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Except for the tall perimeter fence, the 241 surveillance cameras, and the clang of the enforced steel doors, the Burnaby Youth Custody Centre, in an industrial area near the Fraser River, looks like a suburban high school. The central space is a bright, mall-like rotunda where the inmates attend class. Each of the living units (two for girls, nine for boys) has a common area, showers, and eight private room-like cells.
The first time I meet Kit, “Sweet 16” cards still adorn her cell. It’s been seven months since her milestone birthday, and more than a year—a lifetime, it feels—since she started doing time here at B.C.’s largest youth prison. This isn’t her first stretch in juvie, but the charge this time is serious: worst case is a life sentence. During her 40-minute outdoor recreation period, the pretty, coltish girl in pigtails and standard uniform of grey T-shirt and navy sweats relives the winter day that brought her here.
That day—Monday, February 25, 2008—started typically.
Kit, then 15, cut school and got drunk with Cody, her 20-year-old boyfriend, and his half-brother, Stephen, 17. At Guildford Mall they met up with a girl Kit knew from a previous juvie stint, 16-year-old Monica. “This guy Justin was there, too, with two friends of his,” says Kit. (Everyone except Justin and Cody have pseudonyms.) “We’d always drink with random people, and I didn’t know him.” The group stole alcohol from the liquor store and went to Justin’s friend’s house to get drunk.
Justin, who’d spent much of his life in foster care, was small for his age, had difficulty fitting in, and struggled with developmental issues. Stephen, who’d been born with fetal alcohol spectrum symptoms, had been in and out of foster care since infancy, and had a rap sheet with the police. Cody, born addicted to cocaine and Ritalin, had already been imprisoned for offences that included assault and robbery.
After drinking at Justin’s friend’s place, the group still had booze, so they all walked to an abandoned, boarded-up house in Surrey where they’d partied before. Cody and Stephen started messing around with Justin on the roof, then punched him and threw him over the edge. “I don’t remember much, ’cause we were really drunk at this point,” says Kit. “We all started punching him and kicking him. Then he got up to leave and I was, like, kneeling on him and laughing.”
Through a frenzy of kicks, punches, and bludgeons with a pylon, Justin cried for help. Stephen grabbed a knife, and he and the girls took turns stabbing him in the neck, shoulder, arms, back, chest, and abdomen. “Justin was, like, bleeding from the neck, but I couldn’t really tell where he’d been stabbed because his nose was bleeding. I guess it was broken,” Kit says, matter-of-factly as we pace the field’s gravel track. “I started punching him in the face. He had blood all over his face, and then I fell over top of him so I had his blood all over me. We heard a siren, and Stephen stupidly threw the knife, like they won’t find it, but it was sitting right there. So I hid the knife in the grass. I was, like, so drunk I could barely walk. And then we ran.”
Cody didn’t get far: he’d passed out before the stabbing began. Stephen fled. Kit and Monica also got away. “I was, like, covered in blood,” says Kit. “My face and hands were caked. It was disgusting. We took the SkyTrain to Metrotown, and Stephen was there. I didn’t want my dad to see me covered in blood, so Stephen and I went to Cody’s house. I took a shower and changed into Cody’s clothes and shoes.”
The next day, Kit heard the news: Justin Peter Vasey, 14, was dead. “I was in shock,” she says. “I fell on the ground and felt an unbearable pain. I know that I could have stopped things from escalating that night. Instead I went along with it. I didn’t stop myself. I wanted everybody to think I was tough. We all wanted to prove we were tough.”
Justin’s friends told the RCMP what had happened, but with no hard evidence the Mounties released Cody and began an undercover investigation. Stephen attempted to get into an alcohol and drug rehab program, but was waitlisted. Both Kit and Monica were hauled back into juvie for probation breaches related to previous charges—Monica within hours of the killing, Kit four days later—but both were soon back on the streets.
“After that night, until we got caught, I didn’t give a fuck about anything,” says Kit. “I hated everything. I drank every day. I had no feelings for anyone. I shut down.”
Four months after Justin’s death, Stephen, Kit, and Monica were charged with second-degree murder and shipped to the Burnaby facility to await trail; they eventually pled guilty to manslaughter. (Cody, the only non-minor, went to adult prison.) Under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, the three kids faced a maximum of four years. Given the severity of the crime, though, they were facing adult sentences ranging from community probation to life in prison.
When the act was implemented, in 2003, Canada had the highest youth incarceration rate in the Western world. Its goal was to divert young offenders from prison in favour of “extrajudicial” programs like community-based counselling and restorative justice. The act emphasized the need for rehab, addiction and mental-health treatment, and community-based reintegration resources such as housing and employment programs. This approach supports the prevailing premise that because our brains are still developing into our 20s—particularly the regions that control impulsivity and complex cognitive functions—teenaged behaviours, from addiction to violence, are not yet fixed.
Eight years later, the B.C. government believes the approach is working. Up to two-thirds of teens criminally charged are now kept out of prison (as many as 600 a year), and B.C.’s per capita youth crime has dropped to the third-lowest in the country (after Quebec and Ontario). The Ministry of Children and Family Development believes that B.C., which dealt with over 17,000 teens arrested in 2008, has one of the most innovative youth justice systems in the country.
Yet critics argue that such interventions are doomed. The province’s youth-justice system and social-welfare system are riddled with bureaucracy, inadequate funding, political malfeasance, racial discrimination, sexism, and cultural apathy. B.C. has had the country’s highest child poverty rate eight years running, which tends to push the most vulnerable—kids in foster care, from abusive homes, on social assistance, in single-parent families, with addictions and mental health issues, and especially Native children—to a life of crime. Front-line programs, which are meant to steer kids straight, are disorganized, truncated, and starved of resources. More than 40 percent of B.C. kids in foster care become entangled in the youth justice system. These children of the state are actually less likely to commit crime than other youth, but fewer than one in 50 are offered formal diversionary programs. Ten percent of them end up behind bars.
Native children in this province are fives times more likely to be jailed than non-Natives; almost half the kids in Burnaby lockup are at least part Native and were homeless in the year prior to arrest.
Girls in B.C. are particularly vulnerable, with incarceration rates higher than the national average. Watchdogs believe our justice system is so afflicted with gender bias and paternalism that girls as young as 12 face stiffer penalties for breaches like breaking 9 p.m. curfews and “no contact” orders with friends. Many are forced into custody not to protect society from them, seemingly, but to protect them from the rest of us.
Kit has been estranged from her drug-addicted mother all her life. She endured racism at school for being half-Native. She says that her dad, a maintenance worker, took good care of her. Then puberty hit. “Fourteen and 15 were bad years. That’s when I started being bad, skipping school, drinking and getting into fights all the time. I got kicked out of school near the end of Grade 8.
I’d only go home to take a shower, change, eat, and leave. My dad is a good dad, but he couldn’t control me anymore. From 14 on, I was in and out of here four times, for a week or whatever.”
Inside, she met a lot of new people: police, probation officers, social workers, and counsellors charged with managing and ideally diverting teen criminals from prison. But she also met other chronic re-offenders, like a boyfriend who beat her up and threatened to kill her if she left him. It was on her first stint in lockup—for breaching probation on an assault charge—that she met Monica, who’s also half-Native. Monica had run away from home at age 12, and from then on toggled between foster homes, co-ed shelters, and living alone in a basement apartment, paying the rent by selling drugs.
Monica has gorgeous brown locks, glowing skin, D&G glasses, and a bright, inquisitive gaze. “I’ve been in and out of custody since I was 14, on so many assault charges,” she says. “The courts and assessments say it keeps escalating, that I have violent anger management issues. They give me antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs and keep upping the dosages, but I get no therapy.
“So many kids here have anger problems,” she says. “I’m trying to tame mine, but it’s tough. I want to be rehabilitated, but I don’t have any help. Like, emotionally, the staff here are twisted, there’s no good communication skills. If you get into a heated argument you get locked up right away.” She looks around the courtyard where we’re passing her recreation break. “I learned how to steal cars in here. That’s about it.”
By and large, the kids here are chronic re-offenders with serious behavioural problems or mental illness (72 percent), educational special needs (54 percent), fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and accompanying impulsivity and poor decision-making (25 percent), and psychoactive drug prescriptions (40 percent). Only half the boys—and less than a quarter of the girls—in custody for serious violent offences receive the Violent Offender Treatment Program, a mix of group and one-on-one counselling. Small wonder that Monica is wary of the future. “When we get out, they’re supposed to help get us get safe housing, jobs, and life-skills programs. That never happened for me. But they keep making their paycheques.”
Critics argue that the government spends much more on the caboose, meaning the justice system, than on the engine—early-childhood strategies like subsidized daycare and women’s shelters, and preventive youth programs, and resources like housing. Stakeholders, advocates, and teens in custody find themselves embittered about everything from child welfare, with its many isolated silos, to in-custody programs. Over 180 staffers work in this particular custody centre, and there are endless task forces and surveys to improve service. “Nothing ever gets done with our feedback. We’re set up to fail,” Monica says. “And they wonder why we keep lashing out.”
One of Monica’s earliest memories is of her drunken father stabbing her mom in the back. Like all the jailed kids I meet, she never offers up details of her past without prompting. During a later visit she reveals that she’d been sexually abused, first as a small girl by her grandfather, then at seven by a stepbrother, and later during a stint in transition housing by a woman.
“At 13, I said, ‘Why the fuck should I care about people when people don’t care about me?’ But I got over that. Now the biggest things—the sexual assaults, the beatings—I don’t think about them. It’s the little things that make me mad. All I see is the person I’m going to get, and everything else around it is black. I see that face and I have to go after them. With each punch and each kick or whatever, you get this, like, ‘Ahh!’ orgasmic feeling. Most of us grew up with violence—it’s natural to us.”
The pain leaves its marks: homemade tattoos, cigarette burns, slash marks. “You see the blood and you want to see more,” shrugs Monica. She gazes at the sky, which is turning pink and gold, another summer Friday nearing its end. “It feels like taking a deep breath. Like you’re finally able to relax.”
To escape the pain, the chosen drug is crystal meth, which is readily available here, as are ecstasy, crack, and marijuana. Supply comes from family or friends lobbing stashes over the fence. Two girls recently OD’d after they ingested a liquid they found.
Watchdogs fear the situation can only worsen. Cuts to government spending, including mental health and addiction treatment, continue as the Liberals fight to lower the province’s deficit. The Ministry of Children and Family Development, which faces $10 million in cuts, has already fallen short on targets for programs like foster care and child-abuse prevention. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education lowered its Native graduation targets from 60 percent to 50. And the B.C. Liberals have cut services to hundreds of community social-welfare programs, shrugged off calls to tackle child poverty, and proposed legislative amendments that would weaken the powers of the Representative for Children and Youth office as an independent observer and advocate.
“We know there are many major disconnects in the system,” says Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who runs that office, is a judge (on leave), a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, and mother of four children. “No clear accountability, few adequate resources, and tons of missed opportunities. A society is only as good as the way its most vulnerable are treated. And we’re failing.”
Alan Markwart, the ministry’s senior executive director of youth justice, says, “I’ll be frank in saying that when you put together a group of serious chronic offenders at a time in their lives when their peers are most important, you’re not likely to get ideal results. Many have suffered terrible abuse. But they pose a threat to society, and they need to be controlled in a structured and stable environment.” He points out that another problem with the mandate for custody diversion is that many youth who do enter facilities are in for stints too brief to benefit from the therapeutic programs offered.
“The decision-makers see children and youth as expenditures, not investments,” says Sibylle Artz, a professor at the University of Victoria’s School of Child and Youth Care who’s worked with youth in custody and developed programs for custody staff. “The purse-holders see building roads and hosting events like the Olympics as investments. That thinking infuses every social policy in this province. It’s our greatest shame.”
And so our juvenile facilities—intended as a last-resort opportunity to rehabilitate youth—have simply become a dumping ground for the province’s most neglected kids.
Last October, sentencing began for the killing of Justin Vasey. His natural father took a seat in the back row of the courtroom; ironically, he was there not to bear witness but to be sentenced himself on a string of charges: robbery, assault causing bodily harm, assault with a weapon, unlawful confinement. Kit’s father was also there. So was Stephen’s natural father, and two of his aunts, all of whom he had recently met for the first time.
Two weeks later, the judge handed down the ruling: five additional years in custody for Stephen. Five more for Monica. Four-and-a-half for Kit. Both girls burst into tears. Kit scanned the room for her dad, who had been visiting three times a week. During the three years she’d already spent in prison, she’d sprouted two inches and grown into her limbs. She’d learned guitar and piano. For her, this story ends on a note of cautious optimism: qualified for parole, she now works half-time as a secretary and is enrolled in general arts at Douglas College this fall.
At the sentencing, Monica simply wiped away her tears and turned to the guard to be escorted out. No one from her family was there. She’d been talking to her mom on the phone each week. She’d graduated from high school, pressed charges against a former sexual assailant, and thrown a Lady Gaga-themed party for her 19th birthday. For her 20th birthday, in late summer, she’ll be entering adult prison. Monica says she doesn’t fear it: “I’m good at doing time.” In fact, she’s excited to leave a facility filled with kids five, six, seven years younger. She’s an extrovert, she says. She’ll be fine.
What would she say to Justin’s family, if she could? For the first time, her tough-girl voice wavers. “Saying sorry won’t do it. I can’t bring him back. It’s unfortunate that someone had to die for me to open my eyes and realize that my life was going nowhere fast. He was a foster kid just like us and we don’t matter to anyone. I’d take my own life so that he could live again.”
Both girls often replay the winter afternoon that ended with the death of a 14-year-old. “If it never happened,” says Kit, “I’d be dead—or in jail, anyway. I’m not the same person. His life matters to me. I’m going to change. Justin basically saved my life.”