31 August 2006


Courting disaster

They should be out enjoying the summer sunshine. They should be swimming at the beach, hanging out with friends or going to movies. But two Dartmouth sisters have been sitting in jail. The girls, both in their early teens, have committed no violent offence. Instead, they each face a simple charge of breaching curfew. But the alleged breaches are part of a simmering pattern of alarming behaviour: the girls get arrested, they spend some time in jail; they get out, breach again, and the cycle resumes. It all seems to be without purpose.

So what compels two young girls to toss away their summer on such petty offences? What compels them to spend their vacation at the Waterville Youth Centre? A Halifax youth court got no answers during the sisters' court appearance last Wednesday. The case has observers shaking their heads: even Judge Marc Chisholm called it "troubling." Chisholm had asked Community Services to assess their case the week before: he remarked last week that it was the first time he'd taken such an unusual measure. The two pleaded guilty to breaching their curfew. In most circumstances, they would have been released from custody on time served or remained behind bars for a short period. But that didn't happen.

Their frustrated mother was asked whether she could control her daughters if they were released pending their sentencing. Her answer was frank: No. In the most recent escapade, the girls were arrested Aug. 5 for allegedly breaching a probation order. After 11 days in custody, they were released. The same night, they allegedly breached their curfew again. Back to jail they went. The sisters do have a criminal history, however, albeit a short one. The girls were convicted in the spring of joyriding and resisting arrest. That's been dealt with.

Now, the court - with little insight - is faced with an escalation of disturbing, irrational, behaviour. Another kink in the mess is the lack of an up-to-date pre-sentence report. Community Services has yet to offer the court any information about the girls' home life. A request for a psychological assessment was also fraught with its own series of headaches. Chisholm referred to portions of a letter sent to him by Ruth Carter, director of the provincial child and youth forensic services. That letter indicated a backlog in assessing youth, with delays of between three and four months to produce a report. The service is simply understaffed and struggling to deal with the caseload.

The earliest a report could be prepared for one of the girls is Oct. 18. In fact, the report was ordered earlier in the summer, while the girl spent more than 30 days in custody on another charge. It was not completed. The court was in a bind: sentence the sisters immediately, and send them on their way without the benefit of an assessment. Or, hold them in custody for three months to await a psychological report. That, Chisholm said, was out of the question. So, he found a compromise. Today, they return: the court hopes Community Services is prepared to report. Too many assessments, too few staff

Court-ordered psychological assessments for youth are being delayed by months as the IWK Health Centre grapples with a backlog of cases. The number of youth sent for assessments has ramped up since January, said Ruth Carter, the director of provincial child and youth forensic services. And there is simply not enough staff to deal with the influx. It�s not completely clear why more kids are being sent for assessments: �What we know is that we�re just getting more referrals � a higher volume than the number of staff we have to deal with them,� Carter said in a recent interview. That means assessments are being delayed by three to four months. The service is trying to rectify that, said Carter. They�ve just hired two more social workers.

But a search for another psychologist that began last fall has proved fruitless. �We�re doing really the best we can trying to keep up. Everything has to be prioritized. The cases that come in, the higher-risk cases, the cases where youth are remanded and their liberties are being restricted, we try to prioritize them.� The high volume of cases in the last eight months has been trying. Nonetheless, Carter approves of the influx. �It makes a lot of sense, it does. We haven�t seen referrals coming indiscriminately with very little reason.�

Richard Cuthbertson
30 August 2006



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