Ombudsperson calls B.C.’s handling of youth confinement an embarrassment

Ombudsperson calls B.C.'s handling of youth confinement an embarrassment

B.C.’s ombudsperson says the Ministry of Children and Family Development should be embarrassed by its neglect toward its commitment to reduce the practice of isolating youth in custody.

Jay Chalke said Tuesday that the ministry had failed to take action on a 2021 report by his office that called for “separate confinement,” or solitary confinement, of young people to be limited and its prolonged use abolished.

It examined youth in provincial youth facilities in Burnaby and Prince George who were subject to the practice between 2017 and 2019, and “what we found was alarming,” Chalke said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

The report found that youth at danger of suicide and self-harm were those most commonly subject to separate confinement, and “prolonged isolation periods were experienced almost exclusively by Indigenous and racialized girls.”

“Separately, confined youth had limited and inconsistent educational, mental health and cultural supports and in several cases, youth were subject to repeated use of force and forcible removal of clothing,” he said.

The report said youth were exposed to “significant harm” from separate confinement, in particular Indigenous youth who have long been overrepresented in provincial custody.

An update to the report released Tuesday said that in many cases the ministry was “moving backwards.”

It found vulnerable youth in provincial custody were still being isolated from others in care for long periods.

“To date, there’s been a serious lack of progress by the ministry on these recommendations,” Chalke said, adding that he was “deeply concerned.”

He said Tuesday that the number of youth in custody has dropped since the release of the 2021 report, entitled “Alone: The Prolonged and Repeated Isolation of Youth in Custody,” and that should have made its recommendations easier to implement.

But the update said the ministry had made no progress on 15 of the 2021 recommendations, despite a “commitment to implement every recommendation” when the report was released.

“To say I am disappointed is an understatement,” Chalke said in a news release.

“I am calling on the ministry to account for and address its delay in meaningfully implementing the recommendations, in order to ensure more humane treatment of youth remanded while awaiting trial or serving a custodial sentence.”

He said that in 2021, the ministry had committed to a longer implementation period for the recommendations than the report suggested.

Chalke said in the release that the ministry “has so neglected this issue, they’ve been unable to meet even their slower pace of implementation. This should be cause for embarrassment.”

“Youth in custody who are further isolated through separate confinement are placed very far from the site of justice,” he said on the conference call. “The ministry must do better.”

Minister for Children and Family Development Grace Lore was not immediately available to comment on Chalke’s report, a ministry spokeswoman said.

A response letter from deputy minister David Galbraith, dated April 3, is appended to Chalke’s update of the report. It says the Ministry of Children and Family Development was provided a draft of the update in February.

Galbraith’s letter to Chalke says the “ministry appreciates the opportunity to review your assessment of the progress made toward implementing” the 2021 recommendations.

Chalke had sought a progress report from the ministry by the end of March, but Galbraith’s letter said “in consideration of pending legal action related to the topic of the Alone report, the ministry is currently unable to provide a further update on the progress of the implementation of the recommendations.”

In October 2023, B.C. law firm Hammerco Lawyers announced a class action against the ministry for alleged Charter violations related to youth solitary confinement in B.C. dating back to 1984.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 23, 2024.

Darryl Greer, The Canadian PressDarryl Greer, The Canadian Press

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