Targeted, Holistic Program for Toronto Youth in Conflict with the Law

A 2006 investment from Justice Canada’s Youth Justice Fund helped spawn a series of programs that reintegrate and rehabilitate African Canadian youth in Toronto who have come in conflict with the law. The African Canadian Youth Justice Program follows a holistic approach based on one-on-one support often provided by young men who have overcome similar problems.

“The roots of the program go back to the public outcry that followed the police shooting of Michael Wade Lawson in 1992,” says Margaret Parsons, executive director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic (ACLC), the organization that runs the program. Parsons helped establish ACLC in 1994. “All levels of government completed a report on the shooting and concluded that African-Canadians, particularly African-Canadian youth, needed a dedicated voice in the justice system.”

African Canadian Legal Clinic

Consultations with families, academics and representatives of the justice system led to the establishment of ACLC - the only organization of its kind in Canada. The Clinic provides advice and represents African-Canadians in legal fora, particularly the courts, where it often pursues precedent-setting cases. ACLC also operates a wide range of initiatives to address racism, and systemic and institutional discrimination.

When the Youth Criminal Justice Act came into force, ACLC designed a project to address the specific needs of Toronto’s African-Canadian communities. Under the program, youth in conflict with the law can access the services of specially trained court-liaison workers and social workers. The court-liaison workers help the youth and their families understand and navigate the justice system, while the social workers provide counseling and connect them with relevant services and supports. One of the program’s first challenges, according to Parsons, was gaining the acceptance of the justice community.

“We faced a lot of mistrust at the beginning,” she says. “We had to demonstrate the value of the program to everyone from judges and defense counsel, to individual youth and their families.”

Improved Outcomes Inspire Respect for Program

The program quickly earned widespread respect, thanks to the efforts of people such as Tazio Clarke, one of its first court workers. Born in Jamaica, Clarke immigrated to Canada as a boy and grew up in a rough-and-tumble Scarborough neighbourhood - one of the program’s target regions. Clarke credits a strong family upbringing for helping him avoid the fate of some of his childhood friends, who ended up in jail.

“I understand what many of these youth and their families go through because I’ve been around it much of my life,” Tazio says. “This program aims to break the cycle that many of these people get trapped in. I’ve seen how it can change lives and that inspires me every day.”

Tazio Clarke earned a Bachelor of Social Work degree from Ryerson University before joining ACLC in 2006. After a few years as a court worker, he now serves as one of the organization’s four reintegration social workers and manages a caseload of approximately 25 youth. He works with each client to design and implement a customized bail plan, and connect them with appropriate services, programs and agencies.

Rudy Coccolo, a bail supervisor at the Scarborough Courthouse, appreciates what the program has been able to accomplish.

“Youth and their families recognize that people like Tazio are on their side and are looking out for their interests,” Coccolo says. “The courthouse can be an intimidating place, especially for a teenager or family who’s there for the first time. ACLC workers can take the time to explain what’s going on and what to expect. As a result, the youth is more likely to honour the judge’s decision and stay out of trouble.”

Partnership Key to Success

“Much of our success is due to the partnerships we’ve established,” says Clarke. “There are lots of organizations that offer services, such as tutoring, employment and volunteer opportunities, and recreational activities. We tap into these organizations and match youth and families with the services they need.”

The program continues to be successful and currently handles approximately 800 cases per year. Along with the passion of individual workers, Margaret Parsons attributes the program’s accomplishments to three aspects of its design: educating both the justice system and society at large about the need for a program targeted to African-Canadian youth, adopting a flexible rather than one-size-fits-all approach, and building a close rapport with individual youth and their families.

“Right from the start, we hired and trained young men who could relate to the challenges that our clients face and understood how to address them,” says Parsons. “Mentorship is an important part of their role. One mark of success is that some of our former clients managed to turn their lives around and have become mentors themselves.”

Breaking the Cycle of Criminality

For Tazio Clarke, the program helps eliminate the negative image many people have of African-Canadian youth in Toronto—an image some youth strive to live up to rather than reject. Changing the stereotype is part of breaking the cycle that leads to criminal activities.

“I can’t count the number of people who’ve broken down in tears in my office over the years,” he says. “They are overcome by the many challenges they face. We help them figure out to overcome each challenge and create a new and positive identity for themselves.”

Responding to New Challenges

Both the program and ACLC have evolved significantly over the years. To help clients address unique and often complex mix of contributing factors, such as poverty, and issues with mental health and substance abuse, the program contracts the services of a psychologist. And ACLC continues to adjust its services in response to the needs of its clientele.

“The truth is that a Somali immigrant who grew up in a refugee centre has very different needs than a boy who grew up with his grandparents in Jamaica and now lives with his parents in Toronto. We try to make sure that the justice system treats them fairly and that they get the help they need.”

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