time, nobody did anything to make them stop.

And we wonder why kids are going to school with guns these days.

I’m not justifying that. I just look back on my own experience, and I’m frustrated. Still frustrated more wasn’t done to stop those bullies.

Not surprised to know some have since ended up in jail.

The difference between what we’ve got now and what our justice minister wants is simple. A chance to stop some criminal activity and actually get these kids off that track before it’s too late.

And maybe, inadvertently, to keep some other people from being victimized until they can’t take it any more.

Ms. Finlay can hand out hugs all she wants.

But then she should be prepared to clean up the mess.

And you likely won’t find very rational discussion from me on this one. I’ve worked with kids. I spent the bulk of my adult life working with kids. I’ve been beaten over the head with a wooden board by a five-year-old. I’ve been bitten to the point where skin was broken. I’ve been kicked, had property destroyed… And we aren’t even talking about what I’ve intervened on, that one child has done to another.

I’m not saying the solution is locking young kids up. But there is no mechanism. I know teachers who are physically afraid to go to work. I have colleagues who’ve come to the point where it’s them or the child, and they’ve quit, because they couldn’t endure one more day of being beaten on by a kid.

We have a faulty system in place. We need something that protects everybody. Nearing the end of my career, I worked with two boys who were school-aged, who were caught abusing animals.

You know what was done.


And I happen to think that’s pretty fucking sad. There are days I might be disappointed about not having children.

Then I remember what the world is like, and it makes me feel a bit better.


s.w. vaughn said...

This is such a tough subject. You're absolutely right that the innocent are the ones who get punished.

Kids need someone to guide them, and a lot of parents today either cannot or will not give them what they need. But our laws restricting the interference of other adults with "family life" have reached the ridiculous point. The sacristy of the home life shall not be violated, even if the home life is a horror show for the child.

It takes a LOT to allow a teacher or social worker to legally intervene. Too much. The legal system is in such shambles now that teachers are afraid to hug their students out of fear of being slapped with a lawsuit. Everyone's hands are tied, and the kids slip through the cracks unnoticed until they show up at school with a shotgun.

And the general public stands around scratching their heads and wondering what happened.

Sandra Ruttan said...

SW, you've reminded me of some of the home removals I was involved with when I worked in conjunction with a public school. Devastating. In one case, abandonment and abuse were part of the equation. I participated in supporting the motion to seek intervention for this child after getting a frantic phonecall from them, because their mother hadn't come home and they were locked out on their own. It was the final straw - completely unprotected, I drove there, picked up the child and assumed responsibility for him.

When the first home visit happened after reporting (first step in the process) the mother packed up and moved to another district, out of their jurisdiction. And all that happened was that child lost the only security he had to that point.

Breaks my heart. And people wonder why the teachers and social workers burn out and quit.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

We have an outrageous gang problem down here in L.A. It's gotten to the point that when a shooting is reported it's remakable when it's not gang related. And we have a lot of shootings.

Most of the solution sthat are proposed and implemented are, of course, punitive, rather than preventive. That's because punitive is easier than preventive.

Preventive requires dealing with kids one on one. It means putting programs in place to help the economy and education so that these kids have a different option than getting jumped into a gang. It means helping out parents with their children and holding them accountable for them. It means increasing security and police in areas torn up by gangs so that there's a chance that these programs might actually work.

The whole thing's like a goddamn Rubik's cube and nobody seems to be able to get all the sides to match up.

Things are so bad that the LA Unified School District doesn't even know what it's drop-out rate is. Because it doesn't know how many students it has. Or which schools they're in. Kids don't just fall through the cracks down here, they plummet into the the sinkholes.

But without putting preventive measures in place to deal with the problem and not just the symptoms you get kids locked up and at some point released as hardened criminals with an education in violence.

Yeah, that's really solving the problem.

Kevin said...

Well, anyone of any age can be a criminal, which is a different argument to children being brought into the criminal justice system.

angie said...

Dammit, I hate this topic. But here's my response to Stephen's point about a lack of a comprehensive plan. Yes, part of it is the low interest in preventative measures. The bigger problem is that there are almost no transitional services for kids moving from juvie jail, juvie prison, lock-down residential treatment etc. back into the community (foster care, independent living, family reunification).

I've seen it happen over and over and over again. Kids finally have a chance to learn about stuff like responsibility, problem solving skills, anger management, emotion regulation, consequences, etc., in a highly structured environment and then they get thrown right back into the same shitty, chaotic situation that bred the problems to begin with. I swear I felt like I was working triage in a war zone. As soon as we get a kid patched up, we'd send her back to the front lines. And people wonder why the programs don't work. Many of them work just fine, but the follow-through transitional support is either non-existent or sucks hairy donkey butt. Go figure.

Unknown said...

Children need consequeces for their actions. A lot don't get any.

I think the courts should intervene especially for repeat offenders. I mean really it's a pattern and obviously the parents can't or won't do anything about it. Maybe they need a three strikes program for kids. Three times in the system and the court intervenes in some way to help the child. More major crimes could be one strike and the court intervenes and requires couseling, home visits, whatever to help the child not become a hardened criminal.

Personally I think any child who physically bullies another child should be expelled...end of story. It's not fair to the person being bullied to have to go to school with that child. Then the school system/parents should require couseling for said bully. Now for verbal bullying they shouldn't be expelled but they should get couseling.

Really what it comes down to is priorities and our government's priorities are all screwed up. They keep screaming terror alert terror alert and throwing more money to fight terrorism. Meanwhile our children are losing out. They don't provide enough money for education, they don't provide enough money to help the children who so desparately need someone to intervene in their lives before it's too late. It's a sad world we live in when fighting wars, killing terrorists take priority over our children. I'm not saying we shouldn't protect ourselves from terrorists but our children should be top priority. And the government is famouse for throwing money away on pork barrel projects. What pork barrel projects you ask? How about these:

$107,000 to study the sex life of the Japanese quail.
$1.2 million to study the breeding habits of the woodchuck.
$150,000 to study the Hatfield-McCoy feud.
$84,000 to find out why people fall in love.
$1 million to study why people don't ride bikes to work.
$19 million to examine gas emissions from cow flatulence.
$144,000 to see if pigeons follow human economic laws.
Funds to study the cause of rudeness on tennis courts and examine smiling patterns in bowling alleys.
$219,000 to teach college students how to watch television.
$2 million to construct an ancient Hawaiian canoe.
$20 million for a demonstration project to build wooden bridges.
$160,000 to study if you can hex an opponent by drawing an X on his chest.
$800,000 for a restroom on Mt. McKinley.
$100,000 to study how to avoid falling spacecraft.
$16,000 to study the operation of the komungo, a Korean stringed instrument.
$1 million to preserve a sewer in Trenton, NJ, as a historic monument.
$6,000 for a document on Worcestershire sauce.
$10,000 to study the effect of naval communications on a bull's potency.
$100,000 to research soybean-based ink.
$1 million for a Seafood Consumer Center.
$57,000 spent by the Executive Branch for gold-embossed playing cards on Air Force Two.
Total: $ 45,980,000

I mean really, give me a break. Ok now i'll go back into my corner. Phew!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Stephen, Angie, Andrea...

You all make great, compelling points. I feel so frustrated when this topic comes up, because it feels hopeless. Certainly Angie can understand that from her experience. We don't do anything preventative, and as Andrea has so aptly pointed out, it isn't that the government lacks money, it's that it throws it away.

Kevin, one thing people seem to be missing here is that juvenile records are expunged, for one thing. It isn't like the kids become criminals with a label for the rest of their lives. But without court orders and a legal process for intervention, you can't 'make' someone get counseling, or have them monitored.

Which means you just cut them loose and send them back to whatever environment has contributed to getting them to this point.

The police and social workers need a mechanism in order to intervene. If that means creating a new branch of the justice system, so be it. But there actually do have to be laws and there is a legal process to follow to deal with this stuff.

People blame teachers for doing something, when, as I remarked in the comments above, I've been involved in removals where the process was so slow, the parent fled jurisdiction. Then you can't do anything, and is the kid any better off? Nope. If anything, we probably put the nail in his coffin because he had nobody when she moved him.

I won't even discuss the other removals I did, for kids being raped in the home. And by other kids.

But let's just send them back there and give them hugs and hope it gets better.

angie said...

"Kevin, one thing people seem to be missing here is that juvenile records are expunged, for one thing. It isn't like the kids become criminals with a label for the rest of their lives."

Not true in the state of Arizona. If a kid gets popped for just about anything, including runaway, it's on their record for good.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Ah, well, this is Canada. Clean slate at 18. These kids get every break imaginable and it clearly isn't enough for people like Ms. Finlay.

Christa M. Miller said...

Doesn't Canada have a pretty decent restorative justice system in place? Or does that only address first-time juvenile offenders, not repeats?

Given that restorative justice is aimed at kids who still have consciences, or just need help developing them, I'm guessing it's for the former group. So at that point, we're talking about kids with "conduct disorders" - socio/psychopaths in training, yes?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Good question Christa, but I don't think our restorative justice system is that good. There may be specific programs working in some places, but much of it seems to be handled regionally. The child who beat me with a wooden board at the age of 5? A psychological evaluation demonstrated oppositional defiance disorder and conduct disorder present, but they wouldn't permit a diagnosis because it was unfair to a five-year-old to have that stigma. He beat another staff as well, I have video of him beating on people, and he was later involved in an incident with animals, not to mention physically assaulting other children.

The decision about his status was left to his mother and we were told that we had no recourse or approved disciplinary action with him. Which meant if we intervened as staff, we could face charges.

I quit. So did several others.

I've also worked with kids who were autistic but the parents refused to allow the formal diagnosis to go on the record because they didn't want their child 'labeled'. So it's hard to say if it's just about 'conduct disorder kids in training, because this only comes to light with kids have actually come in contact with the police - it isn't even something teachers/social workers intervene on at an earlier age. There are a few kids I worked with years ago who've gotten in trouble with the law, but there's no carry over from what we knew about them then to what's going on with them now. This is the gap. If you ask me, teachers should be able to notify social services and alert them to children who need monitoring without fear of repercussions and there should be adequate support to get the monitoring without necessarily removing kids - it depends on what's going on.

For me, a guidance counselor saw that I got put into the system. She made sure it happened. Without her intervention, I wouldn't even want to guess where I'd be now, and that wasn't even about breaking the law. But in the end, I might have broken the law just to get out - who knows? My mother was a juvenile offender and was incarcerated as a teenager. In her case, I venture to say the sad thing is that nobody intervened sooner, because my grandmother had suffered brain damage, became a parent through being raped by her brother, and it was an incredibly unstable home environment. My mother and both of her sisters got themselves arrested and ultimately pregnant to get out, at very young ages.

We need intervention across the board, I think. As to these sociopaths in the making, little is being done to deal with them. In BC when they shut down one 'facility' that treated all sorts of mental disorders, they just unleashed the patients on the public - the put them out on the street, unable to function. The resulting rise in crime was staggering. Look at our prisons - not enough room, just pick those who are a bit less bad and release them. This is how we had a known pedophile recently abduct TWO boys.

It's insane. The justic system is a joke.

Sela Carsen said...

I'm so sad now. I think, if I'd had your experiences, I'd have come down firmly on the side of not having children, too.

I also think that very often people who had good childhoods and didn't have to deal with a lot of trauma are only too happy to be blissfully ignorant. Because it hurts to think about it.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sela, you're very sweet, but I know a lot of people who had it far worse than me and it has given me a lot to write about. So, it's not so bad!