At 17, Iqaluit orphan has no place to call home
Court case exposes lack of GN social services for youth
A small Christmas miracle took place in the Iqaluit courthouse last Thursday — a homeless 17-year-old orphan with a troubled past got a place to stay for Christmas.
“He’s safe for the holidays,” said Brent Buckler, a case worker with the Isumaqsunngittukkuvik young offenders centre, as he delivered the news to a defence lawyer in the foyer of the Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik Legal Aid Clinic.
An employee of the Government of Nunavut’s justice department agreed to take the youth into her home, temporarily.
Until then, the young man relied on two workers with the young offenders’ land program, who took him in for a week after he was released on Dec. 6 from the young offenders centre.
He now has a roof over his head, but when the holidays are over, and life returns to normal, the youth could be back where he was last week: homeless, with no family, no job, no education and no money.
The case has caused justice workers to scratch their heads — and the target of their frustration is the GN’s social services department.
The youth has been in foster care for much of his life, but is now too old for child and family service workers to look after, and too young to be eligible for income support payments.
His adoptive mother died a long time ago. His father died in 2004. He has a sister in Iqaluit, but space is so tight in her home that one of her own children is already living with another family member.
His first brush with the law came in 2002, when he was charged with arson and theft under $5,000. Since then, he’s faced more than a dozen charges and served three sentences at the young offenders centre.
The latest offence was a break and enter, which he committed in April of this year, after being released into the care of his grandmother, an elderly woman with whom he had no prior relationship, in Cape Dorset, a community where he knew no one.
Nunavut’s Child and Family Services Act extends only to children up to age 16. After that, youth between 16 and 18 may choose to strike a voluntary “support services agreement” with the GN.
That means signing a document agreeing to either go to school full-time or work full-time, in exchange for money to cover rent, food and clothing. But that puts the onus on youth to find a home — and something productive to do.
“Even if they were to give him housing, which they won’t, he’s not ready for that,” Maliiganik lawyer Chris Debicki said in an interview on Thursday afternoon. “He’s just a kid.”
There is no youth home for kids like this in the territory, and foster care is no longer an option.
“Unfortunately at age 17 he does not fall within the [Child and Family Services] Act,” Norman Murray, Nunavut’s director of child and family servies, wrote in an email concerning the case on Nov. 21.
“In this case we have tried to provide for this youth and in some instances did quite well. But in the end, he sabotages his placements and resources.”
On Wednesday of last week, Debicki filed an application for interim relief against the Minister of Health and Social Services, demanding that social services immediately provide “housing, in-home support, parenting, counseling and financial assistance.”
That application was submitted along with a charter application asking that the voluntary part of the legislation be overruled so that this youth can be declared “a child who needs protection” under the Child and Family Services Act.
“The applicant has been denied assistance by the Government of Nunavut, including but not limited to the Department of Health and Social Services,” the application reads.
An affidavit also submitted to the Nunavut Court of Justice states that “the Department of Health and Social Services has only sporadically participated at meetings pertaining to the placement, support and maintenance” of the youth.
According to the affidavit, at a Nov. 29 meeting GN social worker Cathy Caza suggested moving the youth to Montreal, to live with a relative who was, at that time, in a rehabilitation program for substance abuse.
“The youth had no attachment to that community and no current relationship with the proposed guardian,” reads the affidavit.
In spite of the youth’s spotted record, Debicki maintains that he is not a “hard case,” nor should he be treated as one.
“The reason he’s stealing is that he wants things other people has, and he has no way of providing for it.”
A pre-sentencing report from Sept. 22, 2004 documents a history of criminal behaviour, drinking, and poor school attendance, yet also notes that the youth “was very respectful, showed remorse, and took full responsibility for his actions.”
In a progress review from October, 2004, Buckler describes an incident where the youth made death threats to a youth worker, another where he fought with another youth, and a third where he was caught “gambling for clothes.”
But Buckler also notes that the youth is “a good role model for other youth” in the land program, and that although he doesn’t plan to continue school he “does want to pursue employment with a local construction company.”
While in custody this time, the youth worked part-time with a local construction company. Buckler had lined up some potential work once he got out.
“If he had a stable place to live and some guidance and structure, he’d be okay,” Debicki said.
This youth is not the only young person in Nunavut to face homelessness. Last year, the GN struck about 30 support services agreements with youths under 18.
Another Iqaluit youth who recently turned 18 endured the same situation. He told his lawyer he slept in stairwells, or in men’s homes — a fact he was reluctant to discuss in detail.
This year, that youth was charged with sexually assaulting a young boy and a teenage girl.
“Everybody saw it coming a mile away,” Debicki said.
“The Youth Criminal Justice Act includes a principle that custody as a social measure is prohibited — and that’s exactly what is happening. Justice is functioning as social services.”