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Breakdown: Canada's Mental-Health Crisis

Slim chance for parole from a prison of the mind

It was a federal program meant to get mentally ill young offenders into treatment and out of prisons and lives of crime. It could decide the future of Canada's youngest violent criminals, including an Alberta girl who murdered her parents and brother. But five years after its creation, the IRCS system is hamstrung by restrictive laws and scarce health-care resources, critics say

From Monday's Globe and Mail

CALGARY — Canadian courts are rarely using an innovative federal program designed to rehabilitate mentally ill teens responsible for horrendous crimes, raising concerns that Canada's most troubled youth are returning to the streets without treatment.

When Ottawa introduced the Youth Criminal Justice Act in 2003, officials predicted 50 young offenders a year would qualify for the new intensive rehabilitative custody and supervision order - a regime based on the premise that because young minds are malleable, they are also treatable. But now, more than five years into the program, no more than two dozen teens overall have received the sentence.

Experts say the legislation is too restrictive and that Canada lacks the mental-health resources to deal with adolescent criminals. Some complain this last-ditch resource is being bypassed for frivolous reasons, such as offenders being caught smoking or oversleeping. Ottawa says it has taken some steps to remedy the situation, but those who work in the system argue that more needs to be done.

The most notorious offender to receive an IRCS order is an Alberta girl, identified only as J.R., who became Canada's youngest triple murderer after being convicted in the 2006 stabbing deaths of her mother, father and younger brother - crimes committed when she was just 12 years old.

J.R.'s parents had banned her from seeing her boyfriend, Jeremy Steinke, then 23, who is now on trial, charged with three counts of first-degree murder. At her own trial, J.R. was described as "seriously disturbed" and given the maximum 10-year sentence under the IRCS program, which she is serving at an Alberta hospital.

J.R. is, in a sense, a test case.

Canada has a disproportionately large number of mentally ill youngsters in the criminal justice system. Those who work with adolescent offenders are hopeful that a rigorous treatment regime with psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists will help rehabilitate even the most disturbed minds.

"It's like the last possible chance these children have," said Ken McCaffrey, a veteran Crown prosecutor in Calgary. "It's not like I have a great faith, as much as you have to be willing to take a chance. Otherwise these kids' lives, their script has been written for them."

FIRST STEPS

B.J.A. was just 14 when he peered over his sleeping mother, who was curled up on the living room sofa in her Calgary home, and stabbed her 10 times in the neck and head, a court would later learn.

He let her bleed to death, put the knife - its tip broken from striking bone - in the dishwasher, tossed a bloody shirt into the laundry and trotted off to bed.

The teen's older brother discovered the gruesome scene on the morning of Oct. 11, 2001.

B.J.A., who cannot be identified, was "unemotional" when interviewed by police and even "bragged" about the killing, the prosecutor told the court. The apparent motive: His 42-year-old mother had grounded him from seeing his girlfriend.

The boy pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and, after being examined by mental-health experts, was diagnosed as having schizoid personality traits.

In 2004, he became the first person convicted of murder to be sentenced under the IRCS program and was handed the maximum penalty for second-degree murder under the legislation: seven years. With time already served, he was ordered to spend two years in Alberta Hospital, a forensic psychiatric facility in Edmonton, to be followed by three years supervision in the community.

The federal legislation, after years of study and stacks of reports, was introduced on April 1, 2003. The Youth Criminal Justice Act replaced the much-maligned Young Offenders Act and acknowledged what researchers had been noting for years: Canada's incarceration rate of adolescents is one of the highest in the Western world.

To qualify for specialized treatment, the young person must suffer from a "mental illness or disorder, a psychological disorder or an emotional disturbance" and have committed a serious offence. Crimes include first- or second-degree murder, attempted murder, manslaughter or aggravated sexual assault. But youths with a significant criminal record who are convicted for some other serious violent offence could also qualify.

Under the maximum 10-year sentence, up to six years are spent in custody, in places such as psychiatric hospitals and youth correctional centres, before the teen is moved into group homes and finally into the community under supervision.

Jeff Wong, a clinical and forensic psychologist based in Hamilton, has been involved with a few such cases, including that of a teenage boy who struck another young man who subsequently died of his injuries, and one of a teenage girl who smothered a toddler to death in their foster home.

The young man is functioning back in the community and is not a risk for committing another violent offence, Dr. Wong said, while the young woman is in secure custody working on reducing her chances of re-offending.

"She's making progress," he said. "It's not just lip service."

Yet few troubled youngsters receive the IRCS sentence.

Ottawa initially estimated that about 50 IRCS sentences would be handed out each year across the country, and made agreements with the provinces and territories to pay for treatment. Through the program, each jurisdiction can receive up to $200,000 to support specialized assessment and treatment, and the federal government would provide an additional $100,375 per offender each year.

But according to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, only 16 young people received the sentence from 2003 to 2007. There have been a handful of cases since then.

Officials said some early cases may have fallen through the statistical cracks. Some jurisdictions have been slow to adopt the new option. In other cases, young offenders may have refused treatment.

Nicholas Bala, a professor at Queen's University in Kingston who specializes in children's law, said often offenders are not being properly identified when they enter the system. "There is power for the judge to order an assessment," he said. "But often under [the act] it's not done. They are then incarcerated. Sometimes their mental-health problems become exacerbated when they're in custody and then they're released without treatment."

Even if candidates for the program make it to the assessment, Mr. McCaffrey says, they are being rejected for what he considers invalid reasons.

"We've had children thrown out of these programs because of smoking," he said, " 'Johnny's not obeying the rules, therefore he's not a good candidate for the program.' Adolescent boys will smoke. I don't know if that's a legitimate reason to give up on somebody."

At the same time, the health-care system remains chronically short of doctors and facilities to make the initial assessment. Sometimes mental-health workers won't make a diagnosis because of the young person's age.

Over all, says Carole Saindon, a federal Justice Department spokeswoman, the original criteria for the program were "overly restrictive," and very little funding has been used.

In April, 2007, the Justice Minister expanded the scope to include other serious violent offences such as aggravated assault, wounding with intent, arson and disregard for human life. The federal budget for the new five-year agreements - April 1, 2008 to March 31, 2013 - is more than $11-million a year.

Mr. McCaffrey, who has handled the bulk of Alberta's IRCS cases, said these kids are destined for a life of crime - or worse - if they wind up in a penal environment rather than a therapeutic one. He recalled a case involving one teenage boy he thought should have qualified for an IRCS order, but ended up in an adult prison - where he committed suicide.

"That may have happened anyway," Mr. McCaffrey said. "I'm not suggesting that that's the cause. I'm suggesting that really it is the last stop for these people."

NEXT STEPS

Not everyone is enamoured of the IRCS program. Some view the sentence as a kind of easy ride or camp for kids responsible for heinous crimes. Others are willing to wait and see.

Now 15, J.R. appeared last month in a Medicine Hat courtroom via video-conference from the hospital for her mandatory annual sentence review.

She has had a number of diagnoses, including conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. And defence lawyer Tim Foster told the court that a recent report by a new psychiatrist wasn't entirely positive, describing her as suffering from a "failure to internalize." But he said J.R. is "engaging well and participating" in psychotherapy and group activities and had had "very few difficulties."

J.R.'s grandfather said from his home in Sudbury that he speaks to his granddaughter by phone once a month. He doesn't sound as convinced about her progress.

"I think you need to read between the lines," he said. "I don't know [if] she's doing too well. It's debatable."

As for B.J.A., who killed his mother, lawyer James Conway said regular meals, along with medication and individual and group therapy, have improved his physical and emotional health. By 2006, he was allowed to move to a group home. "He's really doing excellent," his father said then.

B.J.A. is 21 now. In February, 2009, his sentence will end and with it regular visits to psychiatrists and monitoring by the courts.

He is living in a basement suite with a family that knows his history and supports him. He follows strict rules about where he can go and what he can do. Skilled at both art and math, he once dreamed of being an architect. For now, he works in a coffee shop.

He's had minor relapses, including marijuana use, that led to time spent back in custody, his lawyer said. But despite his initial diagnosis showing traits of emotional coldness and a penchant for an anti-social lifestyle, B.J.A. has new friends, though he has trouble leaning on them for support.

"How does he tell them?" Mr. Conway said. "He's got this deep, dark secret."

Still, those who have worked with him are optimistic. Mr. Conway describes his client as the "poster child" of the program. "It certainly seems to me it's been beneficial. He's a much healthier person," the lawyer said. "He's not an aggressive person by any means."

B.J.A. carries a heavy burden to prove he's worthy of the last-chance effort.

"After this," Mr. Conway said, "he's sort of on his own."

*****

CASE HISTORIES

Some cases of youths ordered

by Canadian courts to serve intensive rehabilitative custody and

supervision sentences:

Winnipeg, 2008

Two 16-year-old Winnipeg girls - cousins - admitted their roles in the stabbing death of a stranger. Kristi Hall was a 36-year-old mother of two when she encountered the girls, who were 15 and had been drinking and popping pills. One teen, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, came from a troubled home, her father a career criminal and her mother a crack addict; she was sentenced to four years in secure custody and three years under supervision. The other, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter, also had a difficult childhood and was at a high risk for suicide. She was given a three-year sentence, including two years in secure custody and one under supervision in the community.

Welland, Ont., 2007

A 15-year-old Ontario girl pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for suffocating Matthew Reid, 3, in the Welland foster home where they were both living in 2005. The teen, who was 14 at the time, was described as displaying signs of fetal alcohol syndrome, had the cognitive age of six and suffered from attachment disorder as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anger issues. She was sentenced to four years in secure custody, to be followed by three years under supervision in the community.

Calgary, 2007

A Calgary man, 18 and a U.S. citizen, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the stabbing death of 18-year-old Tui Voegelin, who picked a fight with the drunk and high teen, then 17, at a house party in 2006. Psychiatrists agreed that the offender was remorseful and could be rehabilitated. He was sentenced to three years, the first two likely spent at a forensic psychiatric hospital and the final year under supervision in the community.

Ottawa, 2007

An 18-year-old Ottawa girl pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the 2006 stabbing death of 52-year-old motorcycle mechanic Pierre Lapointe. The girl, who was 17 at the time of the killing, was raised by an abusive, alcoholic mother and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She was sentenced to 32 months in secure custody at a youth correctional centre and one month supervision in the community.

BLOOD RESERVE, ALTA., 2006

A 16-year-old boy from the Blood reserve in southern Alberta was convicted of manslaughter in the 2003 beating death of 18-year-old Blake (Husky) Bird. The boy, 13 at the time of the incident, had been drinking heavily. He was sentenced to two years in custody and nine months of supervision in the community.

ELMIRA, ONT., 2006

A 17-year-old boy from Elmira, Ont., pleaded guilty to robbery and using an imitation firearm in stealing medical marijuana from a 39-year-old disabled woman. The teen, who had a number of convictions for crimes involving assaults with a weapon, suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, depression and anger-management issue. He was sentenced to two years in secure custody at a youth correctional centre and one year of supervision in the community.

Dawn Walton

*****

THE SERIES

Saturday

Children and mental illness,

by Erin Anderssen

and André Picard

Today

A last resort for violent teens,

by Dawn Walton

Tuesday

How doctors discriminate

against mental illness,

by Carolyn Abraham

Wednesday

Growing old with bipolar disorder, by Justine Hunter

Thursday

Lonely lives in the institution,

by Erin Anderssen

Friday

Forcing adults into treatment,

by André Picard

Saturday

Faces of the breakdown,

a photo gallery by Charla Jones

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