A roll of the dice no way to determine a teen's future
System gambles with the lives of our throwaway children - and loses
They are our lost children. The kids we never see - or wish we didn't.
They are the street teens who roam Old Strathcona, scrounging food, panhandling, sleeping in Mill Creek Ravine, or under bridge trestles. Some are addicts. Some are runaways, fleeing physical and sexual abuse. Some are mentally ill, or brain injured or simply angry, rebellious and out-of-control. Some may be all those things at the same time.
They all have their stories. And they've all learned to do what they need to do to survive, whether that's to steal or turn tricks, or sell drugs or beg. No wonder we turn away. They scare us. They shame us. And often, with good reason.
Oh, we may write a cheque for the Youth Emergency Shelter. Or drop off our surplus granola bars and old gloves. If you live near Whyte Avenue, you may curse to find your garage broken into, or your car vandalized, or needles in your children's playground. But for the most part, we'd rather not acknowledge the feral teens who haunt our back lanes and river valley. They are faceless. They are nameless. They are ghosts.
But last week, in a most unusual turn of events, police gave one of those ghost teens a face. They applied for, and received, a court order, giving them permission to release the name and photograph of a 17-year-old girl, charged with aggravated sexual assault for allegedly failing to acknowledge her positive HIV status before having sex.
Normally, as a minor, the girl's identity would have been protected by the publication ban provisions of the Youth Criminal Justice Act. Yet for days, her picture was everywhere, even after the girl was safely in custody, and the order had lapsed. The girl was arrested Saturday. The Edmonton Police Service neglected to take her name and picture off all their various Internet and social media sites until Tuesday afternoon.
The irony? Though authorities felt free to spread the girl's name and photo around the country, the facts around this case are now shrouded by the privacy protections of the Youth Criminal Justice Act and Alberta's Child, Youth, and Family Enhancement Act. But the affidavit that police swore to get permission to name the girl in the first place suggests a grim picture of the lives of the street kids of Whyte Avenue, of a group of teens who routinely turn to each other for casual sex, as a way of bonding, a way of finding some kind of affection and attention and sense of belonging.
The sworn affidavit from Det. Barbara Clover of the EPS, released to The Journal by the courts on Thursday afternoon, reveals that police and staff at the Armoury Youth Centre, a branch of the Youth Emergency Shelter, had been aware of the girl's HIV status for months. The affidavit also confirms that authorities contacted Alberta Children and Youth Services in July, in an attempt to get the girl some kind of help. The referral was screened, but nothing happened. As the legal document bleakly states, "no (child welfare) services are being provided at this time."
In fact, multiple independent sources have confirmed to me that health care workers, Whyte Ave. youth workers and police officers made attempts over the last year to have the girl, a minor with neurological impairment and a serious medical condition, apprehended under Alberta's child welfare legislation, or under Alberta's Protection of Sexually Exploited Children Act. To no avail, it would seem.
There's no doubt that this very sick teen, who allegedly posed a serious potential threat to the lives and health of others, needed to be off the street, both for her own protection and the protection of the larger community. She didn't necessarily need to be publicly outed, arrested, and charged with aggravated sexual assault. Yet the police were put in a no-win situation. They tried to get child welfare authorities to take responsibility for a minor in distress - a minor, too, who was allegedly putting other minors at risk of disease and death. When the child welfare system didn't act, police, it appears, saw little choice but to take the drastic step of making an arrest.
As the affidavit makes plain, though, police were in regular, close contact with this girl, over a period of weeks and months. They could have taken her quietly into custody before this weekend, and quietly informed her known associates. That would have eliminated the need to release her picture and private health information to the media. Instead, by the time they eventually moved to arrest her, she had left her Old Strathcona haunts - apparently, says the affidavit, in an effort to hitchhike to Vancouver.
The problem now isn't just that the young woman's privacy has been terribly violated. It's that all the public notoriety might actually be undermining the efforts to get her former sex partners to be tested for HIV. It sounds counter-intuitive. After all, you might assume that the best public health strategy would be to publicize this girl's alleged behaviour as widely as possible. But those who work with these street kids say that thanks to all the media attention, some of the boys in her peer group are now too embarrassed to admit they had intercourse with her. The police and the Crown have no way to compel her suspected partners to be tested. By shaming the girl so publicly, we've shamed her partners, and made it that much harder to manage the risk of an AIDS outbreak.
It's a disaster all-around - but much of the damage could have been prevented if Children and Youth Services had lived up to its name, and provided service to an extremely vulnerable youth. If the girl had been kept in a secure treatment setting, she would have been safe, under medical care, and posed little risk of infection to anyone. Instead, child welfare left this disabled kid, sick with a fatal infectious disease, to fend for herself - and other kids were allegedly put in danger as a result.
John Tuckwell, who speaks for Children and Youth Services, can't comment on the case before the courts. Nor can he say whether the ministry intends to conduct a special case review into the girl's file. However, he does say that is can be difficult to provide care to a teen who doesn't seek it out.
Still, those who work closely with street kids say the child welfare system is just too overwhelmed with caring for younger children, to help at-risk teens. "We're the richest province in one of richest countries in the world, and we don't have the proper resources to keep these kids safe," says youth justice advocate Mark Cherrington. "The shelters are full. The group homes are full."
For legal reasons, Cherrington, too, can't speak directly about this case, but he says that unless children are taken into government care when they're young, their needs are often ignored. "If you're 12 or 13 when your family falls apart, you're not going to get help," says Cherrington. "Children's Services is really throwing the dice with these kids. It's like water going downhill. They end up in the justice system."
Throwing the dice. A perfect metaphor for this whole sad story. Our system gambled with this girl's life, assuming she could somehow take care of herself. She allegedly gambled that it was better to hide her HIV status than to admit it and risk being ostracized and alone. Her alleged young sex partners gambled that she didn't have a sexually transmitted disease. But in this craps game there was no winner. Just losers, all around - with the cops and the courts, left to pick up the pieces.