The government was wrong and unreasonable in the way it closed custody and detention programs at youth justice facilities in Northwestern Ontario last year, the provincial ombudsman.
The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services closed 25 custody and detention programs across Ontario on March 1, 2021, forcing 22 young people to relocate with just hours notice.
Ombudsman Paul Dubé opened an investigation two weeks later.
His report “Missed Opportunities” released publicly on Tuesday, examines how the closures of the Creighton Youth Center in Kenora and the JJ Kelso Youth Center in Thunder Bay were carried out, rather than reviewing the political decision.
Dubé’s report said closing the centers was “an exercise on an unprecedented scale” and involved months of confidential planning. He acknowledged that the department was concerned about the potential for labor relations issues and security risks.
“What we found, however, was that there was too much emphasis on this confidentiality and this secrecy, and that it was not sufficiently balanced with the best interests of these young people,” said Dubé. in an interview on Tuesday, adding that youth in custody are vulnerable, deserve support and need to be heard.
“The way some of them were uprooted and transferred during the closing operation, we found that their interests were not sufficiently taken into account.”
The ombudsman’s report noted that the facilities had been operating below capacity for years and that the closures would save $40 million a year.
Dubé said the department missed opportunities by not engaging with Indigenous groups, key staff and justice partners, or the Department of Indigenous Affairs.
Rights have been ‘ignored’: First Nations chief
Immediately after the closures, concerns were raised that indigenous youth were being moved further from their home communities and restrained in handcuffs and leg irons during transfers.
Anna Betty Achneepineskum, a deputy grand chief for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, said young people had already been to places where they were losing their connection to families and communities before the shutdowns.
“It seemed like the rights of these young people were all being ignored,” she said.
“I know there were difficulties when children were sent to southern Ontario from their homes in northern Ontario. They were even more displaced and also cut off from their families. in itself is a real test.
Achneepineskum said young people in detention centers are isolated from family, friends and community.
Dubé said two young people have been particularly affected by the closures. One of them was in the process of gender transition and had benefited from the advice and support available within the establishment. The other was transferred to another institution, where there was a conflict with another young person which led to tensions which could have been avoided through communication.
“The situation could have had less of an impact on the two youngsters if the ministry had known more about their situation,” he said.
The report included 16 recommendations, including:
- Identify the details of conflicts between young people.
- Ensure staff are aware of the department’s policy on transgender youth.
- That a debriefing session be held to review the closures.
“At the heart of it all is finding the right balance between privacy concerns and the need to focus on the best interests of the young people involved,” he said.
Sheri Norlen, acting chief executive of the Creighton Youth Centre, said she was pleased with the recommendations.
“I think there are some that need to be looked at in collaboration with communities, families, indigenous communities and young people in particular, taking into account that they are sent out of their region and their district. , as far as Kenora, a 15-hour drive,” she says.
Dubé’s report indicates that the department accepted all of the recommendations.