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In Saskatchewan, native community grapples with brutal child slaying

A sign on the edge of the Kahkewistahaw First Nation in rural Saskatchewan on Sept. 6, 2013. The body of a six-year old boy, Lee Allan Bonneau, was found on the reserve Aug. 21. Another child under the age of 12 is believed to be responsible for his death.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Two years ago, a woman arriving home on the Kahkewistahaw First Nation after being away for a few days noticed that her door was wide open.

The house had been trashed. There was a trail of blood coming from the bathroom. The home, she recalls, was filled with "the smell of death."

She found her pregnant dog, Dolly, dead – her abdomen slashed open, her litter removed and the fetuses thrown against a wall.

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The RCMP investigated the May, 2011 incident and concluded that a child under the age of 12 was responsible. The case was referred to the Social Services Ministry.

That boy, say several members of the reserve, including the dog's owner, is believed to have killed six-year-old Lee Bonneau last month. The child, who residents say is either 10 or 11, has been fingered by the RCMP as the only person who could have been responsible for Lee's death on Aug. 21.

The foster child was violently attacked in a wooded area near the community hall, suffering severe head wounds inflicted by what police called a weapon of "opportunity." The boy with a deep laugh who liked to play outdoors was last seen alive just a few metres away from where his foster mother – who was visiting from outside the reserve – took part in Wednesday night bingo. The RCMP say the two children didn't know each other.

Before Lee's death, Evan Taypotat, the principal of Chief Kahkewistahaw Community School, said band members had taken pride in the fact that the reserve has a strong chief and council and a good school and other organizations. "This is Kahkewistahaw. Those things don't happen here," he said. "We're a good place. We're a good place to grow up, to live and to grow old."

Now, he said, "the community, obviously, has lost its swagger."

The first nation, located 150 kilometres east of Regina, has been thrust into an unwelcome media spotlight while its residents grapple with the knowledge that one of their youngest members has become an accused killer. Shaken by the incident, the chief and council are considering a curfew for young people, while others argue that volunteer "peacekeepers" are needed to patrol the reserve.

"To me, he was always a very respectful boy. I never saw that anger stuff in him," said Chief Sheldon Taypotat. "I don't know what was going through his mind. It's unbelievable that it happened."

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The boy used to ride his bike past the front of Nadine Isaac's long driveway. She would see him at the nearby convenience store hanging out with his friends. He had even come over to her home several times to play with her five-year-old son.

"I thought he was a nice little guy," Ms. Isaac said on the porch of her bungalow on the reserve. "I thought he was a normal 10-year-old."

Child-welfare system put 'on alert'

The tragedy on the Kahkewistahaw First Nation raises the thorny issue of how this country deals with its youngest offenders and has reignited the controversial debate over whether the law should be changed to get tougher on child criminals.

The boy who allegedly killed Lee Bonneau cannot be named, has not been charged with a crime and will not serve any time in jail. The minimum age of legal liability varies internationally, but in Canada it is 12.

Instead, the boy is considered a child in need of help and is under the care of Saskatchewan's child-welfare system. He has been sent for treatment to a group home for high-risk children with behavioural problems somewhere in the province. Saskatchewan doesn't have secure, locked facilities for dealing with such youngsters, but Social Services Minister June Draude has said the boy is under 24-hour supervision. Officials have been in touch with other provinces in case they need further help.

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Mental-health professionals are working with the boy to try to get to the bottom of his actions. They are trying to determine "what the mindset of the child was at the time of the incident, whether there was other trauma, whether it was an impulsive act, whether there was impaired judgment [and] whether there were any other factors involved," said Andrea Brittin, assistant deputy minister for child and family services at the Ministry of Social Services.

The boy's extreme alleged violence raises troubling questions about failures in the system. The case has sparked reviews by the Yorkton Tribal Council Child and Family Services agency, which was involved with the boy, along with the provincial Social Services Ministry and Saskatchewan's children's advocate.

"Clearly, in a sense, that kind of puts the child-welfare system on alert that they didn't protect these two children," said Bob Pringle, the province's Advocate for Children and Youth.

The older boy, who was in the care of his parents when the incident occurred, along with his family had been receiving services for years from Yorkton Tribal Council Child and Family Services, said executive director Raymond Shingoose. "I know we've been involved for a long period of time," he said, declining to provide more details.

The agency is reviewing its handling of the case to determine if it fell short, but Mr. Shingoose said he doesn't believe it dropped the ball.

"This critical incident is one of a kind. We've never dealt with anything like this. We don't really know all the answers just yet."

It is unclear how much information relating to the case will be made public. Mr. Pringle said he is leaning toward publicly releasing his report. But the public likely will never know about the success of efforts to rehabilitate the boy or how long he will remain in the government's care.

"There isn't a minimum amount of time, no," Ms. Brittin said. "What we would want to make sure of, though, is that he is receiving the treatment that he needs so that he can become a healthy, productive adult."

Should Canada lower minimum age of criminal liability?

Canada set the minimum age of criminal liability at 12 when the old Young Offenders Act came into force in 1984. Before that, the minimum age was seven. In Britain, the age of criminal responsibility is 10. In the United States, it's determined by each state and is as low as seven.

Last year in Canada, 2,478 children under age 12 were accused of violent crimes, which range from robbery and assault to sexual assault and murder.

The statistics on child killers are even more alarming: In the past four decades, 50 youngsters 11 or younger have been accused of committing homicide, according to Statistics Canada.

Among them are an eight-year-old boy who worked with 14-year-old Sandy Charles to lure Johnathan Thimpsen, who was seven, into the woods, where he was stabbed and mutilated in 1995. The boys, who lived in the Northern Saskatchewan community of La Ronge, were inspired by the movie Warlock and believed they would gain the power to fly if they drank the liquefied fat of an unbaptized child. Sandy Charles was found not guilty by reason of insanity after being tried as an adult. The eight-year-old was sent to a therapeutic foster home.

Nicholas Bala, a law professor at Queen's University who specializes in child and family law, argues that children who are 10 or 11 who commit serious violent offences should be arrested, charged and tried as young offenders. He believes that lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility would provide more public accountability, allow victims to play a role in the process and result in better, court-mandated treatment. Rehabilitation efforts would include child welfare services such as counselling and, when required, mental-health treatment.

The current practice of dealing with the youngest offenders through the child-welfare system – intervention that could be voluntary, depending on parental capacity and other circumstances – does not adequately serve society or the youngsters themselves, he says.

"They have both child-welfare needs and youth-justice needs. But I think ignoring the fact that there are, if you want, crossover needs is the problem. We are now saying this is only a child welfare issue and I'd say no, this is a crossover issue," he said. "We need co-ordinated multiple involvement with accountability as a dimension of this."

Prof. Bala appeared before a parliamentary committee on youth justice in 1997 to argue for lowering the age of minimum responsibility to 10 for serious cases. The proposal, which mirrors Britain's system, was rejected by the Liberal government of the time.

"Do I think that this is a perfect response, the English response? No, but I think it's better than ours," he said.

But among child welfare advocates, the notion of bringing 10- and 11-year-olds to court and locking them up with other juvenile delinquents is heresy.

"How is that going to help? It's not going to reduce crime. It's going to widen the net and it's a system that's not well-equipped already to deal with kids, never mind bringing more of them in," said Michele Peterson-Badali, a psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education who researches youth in the justice system.

"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."

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