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Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Executive Summary

Addressing the Roots


Our work led us to conclude that a social opportunity strategy is needed across all sectors in Ontario to mobilize the social capital and other assets in our communities to address these roots and their concentrations. We must convert the grounds that now nurture the immediate risk factors into new grounds that produce hope and opportunity.

Most of our report focuses on that task. We do, though, go on to address the interventions that are still required at the individual level to deal with those youth who develop the immediate risk factors about which we are so concerned. We do this briefly as there are already established programs on which to draw, with the main need now being to focus on and increase ways to integrate the community into the delivery of those interventions that the evidence shows work best. We also add our voices to those calling for a ban on handguns in Ontario, for reasons we set out in our report.

Overall, to create sustainable hope and opportunity for Ontario, we believe that an approach based on four pillars is essential. These pillars will, collectively, provide a repaired social context, a youth policy framework, a neighbourhood capacity and empowerment focus and a new integrated governance system to align and sustain action to address the roots of violence involving youth.

Pillar 1: A Repaired Social Context: Social Opportunity and Anti-Racism

This pillar will bring together strategies to address the level, the concentrations and the circumstances of poverty, along with tightly related issues including racism, housing, education, mental health, family and community support, transportation, and the justice system. This will provide a targeted and measurable long-term strategy to move from social exclusion to social inclusion, creating greater opportunities for the young people who lack them now.

In this pillar, we discuss the kinds of social context changes that we believe are necessary to address the roots of violence involving youth. These roots have grown over a number of years. They were not created by one party or government or segment of society.

Just as those policy omissions and commissions grew over time, so will it take time to remedy them. There are initiatives such as anti-racism, addressing the circumstances of poverty and mental health, and starting to build community hubs that can and should be advanced immediately, while others will take varying amounts of time to initiate, with implementation times ranging from months or years to possibly a generation.

We stress this point to be clear that the breadth of our analysis does not mean that we are suggesting that everything we touch on in this pillar can be done at once. We do not claim to have all the details or choices resolved. We primarily provide broad directions in the social context pillar, recognizing that well-planned and incremental progress will be the most sustainable. What we are unequivocally calling for is a firm commitment to making Ontario’s social context work for everyone and a move away from piecemeal and sporadic initiatives.

We will not attempt to summarize here all the advice we set out under Pillar 1. Instead, we will briefly note several of the areas dealt with there to illustrate the approach we have taken. A list of the major areas we address in Pillar 1 is found in the recommendations section of this executive summary, along with highlights of our advice for each and a reference to where the balance of our advice can be found in the report.

As Pillar 1 makes clear, we see a pressing and vital need to reduce poverty and address the circumstances that accompany it. It is unacceptable that being poor should also mean having substandard services in a wide array of areas, ranging from housing to recreational and arts facilities to transportation.

We believe that in the spirit that created publicly funded education, hospitalization and medicare, it is time for all of us to recognize that the most disadvantaged among us should have access to excellent public services. This is not just a matter of human dignity; it is a matter of addressing in a cost-effective way the high potential that otherwise exists to generate the roots of violence involving youth.

We also believe that the Province should start immediately on the longer-range task of undoing the economic segregation that has come to characterize some of our cities. As we demonstrate, high concentrations of disadvantage create huge long-term social costs and will require a sustained, steady accumulation of successes to reverse the current, and very troubling, trends.

There is an equally clear and compelling need for urgent action on the ever-more-entrenched racism in the province. We believe that the collection of race-based statistics, as has been routinely done in England for some time, is an essential first step. We cannot ascertain where the problems are, how to address them, what the best solutions are and what is working if we have no data. We see such statistics being required throughout the justice system and in the domains of education, health, housing and employment.

We believe that the Province should require that all public sector bodies have action plans to address the systemic racism within their domains. In relation to policing, we also suggest short-term initiatives to try to address some of the flashpoints that continue to exist in the relationship between front-line police officers and many youth. These initiatives are the establishment of police-youth issues committees in the disadvantaged neighbourhoods and the provision of neighbourhood-based training on anti-racism for front-line officers. For the longer term, we note the need for a culture shift within policing and put forward the concepts that officers should be “assessed for competence” in matters of race and that the performance measures for local commanders should include community relations and support. And we similarly give advice on immediate actions and longer-term actions that could be taken to address the racial disconnect between schools and many students and families.

We point out the urgent need for youth mental health services — a need that arises in the context of education, families, communities and the justice system. We believe that youth mental health services need to be universally available and should be delivered through community-based clinics linked to the community hubs we are proposing. Ontario needs to identify these health conditions early and to make sure that community-based, family-centred treatment is available as soon as they are identified.

Ontario also needs to bolster its health promotion efforts, including encouraging healthy activities and addressing child obesity through recreational and nutritional initiatives at schools in the crucial 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. time period. Many told us, and research confirms, that this time period is “prime time for crime,” so providing positive programming that engages youth at school for those hours will produce numerous benefits (see Gottredson et al., 2001: 61).

We note a number of other issues in relation to youth, including the importance of a voice and economic opportunities for youth and the need to make sports and arts programs available to youth, particularly those living in disadvantaged areas. Well-resourced and readily accessible arts and recreation facilities should be available on a reliable, sustained basis, and youth should be involved in designing the programs to be offered in those facilities.

In many of the initiatives we have outlined, we see an important role for youth workers. We believe that well-trained and properly paid youth workers can play critical roles in bridging youth, schools and communities, in helping connect youth to job and recreation opportunities, in providing outreach and connection in relation to mental health services, and many other significant ways of connecting with youth. But to do so, the role of youth worker has to be recognized as a very important function. There needs to be stability in their funding, some potential for career advancement and ways to allow youth workers to connect with each other to share best practices, develop strategies and renew their own energy and commitment.

In relation to our concerns about the justice system, we were encouraged by the presentation made to us by the deputy minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services in May 2008. That presentation included the following insightful comments, which were echoed by several senior police officers on other occasions:

Ontario can best prevent youth from becoming involved in criminal activity through investments in education, social services and creating opportunities for disenfranchised youth.

Police and corrections/rehabilitation interventions cannot effectively address youth violence in the absence of education, social service and employment supports that address the root causes and provide alternatives to engagement in crime.

We agree and believe that there needs to be a much more strategic approach to the operation of the justice system. That approach would require those exercising the discretion that exists within that system to think about the consequences for the roots of violence involving youth when they act.

Overall, we believe that Ontario, while moving in the right direction in recent years, is still overcharging youth and relying on incarceration to an excessive extent. We do not dispute the need for police interventions, nor for serious sanctions where serious conduct is involved. We are, however, very concerned that the justice system is invoked for many youth in ways that can increase rather than address the immediate risk factors for violence.

There is a clear need for more coordination among the three ministries that operate parts of the youth justice system. We discuss in our report the lack of that coordination and the ways we believe a Youth Justice Advisory Board could remedy that situation. This board, composed of experts from a wide range of domains including education, mental health, policing, prosecution, defence counsel, victims services and child welfare would report jointly to the three ministries. It would look across the whole youth justice system to consider how that system can best contribute to the government’s goals for youth, how it can be more strategic in relation to the roots of violence involving youth and how resourcing can be better balanced to ensure that the police and others have a full range of options when dealing with youthful offenders.

For example, at present it appears that community sanctions and other effective alternatives to the court system receive less than 10 per cent of the funding for the youth justice system. The police made it clear to us that they would use more alternatives if they were available. To support a more balanced role for the justice system, the board could well recommend that there be a more balanced resourcing. It seems to us to be fundamentally wrong that an expensive and sometimes counterproductive formal justice system is universally available and can be invoked by any police officer at any time with a simple piece of paper, while the alternatives are funded only if and when discretionary funds are freed up, and are often difficult and complex for a police officer to access.

Our report notes that when the powers bestowed by the justice system are not used properly or wisely, the result can be alienation, a sense of injustice, a lack of hope and other immediate risk factors for violence involving youth. Based on past experience, we expect that what we say about the justice system and, in particular, the police, may well receive a significant amount of attention.

We consider it important to note here that we stress at several junctures in our report the many ways in which we value the work of the police and the justice system, and the professionalism that permeates their work. In particular, we acknowledge and believe we understand the dispiriting and often-dangerous conditions in which some policing has to be carried out.

We fully appreciate that the neighbourhood conditions we describe in chapters 4 and 5 create enormous challenges for those who police these communities, as well for as those who live in them. The same conditions that facilitate crime — rundown areas and buildings, limited through streets, poor sightlines, dead ends, dark stairwells and corridors, overcrowding — all create risks for police officers as well as potentially hardening their attitudes to those who are forced to live in these conditions. In light of these conditions, we applaud the countless ways individual officers go beyond the call of duty to try to support youth and prevent crime, as well as carrying out their often-onerous enforcement obligations.

In doing so, we reflect the views of most Ontarians who hold the police and justice system in very high regard. Indeed, that high regard is in part responsible for the reaction when an individual or community feels that they have been dealt with unfairly. It is to the credit of the police and the entire justice system in Ontario that people expect them to adhere to high standards, as those expectations are based on the reality that most of the time, they do. By the quality of their work over many years, and their integrity, they have set a high standard for themselves.

When they fail to meet that standard, dashed expectations add to the anger and frustration of individuals, and sometimes to the alienation of whole communities. This is especially so when policing or the justice system evinces racism or countenances excessive force or incivility or a lack of respect for basic rights and freedoms we all should enjoy. The police, in particular, have a great deal of discretionary power as well as widespread respect, and with that comes great responsibility to uphold high standards at all times.

We hope that our readers will keep these perspectives in mind when we also set out the very strong views we heard from a great many people about the ways some in the justice system conduct themselves, about certain unduly aggressive police strategies, about racial profiling and about the fact that, overall, there has not been the kind of change that could reasonably have been expected by now having regard to the many independent and highly respected reviews, which over the last 30 years have found those concerns to be anchored in reality.

We believe that the specific justice advice in our report, together with our emphasis on working locally and on an overall governance structure for aligned and sustained change, will allow the Province to build on the many previous reports we discuss, and on the solid reputation that the police and the justice system for the most part enjoy, to bring about the change that has been sought for so long.

This leads us to make one additional observation about our report’s approach to these issues. It would be unfortunate if what we say in the report about the conduct of some police officers, and others within the justice system, took the focus off the many other, and often deeper and more pervasive, roots of the immediate risk factors that we discuss in our report. The justice system issues are raised because, for some youth, they lead to or reinforce those roots. We deal with the justice system in a fair amount of detail because it is complex and its misuse can not only produce the immediate risk factors, but can also undo much excellent work being done in other areas to address those factors. This is not, however, in any way to lay at the feet of the justice system the bulk of the responsibility for the concerns we raise throughout the report.

Pillar 2: A Youth Policy Framework

Building on the early childhood learning framework, which has anchored programming for children up to age six, this pillar will provide a comprehensive framework based on developmental stages and outcome goals to guide the policy and program decisions of all orders of government, the community and agencies. It will foster strategic decision-making and policy coherence across the numerous sectors concerned about violence involving youth.

An important part of the framework will be the necessity of bringing youth-led organizations into both delivery and policy roles. It is youth who must have key roles in the design and delivery of this strategy, as they will pay the heaviest price if it does not succeed.

An important part of the framework will be the necessity of bringing youth-led organizations into both delivery and policy roles. It is youth who must have key roles in the design and delivery of this strategy, as they will pay the heaviest price if it does not succeed.

We see such a framework as having three main components: a vision, a set of shared principles and an articulation of defined key outcomes, accompanied by targets and timelines for achieving them.

We propose a vision that would of course value youth as critically important for the ongoing strength of this province and recognize that their future is our future. It would be premised on ongoing generational renewal and on a shared understanding that all youth should be safe, valued and trusted; have the opportunity to grow, learn, play and achieve their dreams in healthy, inclusive and seamlessly supportive neighbourhoods; be treated equitably according to their individual circumstances; be educated and nurtured; be mentored and supported in developing a secure sense of belonging; and also be listened to and involved and, as they grow older, given real responsibility — all so that they may reach their full potential.

The principles we propose include:

Given a vision and principles, Ontario’s youth policy framework should not attempt to prescribe the specific means to help youth develop, but rather should set out the desired outcomes for them.

We see the potential for specific outcome goals in a number of areas, ranging from poverty to education, mental health and interactions with the justice system. The value of outcome goals, such as increasing graduation rates or improving health determinants, is that they measure results achieved, rather than work done. This means, for example, that, rather than measuring how many youth a program has served, we measure what difference the service made in their lives. We set out below in our discussion of measurement some key considerations that should govern the approach to these outcome goals, but stress here that they are central to the alignment of Ontario’s work to address the roots of violence involving youth.

To be meaningful, outcome goals must be accompanied by a commitment to measured and relentless progress towards them (published indicators), along with clear timelines and specific accountabilities for meeting those indicators.

Pillar 3: A Neighbourhood Capacity and Empowerment Focus

This pillar will enhance or create local centres, often based around schools, in which opportunities and services for youth and their families can be maximized and community cohesion fostered. They will provide space and services, but just as importantly, will form hubs in which communities can anchor ever-increasing amounts of local policy-making, priority setting and program delivery. This pillar also includes supports for resident engagement, stability for key service providers and new funding mechanisms for core community building organizations.

In addition to repairing the social context in which the roots grow, Ontario needs to address the lack of community cohesion and the fragmentation of programs and services that exist in many disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Areas of concentrated economic disadvantage all too easily nurture those roots and, if not addressed, will keep producing new generations of youth with the immediate risk factors for violence. The continuing violence and fear of violence that will result will have the obvious and tragic consequence of rendering those neighbourhoods ever more fragmented and isolated, and will perpetuate and deepen their disadvantaged condition, leading to yet more violence, and possibly an entrenched underclass.

Our third pillar accordingly centres on how the Province can help the most disadvantaged communities come together in ways that support and enhance their existing and evolving strengths so that they can become cohesive and vibrant places to live. We identify four linked ways these principles can be used to build cohesive and strong communities:

The first is by creating community hubs, wherever possible anchored in school facilities. These hubs would not only provide programs and services, but, just as importantly, would provide space and facilitate connections so that communities can coalesce to play increasingly larger roles in setting priorities, developing policies and providing activities and services for their residents. We join with those who see schools as natural hubs. Schools are near most residents, have already been paid for by the public and go unused most of the time.

We note some modest initiatives by the Province to support the community use of schools, but identify the many ways in which this falls short of what is needed. We encourage the Province to fund facilities managers, such as existing community service providers who have facilities management expertise, to lease school buildings for the non-school hours and to operate them on behalf of the local community. This would include engaging with the community to ensure that programming matched community needs and ensuring that space was available for the community to gather for its own purposes.

The second is by actively assisting communities to come together to form stronger networks of mutual support and involvement. This involves supporting resident engagement workers to undertake the often-arduous task of finding ways for busy and often-isolated residents to work together and take ownership of their community and, ultimately, play a role in its governance. Recognizing that this kind of engagement is best done around concrete objectives of tangible benefit, we note that working around the development of the new community hubs would be an ideal way to get this process started.

The third way would be by providing streamlined and stable funding mechanisms to maximize the responsiveness, capacity and stability of the numerous agencies on which governments now rely to deliver many of the core services that are necessary to address the roots of violence involving youth.

Governments have increasingly relied upon agencies to deliver services, but have done so through short-term contracts, which fail to cover the full costs of service delivery. This creates enormous problems for agencies, including making it very difficult for them to recruit and retain experienced staff. This, in turn, puts the local community at a disadvantage, because both programs and the staff to deliver them are often transitory.

We outline in our report a model that used to operate in the province to address these kinds of concerns and could be a starting point to seek a solution as a matter of very high priority. We go on to provide some interim initiatives, which could smooth out some of the roughest bumps on the road in the meantime. These include the Province improving the coordination of its own process for contracting with community agencies and providing support for small bodies that could help local service providers coordinate their efforts in a given community and work in more cooperative ways than the current funding regime makes possible.

We also propose establishing at a university or college a Centre for Excellence through Program Assessments to conduct outcomes-based assessments of major programs and serve as a best practices resource for government, community service providers, funders and agencies. This body could also serve as a resource to promote good evaluations of smaller-scale programs.

The fourth initiative involves ensuring that, in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, in addition to the service-providing bodies, there are (a) at least one general-purpose, youth-led organization addressing the roots of violence involving youth based on local priorities, (b) the small team of individuals noted above who work to coordinate services and improve access to them, and (c) funding made available to support resident engagement and community participation in planning and programming the community hubs referred to above.

Because of the need to provide stability for resident engagement and for youth-led organizations, and having regard to the political sensitivities around some of what they may do, we propose an arm’s-length funding and monitoring board for these activities in the disadvantaged neighbourhoods. We believe that the other responsibilities we outline can best be accomplished through the designation of a lead ministry for community building.

The initiatives we outline in this pillar deal with strengthening Ontario’s most disadvantaged communities. There is a significant and ongoing link between disadvantaged neighbourhoods and the roots of violence involving youth. For that particular purpose and in these specific communities, we believe that the Province must fund or ensure the funding of the required structural initiatives.

This is by no means to say that the Province must assume all the costs of services in disadvantaged communities. Provincial funding of the social infrastructure we propose for disadvantaged communities does not absolve the other orders of government of their responsibilities for services. The matters we address in Pillar 3 are matters of core social infrastructure. They are the building blocks for the strong communities needed to address the roots of youth violence and, so, stand in a category of their own.

Pillar 4: Integrated Governance

This pillar will provide new governance mechanisms to enable the provincial government to provide an effective, coordinated and efficient approach to the broad range of issues affecting violence involving youth. These mechanisms are essential if the rest of the overall strategy is to work.

As these new provincial mechanisms are being put in place, the pillar also provides a community-based approach through which the Province’s integrated governance mechanisms can develop strategic partnerships with the other orders of government to set priorities, develop policies and deliver services, and collectively begin to listen to and work with communities in ways that support their cohesion, capacity and meaningful involvement in governance.

There are three central aspects to the governance proposals we are making. Together, they will provide an effective and sustainable way to address the many deep and tenacious roots of violence involving youth that we have identified.

First, and fundamentally, the provincial government must organize itself to drive forward and sustain an integrated long-range strategy across the many ministries that have important roles on this issue. Without an effective governance structure at the provincial level, our experience tells us that no meaningful progress can be made.

We highlight the need for structural change within the provincial government because the issues that must be addressed are not only large, complex and spread across many ministries, but also interact with each other and play out in economically and socially diverse communities across the province. Addressing the numerous and intertwined roots we have identified requires coordination across a dozen ministries, many of which have limited experience in working with each other on these kinds of issues. It also requires working effectively with the other orders of government, building local relationships and supporting community development in ways that the provincial government has not done in recent years.

Without governance mechanisms that cut across the many silos that now exist in the provincial government and facilitate aligned engagement in communities, any edifice of piecemeal change will rapidly collapse.

New provincial mechanisms are also needed to send a signal of resolve and commitment. Without alignment at the provincial level to break through the silos to prioritize, drive, coordinate, fund, monitor and report on the many provincial initiatives needed to address the roots of violence involving youth, there will be little reason to hope for anything beyond some modest ameliorations of the status quo.

Based on the principles identified in governance research we commissioned and our own experience in government, we believe that a strong Cabinet committee with an operational as well as a policy focus and a clear mandate to set an overall corporate agenda including coordinated plans for individual ministries, and then to monitor and oversee their implementation, would best drive the agenda forward. This Cabinet committee would be different in function from the ones used in the current government and would draw its inspiration from a Cabinet committee on race relations on which we both served.

To do its job, the committee needs to be supported by a dedicated staff secretariat. We believe this needs to be positioned within the Cabinet Office to give it the profile and influence that will be required to manage this complex task. We see the secretariat being responsible for providing policy advice to the committee, but also for working within the bureaucracy on a day-to-day basis to ensure that the directions set by the committee and approved by Cabinet are carried into action. We also see it having a key role in ensuring good public reporting against defined outcome goals. Other governance initiatives at the provincial level are set out in the recommendation section of this summary.

Second, the provincial government must work with the other orders of government to create both the structures and the relationships that permit the coordination of the relevant activities across governments. We suggest to the provincial government that its focus should be on working in communities on concrete initiatives with other orders of government, rather than developing intergovernmental agreements. We take this approach because of the need for early action and because we believe that, if agreements are needed, they will be better if they are informed by experience on the ground with the specific kinds of issues involved.

While we firmly believe that the federal government has in many ways abdicated the important role it should be playing on the roots issues, we suggest that the Province not invest a great amount of time or energy in trying to bring the federal government to the table. The Province should be vocal in its expectations and should seize every available opportunity to involve the federal government, but should in no way delay its own initiatives to seek that involvement.

While we firmly believe that the federal government has in many ways abdicated the important role it should be playing on the roots issues, we suggest that the Province not invest a great amount of time or energy in trying to bring the federal government to the table. The Province should be vocal in its expectations and should seize every available opportunity to involve the federal government, but should in no way delay its own initiatives to seek that involvement.

Planning, Accountability, Advice and Recommendations

Ontario is well past the point where “go forth and do good” is an acceptable approach to public or social policy of this magnitude. We must first know where we are going, how we will get there, how we will know whether we are making progress and how we will know when we have arrived.

That is why our proposed youth policy framework (Pillar 2) calls not only for a shared vision and agreed-upon principles, but also asks the Province to articulate its overall policies for youth using specific outcome goals. We are confident that Ontario’s public service could produce a good initial set of such goals within a year.

While the outcome goals and the data available to measure them will be refined and improved over time, three core principles can be stated now with considerable certainty. First, it is of critical importance in our context that, to the greatest extent possible, the outcome goals include floor targets and not just use averages. Essentially, a floor target sets a minimum acceptable level of attainment. It is how we as a society express our fundamental bottom lines.

An example of a floor target would be that no neighbourhood should have an obesity or diabetes rate more than a defined per cent above the provincial average, or that no school should have a graduation or literacy rate below a certain figure. Using floor targets avoids the reality that if an average is used, the target can be met by having the best-off improve their performance even if the worst-off make no progress at all or even fall further behind. Averages hide a myriad of policy and program sins, and they fundamentally fail to identify the neighbourhoods or individuals needing the most help. By contrast, floor targets are particularly useful in taking policy-makers to the place where the problems are being created, and not just where they surface. When we measure against this kind of standard, we will immediately see where extra help must go.

The second important principle in this area is the need to track racial and other relevant differences in the achievement of outcome measures. This allows us to ensure that we can identify and address systemic barriers and thereby ensure that all members of our society have a fair opportunity to fulfil their potential. We called for the collection of race-based statistics in Pillar 1 and will not repeat that analysis. We do, however, want to stress how integral such information is to addressing key sources of low self-esteem and alienation.

The third principle for the use of outcome measures is that, whenever possible, they should be supplemented by a further commitment to reduce the gap between the most successful and the least. In our context, we will not nurture a sense of optimism, hope and belonging by raising outcomes for youth who see themselves still falling behind the rest of society.

The remaining issue is to set annual or sometimes two- or three-year targets for progress towards the goals. These indicators are essential to fine-tuning the strategy from time to time and to accountability and maintaining public support. They provide an opportunity to work towards commitments that can be seen and felt in the short run, and thus help motivate service providers and the public alike.

We see it as vital that the outcome measures and interim indicators be public and well-communicated, with the communications materials including contextual and analytical information on the accomplishments being made and any barriers being encountered.


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