Ombudsman finds 'deficiencies' in closures of youth jail programs in Northern Ontario (Law Times)

May 4, 2022

4 May 2022

Ontario 'deliberately avoided transparency' in planning and implementing closures: Ombudsman report

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Katrina Eñano
May 4, 2022

Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé has found several “deficiencies” in the planning and implementing of the closures of youth jail programs in Kenora and Thunder Bay last year.

In Mar. 2021, Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services simultaneously closed youth custody and detention programs at 25 youth detention facilities. The ministry said that these closures would free up almost $40 million per year for investment in other programs.

As a result, the Ombudsman received complaints concerning the fairness and transparency of the closures of the youth custody and detention programs at the Creighton Youth Centre and the J. J. Kelso Youth Centre in Kenora and Thunder Bay. The complaints also raised concerns about how the ministry notified both centres about the planned closures and dealt with the four Indigenous youth in their custody.

The Ombudsman then launched an investigation into the ministry’s planning and implementation of these closures.

Based on his report, Dubé found that the ministry “deliberately avoided transparency” in planning and implementing the closures, which came as a surprise to managers and staff of the affected centres, local communities, Indigenous groups, and justice officials.

“Our investigation revealed the ministry’s planning for the implementation of the closures were shrouded in secrecy,” Dubé said. “The ministry’s tight control of information restricted its ability to leverage the knowledge and experience of its own staff and prevented it from fully benefiting from consultation with external resources.”

Dubé also found that the ministry “failed to adequately consider” the individual best interests of the four Indigenous youths detained at the Creighton Youth Centre and the J. J. Kelso Youth Centre in at least two instances.

“It transferred one youth to a new centre despite the known ‘serious conflict risk’ this posed to a youth already living there, who in turn had to be transferred elsewhere,” Dubé said. “The placement preference of another youth undergoing gender transition was not given adequate consideration, contrary to the ministry's own policy.”

Moreover, Dubé determined that although the ministry sought some advice from the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs in its planning process, it failed to inform affected Indigenous groups of the closures in advance. The ministry discovered that many First Nation band offices were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic when it eventually reached out.

“Voicemails and emails were sent and not followed up on, and there was no backup plan for reaching the affected groups,” Dubé said. “Several ministry officials acknowledged to us that this aspect of the implementation was unsuccessful.”

Dubé held that the ministry’s conduct was “unreasonable and wrong” under the Ombudsman Act. He made 16 recommendations to achieve “more balanced, informed, transparent, and youth-focused” planning and implementation of youth custody and detention program closures in the future.

“The ministry has accepted and committed to implement all of my recommendations and I will monitor its progress in doing so,” Dubé said.