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Province needs a hard look at what truly helps troubled youth

The real question, Dr. Charles Emmrys testified, is, “What works?”

The real question, Dr. Charles Emmrys testified, is, “What works?”


What doesn’t work — what research shows doesn’t work, he says — is shipping troubled kids out of their home provinces, away from family and community, and into residential institutions where they are more likely to be warehoused than treated.


Emmyrs, a Moncton-based clinical psychologist and court-recognized expert in adolescent behaviour disorders, is an advocate for what he calls the “messy stuff.” He argues governments should invest scarce resources in family, school and community supports instead of more buildings. Community-based care, he acknowledges, is “a long and tedious process, but it works.”


Emmrys was testifying earlier this week in the case of a 15-year-old Cole Harbour boy currently in Bayfield, a long-term Ontario treatment centre “for boys experiencing difficulties.”


The boy had been diagnosed with myriad psychological disorders: Attention deficit hyperactivity, alcohol-related neural development, impulse control. Mostly, he ran. He ended up selling his body, stealing cars, doing drugs.


His grandparents, who had raised him since he was a toddler, couldn’t cope on their own. In October 2008, they asked the Department of Community Services for help.


Community Services’ idea of helping was to make him a ward of the province and ship him off to Bayfield last June.


When his grandparents tried to visit him in September, they say they were shocked by Bayfield staff’s hostility and unwillingness to let them spend time with their grandson.


They’re now asking Family Court here to order Community Services to bring him back to Nova Scotia.


The real question, of course, is whether the boy is benefitting at Bayfield.


My own anecdotal experience isn’t encouraging.


Two years ago, while researching a story on children who slip through the social welfare cracks, I met a local street kid I called Carl. Carl had spent five years—from age 12—in Bayfield for problems that sound remarkably similar to this boy.

As do his treatments, which included a lot of drug therapy.

At one point, Carl says he was on 13 different psychotropic drugs. “I was like a zombie.” Bayfield officials also discouraged Carl’s mother from visiting or talking with her son on the phone, he told me.

Did it work?

No.

After Bayfield spit Carl out at 17, he wound up as a psych patient in Nova Scotia where doctors finally took him off all the meds Bayfield had prescribed. When I met him, Carl was living on the streets, and didn’t have much hope for himself or his future.

What works—and what doesn’t? Good questions. It’s time the government started asking them.

Stephen Kimber, the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of Kings College, is the author of eight books.