photos: B.C. Ministry of Child and Family Development

Pending closure of Victoria youth custody centre raises questions

The Victoria Youth Custody Centre, pictured above, is slated to close due to dropping youth detention centre populations across B.C. The closure would require current youth custody centre residents to move to a facility in Burnaby, B.C., which advocates say could land at-risk youth in even riskier situations.

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When the provincial government announced earlier this year that it was shutting down the Victoria Youth Custody Centre, the closure was touted as the result of a success story: the number of people in B.C.’s three youth detention facilities has declined so dramatically over the past decade that it no longer made sense to keep the one in Victoria open. 

“This is a really big success story for British Columbia, but it also means it’s not sustainable or responsible to continue funding over-resourced facilities,” Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux told reporters in late April. “It’s increasingly difficult to maintain quality programming when we’re delivering services below a capacity level that makes sense, so therefore a decision has been made to close the Victoria Youth Custody Centre.” 

Cadieux said the number of youth in custody has dropped by 65 per cent over the past 10 years, and the three youth detention centres in Burnaby, Prince George and Victoria have all been operating below capacity. Though a timeline for closure has yet to be determined, Cadieux insisted that shutting down the 60-bed Victoria centre and transferring the approximately 15 young people there to the facility in Burnaby would save $4.5 million in funding from the federal government.

However, critics call the pending closure a flawed plan that focuses only on cutting costs rather than on the welfare of B.C.’s youth.

“What we will be doing is having the young people spend a lot of time sitting in a sheriff’s wagon, driving around,” says B.C.’s child and youth watchdog Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

“They will not be able to see their families. They will not be able to have as close a confidential relationship that they will need with their legal counsel, for instance, because they will be doing video hook-ups, which is not the same for young people who have a lot of difficulty communicating anyway. Just the moving kids around like cattle from location to location—who will pay the cost for this closure? It will be the young people.”

Closure could de-stabilize youth already on the margins

An overwhelming majority of young offenders come from disadvantaged backgrounds, says Turpel-Lafond. Many have spent time in foster care, or have suffered from sexual or physical abuse, homelessness, mental health issues or other struggles that have led them to be involved with crime in the first place.

B.C.’s three youth custody centres offer rehabilitation programs that attempt to guide young offenders toward more pro-social behaviour. Turpel-Lafond says she fears relocating youth from Vancouver Island to the Lower Mainland means those who need to head back for court appearances will be forced to share rides or holding cells with adult offenders.

“They are likely to be exposed to more seasoned and experienced criminals who may influence them in a negative way when we’ve been doing a very good job in our current facility at meeting the needs of that population,” she says.

Cynthia Day, chair of the Victoria Family Court and Youth Justice Committee, shares Turpel-Lafond’s concerns. Removing youth from their community and placing them in an urban centre such as Burnaby could drive them to organized crime, she says.

“Obviously things have gone wrong that they’ve got to the point of needing to be in the custody centre, but in order to have relationships, which every human needs, they’re going to try to find them wherever they can,” she says. “It may be with gangs, it may be with people who may introduce them to prostitution or drug trade opportunities over there.”

Roughly 70 per cent of young women in custody are Aboriginal, and taking them away from their culture and families could recreate the residential school experience, adds Day.

“When the youth are in crisis, the family is also in crisis,” she says. “Moving the kid off the island stresses the family further and puts more limits on their interaction, and we want to ensure that there’s a healthy relationship between the youth and their family, and also between the youth and the community that they come from.”

“I will no longer be able to see my family”

In a recent letter written to Cadieux, Turpel-Lafond noted that many youth in the Victoria centre are worried that those in their support network won’t be able to visit them in Burnaby.

“I will no longer be able to see my family, my lawyer, my probation officer, my social worker, and my counsellor,” said one young person, whose testimony was included in Turpel-Lafond’s letter. “I think it would be unreasonable to close this centre because most of the kids here are from the island and how are their families suppose to visit them in [Prince George] or Burnaby; it is too far and it is almost a hundred dollars to take a ferry.”

Both Turpel-Lafond and Day are proposing ways to repurpose portions of the Victoria Youth Custody Centre, including adding mental health or detox services, so the facility can remain open. This way, young offenders can stay close to home, and the institution is available in case the number of youth in custody spikes.

Cadieux declined an interview, but she insisted in April there is no problem with relocating youth to Burnaby.

“The reality is that we currently are operating three centres...which means that for any youth that does not live in one of those metro areas—so someone from Kelowna, or Kamloops, or Terrace, or Prince Rupert, or Fort St. John—they’re already transported to one of the centres [that are] a fair distance from their homes and we are able to have the same outcomes in reintegration for them as we are for the youth who are nearer to home,” she said.

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