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Prevent crime by engaging troubled youth


July 3, 2014
By Tony Palermo

by Tony Palermo

A 15-year-old girl with no self-esteem and mental health issues runs away from her group home. Not surprisingly, she was less than receptive to Cst. Sherri Cameron of the Cornwall Community Police Service’s (CCPS) Youth Services Unit (YSU).

Over the next several years, the girl led a hard life and continued her downward spiral. She was in-and-out of school, abused drugs, partied and started exotic dancing to make a living. She abused herself and others abused her.

Cameron stayed in touch and supported the girl through her struggles. She didn’t give up on her and, although it took years, their relationship eventually changed to one of mutual respect and trust.

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“The girl is now 23 years old, clean, lives on her own and is in college studying social services,” says Cameron. “She’s very proud of her accomplishments and she should be.”

Cameron is quick to point out that she was only one of several people and community agencies that helped the girl turn her life around. Still, there’s no denying the positive impact she and the CCPS had on the girl, who keeps in touch with Cameron.

{A new approach}

Cameron and partner Cst. Andrew Arbic began the YSU in 2005 with a simple goal: to reduce the level of police involvement with Cornwall’s youth, both now and in the future, by proactively engaging the youth and their family in a way not normally encountered with the typical response-based call-to-call approach.

As Cameron says, the question became ‘how could the unit proactively help break the cycle of negative behaviour and assist the youth and their family to achieve stability and success?’

“It’s no secret that Cornwall and our end of the province has struggled and suffers from a higher than average rate of family dysfunction,” says Cameron. “Drug use, teen pregnancy, mental health issues and the poor development of our children are some of the issues which weigh heavily on everyone. And, like other communities, some of our children are subject to neglect and abuse which unfortunately leads to a pattern of behaviour that perpetuates from one generation to another.”

With many families needing help and long waiting lists for traditional counseling providers, the officers quickly realized their role needed to be not only proactive but hands-on and broad; they needed to be an advocate, mediator, facilitator, supporter and counsellor for the entire family. In many cases parents didn’t have the skills to deal with the issues their children were facing.

“We found most parents wanted the help for their kids, even if there wasn’t a lot positive going on in their own lives,” explains Arbic.

Community partnerships are extremely important and the unit continues to reach out to as many organizations as it can. As Arbic says, with many of the community agencies sharing the same clients and frustrations like lack of funding and excessive case loads, it only makes sense for everyone to work together. Case conferencing with partners has become an integral part to helping Cornwall youth and families.

Receiving referrals from front-line officers and community partners, the officers take a hands-on approach to helping their clients. They examine the various criminal and familial problems, no matter how big or small, and come up with solutions to tackle them head on. For example, in addition to dealing with criminal behaviour and incidents of conflict at home and on the streets, they recognize that even poor attendance at school is counterproductive to a youth’s development. Arbic and Cameron go to a truant’s home, knock on the door and, when required, literally walk up to the child’s bedroom, wake them up and deliver them to school.

In extreme cases, they’ll even lay provincial offence charges against the students and/or their parents to get a youth probation order – another tool to engage and help the youth.

“Many police officers feel helpless when intervening with children under the age of 12,” explains Arbic. “The child can’t be charged for criminal behaviour and warnings are weightless and give the child the impression they can get away with their actions. Now, we can engage and support them in the hopes of preventing future criminal behaviour police calls for service.”

Arbic and Cameron estimate they’ve helped some 800 kids and families since establishing the unit. Each handles a caseload of 30 to 40 files at any given time, with the frequency and duration of follow-up depending on the case and level of risk. Families and youth who need a more frequent and intensive approach get it. In fact, the officers pride themselves in making sure no one has to sit on a waiting list to get access to them.

The unit also continues to support youth over 18. “In fact, it’s due to those earlier years which give us that great rapport to be able to help out the youth later on,” says Arbic.

Arbic and Cameron admit that many officers initially viewed their unit as “light and fluffy,” seeing it as more hand-holding than enforcement. Research shows the early years of a child’s life are extremely important to a child’s development, they point out, and can lead to a particular trajectory in life. So, as police officers, it only makes sense to intervene at a younger age before the negative pattern of behaviour is established and lays the base for conduct disorders later in life.

CCPS Chief Daniel Parkinson agrees, saying the assignment of two full-time resources to the unit, even with a small service like his, is an investment, not an expense. He too remembers those early years.

“This is all well and good, Chief,” a wizened patrol sergeant warned him, “but it’s going to take five, 10, maybe 15 years to show results.”

“That was eight years ago,” says Parkinson, before explaining that since the unit’s inception, the CCPS has seen a 50 per cent reduction of youth criminal offences, both in the charged and not charged categories.

Cameron says most cops quickly find out that the job isn’t about the big arrests or car chases – that a cop is, first and foremost, a social worker.

“Why chase our tails with a 25 year old dysfunctional citizen when we have the chance to intervene and support them as a child?”” asks Cameron. “It makes so much more sense to prevent crime by engaging our troubled youth.”


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