Easy way out may be harder to bear – Christie Blatchford

When easy way out may be harder to bear

“The kiss of diversion was no kiss for him”

TORONTO – At first blush, diversion — which is both the catch-all description for programs aimed at keeping young offenders out of jail and the controversial thrust of the new federal Youth Criminal Justice Act — would seem but a kiss.

The young man at a mediation held yesterday at a Toronto Police station, for instance, is facing criminal charges of assault, assault with a weapon and threatening death, serious offences which at maximum, even in the youth system, could carry significant time in custody or, the more likely result, a long stretch of probation.

Compared to that, how tough is it, really, to submit to what amounts to a little talk therapy, get some counselling and do a few hours of community service?

The answer is that it’s not the picnic it may seem, and for this particular young man at least, the process was excruciating.

And that may well be why, or part of why, the privately funded group under whose auspices this resolution conference was run — it is called PACT, an acronym for Participation, Acknowledgement, Commitment and Transformation, and operates out of the Scarborough youth court in the east end of the city — has a remarkable success rate at keeping young people who are in trouble with the law from re-offending.

Where, across Canada, statistics show that a staggering 43% of young offenders who are convicted will commit another crime within a year, PACT has kept more than 90% of its young charges on the straight and narrow; the actual recidivism rate is less than 5%.

To see a conference in action, and get a sense of why diversion programs can work where custody fails, PACT co-founder David Lockett, who with fellow Toronto businessman Dan Cornacchia formed The Canadian Foundation for Prevention of Family Violence, whose baby PACT is, invited me to sit in as an observer at yesterday’s meeting.

From the get-go, and throughout the almost three-hour-long meeting, the immense, moon-faced boy was in varying degrees of agony.

Though the diversion happens only when the young person agrees to it, and agrees also to accept responsibility for his behaviour and to abide by the contract that is the product of the process, this boy was dragging his feet — alternately defensive and hostile, determined to play down his actions, and sometimes downright angry.

He had come to the station with his mother, who was the victim in this case; his dad; his aunt, who is now his temporary legal guardian and with whom he now lives, and his sister, who had actually called 911 this spring when her brother was roaring about the family home, swearing and smashing things on the floor, cutting bedding with a pair of scissors, screaming, as the girl put it, “Blah, blah, blah, I’m going to kill you!”, and allegedly even bragging that he had a gun.

There, joining the family in an aboriginal-style circle, were two PACT facilitators and a Toronto detective, whose fellow officers had arrested the boy at his home on the night in question, and who was there to represent the police. The detective was skeptical at first, holding out the force file (the boy is also facing a separate robbery charge, and has been, as he reluctantly admitted, in trouble before) and telling Mr. Lockett before proceedings got underway, “What this [the conference] does is send a message to the police officer that this [charging the boy] is a waste of time.”

It was also clear, pretty quickly, that the family — hard-working immigrants from the Middle East who kept apologizing for their lack of fluency in English — were mortified, first by the boy’s behaviour and second, by this process that was examining it in this public way in this harshly lit room. And at first, they were bent on minimizing what had happened.

Each person was first asked for their account, and one by one, they put as kindly a spin on it as possible, in succession blaming everyone but the boy, who began by saying that the incident was sparked when he asked his mom for $25 to attend his first-ever hockey game and that when she refused, he had got “pissed off, broke some stuff” and grabbed a pair of orange-handled scissors and cut up the blanket on her bed. Next thing he knew, he said, as though it were a mystery, the cops were there and he was under arrest.

The father, who was not there that night and had to leave the conference early to man the family business, declared, with an endearing accent, that his son had done wrong but was also “a wictim,” and blamed his wife for not giving the boy the money he wanted; the mother said the boy behaved badly, but also diminished what had happened, and was angry at her daughter for phoning 911; the aunt also said the mother should have given him the money.

Only with the help of the boy’s sister, who bravely filled in some of the blanks, and the detective, who read aloud the girl’s signed statement given to police that night, did it become apparent how very frightened everyone in the house had been during the boy’s rampage: He is a big, strapping 16-year-old, with hands the size of Frisbees, and with the scissors in them, with him screaming insults at his mom and cutting the bedding, he must have made a fearsome sight.

The facilitators then had each person talk about their feelings, and the damage inflicted upon the family.

Again, at first, they all minimized the effects, at first admitting only to sadness, and loneliness at not having a brother and a son in the house.

But under the steady prodding of the two facilitators, it soon emerged that the mom has had to stop working, has lost weight and can’t sleep; that she and her husband are having problems; that the family dinner-table conversations the two children remember with obvious fondness have disappeared both in the parents’ struggle to keep the business afloat and in the aftermath of the boy’s arrest; that where the mother is the disciplinarian, the father rarely says no to the teenagers, and that they are at odds over how to deal with the boy, and that he is dabbling in soft drugs with his friends.

Slowly and painfully, and despite the near-Presbyterian emotional reserve of the family, it became evident that this was a shattering episode in all their lives, and that they were ready to face up to it, and eager to try to do something about it — all but for the boy himself.

His discomfort was so profound it seemed to require all his will not to bolt from the room. When one of the facilitators asked how he felt, he looked at his enormous feet and re-adjusted, for the 12th time, how his baggy jeans sat upon his shoes. When she actually said the word “love,” using it only in the most general of ways, he actually winced. And when she asked what he thought the consequences should be — she meant what he should do to make amends — he at first looked baffled, and then fell back on the teen’s mantra, that everyone in the family “should respect each other” more and then move on.

“Do you think you should apologize?” she asked.

The boy looked stunned.

“Not really,” he said, “because what happened, you know what happened, we both disrespected each other.”

“You don’t think you should apologize?” she pressed.

“To who?” he asked. “I don’t think I need to apologize to anyone. The reason I’m in this situation is not all my fault.”

The other facilitator then said she didn’t think she could come up with a satisfactory contract, because the boy was still not accepting responsibility for his behaviour, still blaming other people, and didn’t seem sorry.

That, and a few words from the detective — curiously, the boy seemed to listen most attentively to him, and the officer dealt with him most fairly and sensitively — had the desired effect, and a contract was eventually produced. The boy must write separate letters of apology to his family members before his next date in court next week; write a 1,200-word essay on the importance of taking responsibility and on consequences of making bad choices (both the letters and the essay must be sent to PACT); abide by his parents’ rules and perform chores; do 20 hours of community service at a local thrift store; apologize verbally to each family member (he will be allowed to do this in private), and to attend anger-management courses (for which he has already enrolled). Any breach, and he’s back in hot water.

“It may sound a little too touchy-feely,” says Rick Blouin, the assistant Crown attorney who heads the Scarborough youth courts and refers many young people to PACT, “but I feel it’s a useful exercise and a really good process. We all know the limitations of the adversarial system in cases like this.”

As for the boy, there’s no question it would have been far easier on him had he stayed in that system. It is doubtful whether, as a first offender, he would have been sentenced to any time in custody. His case probably would have been dealt with by way of a plea. A quick 10 minutes in court, a stern rebuke from a judge, a little probation, no protracted confrontation with his family: The kiss of diversion was no kiss for him, whatever else follows.