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The Globe and Mail

Minister axes testing program after staffer charged

Mary Polak, B.C.'s minister of children and family development. Victoria June 23, 2008.

Diana Nethercott/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's children and family development minister says it isn't reasonable to expect she would have known about a controversial testing program for teenaged sex offenders before a sex-offence charge against one of its staff helped prompt its cancellation this week.

"It's very similar in nature to what we deal with in health," Mary Polak said in an interview. "A minister is certainly aware of programs and aware of the services that are provided, but specific medical or psychiatric treatments? Those are determined by professionals."

But David Eby, speaking for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association which raised concerns about the program this week, was skeptical that details of the protocol were news to the minister.

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"We think the minister acted appropriately in cancelling this program when she became aware of it, but she should certainly be asking questions about how such a bizarre program could be taking place without her knowledge," he said.

"This was a program I understand the youth service was quite proud of. I would be surprised if there wouldn't be some briefing note about this program."

The testing involves teenage boys with a history of sex offences, some as young as 13. Sensors were attached to their genitals while a researcher showed them pictures of adults having sex or children in various states of nudity to measure their level of arousal. The point of the so-called penile plethysmography was to seek out indicators of which teenagers would be repeat offenders, even after treatment.

According to Ms. Polak's ministry, the Youth Forensic Psychiatric Services, which administered the tests, accounts for $13-million out of a ministry budget of about $1.4-billion, and the sex-offender assessment is a tiny part of the psychiatric services budget. Only 76 of about 1,300 youth receiving treatment on a given day would have committed sexual offences.

Ms. Polak announced on Thursday that she was scrapping the 25-year-old program.

The minister linked her decision to Thursday's discovery by her ministry that a staff member involved in the testing was facing a sex-offence charge.

Ms. Polak had few details to offer about the charge or the suspect, but said the allegation was not related to the program, and didn't involve a test subject. She said the suspect was no longer working for the ministry, and was brought before the courts in early July.

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But she said of the allegations that, "I think it's something that certainly raises additional concerns."

Also, she said she is worried that the testing tactic has not been proven to work better than "less intrusive assessment" tactics.

"When I initially learned of [the testing program] I asked staff immediately to look into what was going on and, based on the information I have received from them initially, I am satisfied that this is a program we ought to suspend permanently," Ms. Polak said.

Andre Picard, the director of the Youth Forensic Psychiatric Services, which championed the merits of the testing earlier this week, on Thursday referred questions to the minister's office.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s child advocate, has launched a review into the program.

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