Youth at risk fail at school, have mental health issues and get in trouble with the law. Would they be better served if all three systems – education, mental health and justice – worked together?
That question animated discussion at a recent forum organized by the York Centre for Education and Community (YCEC). Sponsored by York’s Faculty of Education and the Department of Justice, the March 18 forum, called “Youth, Mental Health, and the Justice System: An Educational Concern”, brought together academics and practitioners from universities, community-based organizations, school boards, the health sector, the justice system and government agencies.
Participants talked about the challenges of helping wayward youth and recommended ways to integrate systems. The recommendations will be featured in a report to be shared with the Department of Justice and are expected to form the basis of future changes.
The forum commenced with a greeting from York Professor Carl James, YCEC director, and Alice Pitt, dean of York’s Faculty of Education. Bruce Ferguson, director of the Community Health Systems Resource Group, Hospital for Sick Children, acted as forum facilitator. In his opening remarks, he said young people can experience one or all of three factors – school failure, poor mental health and trouble with the law. “We know that certain groups are more likely to be in conflict with the law, and that there are risk factors,” he said, and encouraged participants to “dig into your experiences today and help us to understand how we can address issues of equity, so that we have not only equal access but also equal outcomes for all our youth.”
The forum began with a panel featuring Theresa Shanahan, lawyer and education professor at York; Leena Augimeri, director of the Centre for Children Committing Offences & Program Development, Child Development Institute; Deborah Britzman, Distinguished Research Fellow in York’s Faculty of Education; and Llewellyn Joseph, medical director of the Regional Outpatient Disruptive Behaviors Program at Southlake Regional Health Centre, and YCEC Advisory Council member.
Shanahan opened by exploring the question: “Can we keep disruptive youth in the education system?” She offered a legal perspective on the discipline of wayward youth in schools, acknowledging the limitations of the law and education legislation that emphasizes safety in schools. She called for alternative approaches to dealing with wayward behavior in youth.
Augimeri described her work with “the forgotten kids” (aged six to 12 years) and “overshadowed girls” within this demographic, using the Stop Now And Plan model, an internationally acclaimed, evidence-based program that identifies and works with children under 12 at risk of becoming involved (or already involved) with the law. She said “there is hope” because early intervention strategies tend to have the biggest impact on the younger age group.
Britzman discussed the fragile interaction of youth, law, desire and mental health. She offered philosophical and psychoanalytical views of adolescence and education, drawing from the work of Helene Deutsch, François Roustang, Anna Freud and Julia Kristeva.
Joseph, an experienced child and adolescent psychiatrist, provided an historical overview of the Canadian policy landscape vis-à-vis mental health, education and the law. Through case study examples, he explained the challenges of intervening with youth in conflict with the law. “One of the dilemmas is trying to determine whether that acting out behaviour presented in adolescence, or even early adolescence, is early bipolar disorder and should be labeled as mental health, or should be considered criminal behaviour.”
During ensuing round-table discussions, participants suggested improvements to all three systems – education, mental health and justice – and agreed that the greatest need for change exists where these systems intersect. They stressed repeatedly that the needs of youth can be met only if the three systems work together. When that happens, said one participant, “we can create an environment where youth feel that people care about them.”
Participants deplored the punitive approach and incarceration for young people favoured by the government and in social discourse. Those working in medical and justice systems noted the increase in mentally ill individuals in prisons and detention facilities, and the limited capacity of the youth criminal justice system to meet the needs of youth, particularly those facing mental health challenges.
Lack of trust between youth and police is a significant factor in setting youth on life trajectories that involve repeated conflict with the law, said participants. “Youth from certain communities are being over-policed,” said one participant. Those communities tend to be where there are large concentrations of people of colour or Aboriginal populations. Participants stressed the need for all three systems to identify and address systemic racism as it affects young people.
To be successful, programs need to be multidimensional, target kids in elementary school, be consistent and sustainable, and engage community, youth and families, said participants. Programs need to foster strong, trusting relationships between youth and adults, and offer a variety of supports, including academic, health, social, recreational and cultural, they said.
Legislation must not punish but help and support young people who get in trouble, insisted participants. Youth must be encouraged to stay in school to improve their chances of success and avoid conflict with the law. Teachers must be trained and schools given resources to address mental health issues of children and youth at risk, they concluded.
The forum was directed by project co-leads Carl James, YCEC director, and Theresa Shanahan, with organizational support from Louise Gormley, YCEC research associate and Patricia Gagliardi-Ursua, YCEC administrative secretary.
Facilitating discussions were York education Professors Susan Dion, Nombuso Dlamini, John Ippolito, James and Shanahan; and geography Professor Ranu Basu.
Round-table discussions featured members of the YCEC advisory council: Mary Anne Chambers, Cheryl Jackson, Llewellyn Joseph, Amos Key Jr., Cheryl Prescod and Chandra Turner.
Taking notes were graduate students Melanie Bourke, Selom Chapman-Nyaho, Rebeca Gutierrez Estrada, Danielle Kwan-Lafond, Krysta Pandolfi and Samuel Tecle.
With files from Louise Gormley, YCEC research associate, York Centre for Education and Community.