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Criminalizing Children

March 6, 2008 permalink

A British Columbia lawyer comments on discipline for foster children. There is no informal discipline, all infractions, no matter how trivial, go through the criminal justice system and saddle the child with a permanent record.



Martina Quail is a criminal defence lawyer. She worked with Edward Greenspan, Q.C., and Joe Arvay, Q.C., before joining Stern & Albert as an associate when she was called to the bar in May 2007. She acts for clients all over the Lower Mainland who are charged with all types of offences, including impaired driving and drug offences. Ms. Quail completed her law degree at the University of Toronto. She also holds a Master of Arts degree in Criminology.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Youth Criminal Justice System is Overused for Children in Foster Care

I have already commented on the use of youth criminal justice legislation as a replacement for child welfare initiatives, as resources for the former are justified under a "tough on crime" approach whereas resources for the latter are on the decline along with other public welfare initiatives. But there is another unique difficulty that I have encountered routinely with the youth criminal justice system: criminal sanctions are being used against children who are wards of the state (i.e., are under foster care) in the place of normal disciplinary responses that a parent would impose. That is, wards of the state find themselves before the courts on criminal charges in situations where children who are not in care would be punished instead by their parents.

For instance, I assisted a 13 year old girl who was charged with theft after she stole a $20 bill from her foster mother's purse. The foster mother, who the young girl had been living with only for a matter of months, insisted that the young girl be charged so that she was adequately disciplined for her actions. The judge ended up sentencing the girl to a "formal reprimand", which is basically a scolding and an entry on her youth record.

On another occasion I encountered a 16 year old male who lived in a foster home with a family who had 2 biological children. He had been in the foster home for a number of years but was clearly treated differently than the other children. The foster family did not like his girlfriend and he was told that she was not allowed to come over. One day the parents were away and he came home with his girlfriend, and his foster sister got angry with him. They ended up scuffling, she ran at him, he pushed her, and the foster sister ended up falling onto the ground. He stormed out and broke a few household items as he left. No one was seriously injured. The incident was reported to police and he was charged with assault and mischief by causing damage to the family's property. He was also kicked out of the foster home.

These types of cases indicate to me that the criminal justice system is being used against children in foster care as a tool of discipline well beyond the scope for which it is intended. Although a youth record is not the same as an adult criminal record, it still results in stigma. Furthermore, if a young person is sentenced to probation, whereby she must comply with strict conditions in the community, she is often set up to fail: young people lack the foresight into the consequences of their actions, and often do not comprehend the seriousness of having breaches of probation on their criminal record. A breach of probation indicates that the young person does not take court orders seriously, and these types of offences are often used against a person charged with a subsequent offence to argue that she should not be released into the community on bail while awaiting trial, or that she is not a suitable candidate for another sentence to be served in the community.

Posted by Martina Quail at 10:47 PM

Source: blog by Martina Quail