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Roy McMurtry Youth Centre

The largest secure custody/detention centre, the Roy McMurtry Youth Centre (RMYC), is a purpose-built facility that opened in 2009 to house both male and female youth in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) with a total capacity for 192 youth in separate and apart smaller cottage style units. Each unit has the capacity to house 12 youth (MCYS, nd). In mid-2013, the female youth were transferred to Syl Apps Youth Centre. In 2014, despite a capacity for 96 males, the average resident count was 64. At the time of the snapshot of counts taken between November 8-10, 2015 the count was 52 (MCYS, nd). In spite of the lower count, the centre continues to house a much higher number of youth than any of the other secure custody/detention facilities in the province.

According to statistics for male youth in 2013-14 provided by RMYC, the vast majority of youth are in secure detention (397 of 421 admissions) versus custody (21 of 421) (MCYS, nd). The average length of stay is very short on average (detention: 32 days; custody: 71.3 days), for an average length of stay of 37.8 days. Categories by offence types were: Serious Violent Offences (264); Weapons (63) and Administration of Justice, which includes failure to comply with non-custodial sentences (103) (MCYS, nd).

The Panel met with senior leadership at the Ministry and with managers, program staff, front line staff and youth at RMYC. We also heard from youth that we met with at other facilities about their experience at RMYC and other stakeholders who expressed their perspectives on the largest youth centre in Ontario.

We heard that, in spite of the vision that RMYC would be a state-of-the-art, modern, dedicated youth centre serving GTA youth, offering a therapeutic, youth-centred environment and the best evidence-based rehabilitative programming, challenges have been experienced from the outset. The RMYC was staffed at the time of opening through a combination of staff with experience working in the adult correctional system and new hires, who often did not have experience working in a secure custody/detention youth justice context. The Panel heard that challenges were experienced in some cases, with staff from the adult correctional system who had difficulty adjusting to a youth­centred, rehabilitative model. Some of the new, inexperienced staff struggled to confidently manage the peer-on­peer violence and the gang-related issues.

The size of RMYC and the composition of the resident population have proven to be challenging. Although data was not made available to the Panel, the RMYC management team and senior management at MCYS reported that there are a significant number of gang-affiliated youth at the centre, many of whom must be kept separate from opposing gangs to ensure their safety. Many youth are reported to come from high needs/high risk or priority communities with significant systemic challenges including poverty and lower levels of education and employment. A significant number of youth are reported to have had significant prior involvement with the youth justice system and score highly on criminogenic risk factors.

In 2013, the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth released a report entitled It Depends Who’s Working based on reviews conducted at RMYC from 2009 to 2011. The report’s key finding is that staff make or break the youth experience and that this underpins every aspect of life at the facility. He indicates in his report that staff qualities such as warmth, empathy, genuineness, respect and flexibility have been shown in the literature to reduce recidivism so the ability to establish relationships with young people on this basis is important.

Many positive relationships were reported by youth with one or more front line staff at Roy McMurtry Youth Centre but there was reported to be a wide variation in how staff treat youth. The Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth indicated that there was an emphasis on the use of restraints and containment rather than de-escalation and problem solving and that relationship custody was used in a varied and unpredictable way. He also highlighted concerns about safety as a result of incidents of peer-on-peer violence; allegations of excessive use of force by staff on the part of 20% of youth who reported being physically restrained; limited access to family; and wait lists for programs (PACY, 2013).

Young people we met with in other locations, who had been at RMYC, generally reported that their experience was less positive there than at other facilities. Some indicated that they felt unsafe due to the peer-on-peer violence and that the heightened focus on security and control as a result of these issues as well as the sheer numbers of youth, led to a very rules based environment with higher use of restraints and secure isolation than at other youth centres.

Dedicated efforts have been made by the Ministry and the Centre’s senior management team and staff over the past few years since the centre opened in 2009, to address the challenges, including increasing staffing, enhancing staff training, reducing the count, providing further family visiting flexibility and expanding program offerings (MCYS, nd).

There is an extensive on-site school program offered by the Peel District School Board, including a skilled trades program. While many youth are disengaged from community schools and have records of suspension and expulsion, the Panel was advised of some good examples of educational successes. Keeping gang members separated while at school was reported to be challenging. In addition to the school program, RMYC provides individual and group programs to address education, rehabilitation and reintegration goals as well as criminogenic risk factors (MCYS, nd).

In March 2014, the EPIC Centre was opened to provide dedicated learning space for life skills, cognitive behavioural programs, employment and financial literacy, substance abuse and anger management programs. Statistics provided for the EPIC Centre indicate that enrolment numbers are low compared to counts. Given the high numbers of detention youth and their short stay at RMYC, the delivery of programming is challenging. Nevertheless, the Panel was pleased to see this expansion in programming and noted that since opening, a total of 586 programs, and 676 services and activities have been completed (MCYS, nd).