Mentoring Troubled Youth in Rural Nova Scotia

Private Counselor Starts Project for Young Offenders with Substance-use Issues

To Wanda Schofield, both the problem and the solution were obvious: too many teenagers in rural Nova Scotia with substance-use issues and in trouble with the law, and not enough services to help them get back on the straight and narrow. An addiction and mental-health counsellor and child-welfare worker for most of her career, Schofield owns and operates Kentville Family Counselling, a private clinic. She also works part-time at the province’s closed-custody youth facility in Waterville, a town in the Annapolis Valley.

“Many of the young offenders I see professionally are unlikely to finish school or get a job without some help,” says Schofield. “Their families are often absent or unable to support them, so they drift into bad habits that tend to get increasingly worse. A trip to the youth facility might interrupt the cycle, but it typically starts again as soon as they get out.”

Wanda Schofield recognizes that the cycle can be broken if young people spend time with a supportive mentor, someone who will help them develop good habits such as staying in school, working part time and being physically active. So in 2010, Schofield secured support from Justice Canada’s Youth Justice Fund to launch the Annapolis Valley Youth Community Support Program. The Program targets a specific group: 12-17 year-olds with substance-use issues who are involved with the justice system. Each participant spends up to six hours a week with a support worker - a mentor who has trained as a youth worker or addictions counsellor. The mentor serves as something of a guide, helping the youth develop a more positive approach to life.

“The support worker helps the youth learn to control their anger and replace substance use with healthier activities,” says Schofield. “It’s up to the two of them to figure out what those activities are: finding a job, getting a tutor, taking up a sport or signing up for a special course.”

Overcoming Teenage Boredom

Part of the challenge, according to Schofield, is that there is little for young people to do in the Annapolis Valley - a rural region of several hundred square kilometres along the Bay of Fundy. Kentville, the largest town in the region, has a population of less than 6,000. Small towns of fewer than 500 residents are scattered between large stretches of farmland. Bus service, even between larger towns, is infrequent.

“Many teenagers in the region are just plain bored,” says Schofield. “And when there are no parents around to supervise them, many choose to get high on drugs or alcohol. Our program aims to change that.”

Given the central role that the support worker/mentor plays in the program, Wanda Schofield put a great deal of effort into selecting strong candidates for the position. All are relatively young, recent graduates of addictions-counselling programs and have some experience working with youth.

Wanda Schofield recruited Joe Mitchell, one of the program’s four support workers, in 2011. Mitchell had completed a B.A. in Criminology and a diploma in Correctional Services before taking a full-time job as a correctional officer at the Waterville youth facility, where he met Schofield. He works part-time for the Program, mentoring two teenagers for up to 12 hours per week.

“I use the same skill set as I do at work everyday,” says Mitchell. “In the program, though, I spend much more time one-on-one with individual kids. Listening is a big part of it; many of these kids have never had an adult pay much attention to them. Listening enables me to earn their trust, which is the key to getting them to behave differently.”

Building Trust, Achieving Goals

Mitchell says building trust usually takes time - several visits and outings to go bowling, rock climbing, paint balling or whatever the youth wants to do. The confidentiality agreement signed by the youth and mentor also helps build trust. The agreement specifies who can access any information the youth provides to the mentor.

Mitchell says that once the youth understands that what is said to him will be kept confidential he usually opens up and shares more thoughts and feelings. Gradually, the youth begins to feel comfortable enough to talk about substance use and other negative behaviour.

Each youth-mentor team establishes realistic goals in several key areas: justice (e.g. don’t breach probation), substance use (e.g. reduction of use), extra-curricular activities (e.g. take kickboxing lessons) and school (e.g. improve attendance record). Every three months, the youth and mentor re-evaluate the goals and typically set new ones. The mentor completes regular progress reports to track issues at home, substance use and changes in attitudes.

“Setting and achieving goals - regardless of how modest the goals may be - is crucial,” says Wanda Schofield. “Many of these kids have rarely felt the confidence and pride that comes when you accomplish something.”

The program includes a modest budget for recreation and training. When one participant got a job but had no way to travel to and from work, the program bought him a bicycle. The program has also covered the cost of driver’s education for some participants. Partners in the community help the program access other sources of support, such as Jump Start, a program run by Canadian Tire that helps fund the cost of sporting equipment for needy kids.

Although the program has been successful - more than 20 youth participated during its first two years of operation - it has had to overcome a number of unanticipated problems. The initial plan called for Wanda Schofield to devote only two or three days per week to administering the program and supervising full-time mentors. When the program initially struggled to attract enough referrals, though, the mentors often sat idle. Schofield now hires mentors on short-term contracts.

Another problem was finding enough qualified women to work with female clients. The number of females referred to the program was much higher than Schofield expected.

“It was a steep learning curve for me during the first year,” says Schofield. “I’ve run a private practice for years, but I’m no social-service agency. I got lots of help, though, and am proud of what the kids have been able to accomplish through the Program.”

Another indication of the program’s success is that it enjoys widespread support in the community. Allister Graham, a probation officer with the Nova Scotia Department of Justice, is a big fan. “I’ve sent some of my most seriously drug-addicted kids to the program,” he says, “and the results have been great. Mentorship is a wonderful approach, because it motivates the kids and gets them moving.”

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