“It’s crazy. … There’s just no evidence basis for it.”
Leena Augimeri, director of the Centre for Children Committing Offences in Toronto, agrees, rhyming off several arguments against moving younger children into the criminal justice system: They’re not mature enough to understand complex court proceedings; involvement in the criminal justice system is developmentally harmful; most youngsters’ offences are petty crimes; treating children under age 12 should be focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment; placing children in the criminal justice system is more expensive than helping them with early-intervention programs.
“Think about what those systems are like and do we really want these young people being raised in those systems,” she said. “Something’s already gone wrong, and to put them into that type of a punishment system versus a rehabilitation process, I would just worry about what that individual would look like when they came out of that system.”
Treatment for youngest offenders varies widely
The stakes for dealing with the youngest offenders are high: Seventy-five per cent of kids who get into trouble with the law before age 12 run the risk of becoming career criminals if they don’t get adequate interventions, according to U.S. statistics.
Dr. Augimeri considers children aged six to 11 as “the forgotten group,” neglected in the gap between the focus on giving little kids a healthy start and efforts to reduce youth crime among those covered by the Youth Criminal Justice Act. Indeed, children do not turn into delinquents overnight. A 2003 U.S. study of 14-year-old juveniles accused of serious violent offences had a seven-year incubation period: At age seven, they had minor problems, followed by moderate to severe behaviour problems by age nine, and were committing serious delinquency offences by age 12.
But treatment varies widely across Canada. A 1999 survey found that government-funded programs specifically targeted at children under 12 who commit offences are rare, though some areas have services at the community level. The survey, which was done for the federal Justice Department, also found that child-welfare directors believed that some kids were falling through the cracks and not getting the help they needed.
Dr. Augimeri’s centre, which is part of the Child Development Institute, is at the forefront of helping the youngest juvenile offenders. Police, schools, doctors and parents refer kids between the ages of six and 11 who have run afoul of the law to the centre, where they are assessed and enrolled in its flagship, 28-year-old Stop Now and Plan program. The most serious cases involve children who injured others so badly they ended up in hospital.
For three months, children attend 11/2-hour group classes – with separate ones for girls and boys – each week to learn about dealing with anger while their parents and siblings take corresponding sessions. Facilitators focus on teaching kids emotional regulation, self-control and problem-solving using a stoplight metaphor. The youngsters first visualize a red light to calm themselves down in stressful situations. Then the light changes to yellow as they talk themselves through the situation before finally changing to green as they develop a plan to deal with their problem. The centre also helps kids enroll in community activities, such as sports or arts programs, and offers a summer day camp.
The voluntary program – which is available in 17 sites around Ontario, eight in other provinces, as well as a few cities in the United States – has treated 2,000 children in Toronto and about 10,000 overall. About three-quarters showed significant drops in problem behaviour during the three-month treatment period, Dr. Augimeri said. It costs an average of $4,500 per child.
Children who did well in the program had changes in their brain activity, with less activity in the fight-or-flight region and more in the executive functioning area, according to a 2008 paper published in the journal Development and Psychopathology.
But the centre has never helped an accused child murderer – and wouldn’t be allowed to because its programs are not offered in secure government facilities where such youth are typically housed.
“I keep looking and saying we need to learn from this, we need to think about what went wrong,” Dr. Augimeri said. “Yes, it does bother me. It bothers me to think first how did this child get at that point in their life but at the same time what services are being provided to that child to ensure they get back on the right track? And are the best possible services being afforded to them? And I think we need to be held accountable.”