Ontario faces $125-million claim over allegations of mistreatment of children and teens in youth jails

Kate Dubinski

By Kate Dubinski, The London Free Press

Hours alone in a locked room.

No going outside. No communal meals.

Those are among the allegations contained in a $125-million, class-action lawsuit filed ­Wednesday against the province for the alleged mistreatment of children and teens in Ontario’s youth jails.

The lead plaintiff, from Windsor, can’t be named because he or she was a minor when they were held at the Genest Detention Centre for Youth on Oxford Street East in London.

“We are looking for compensation for the victims but also — and arguably, more importantly — we are looking to make sure that this practice stops,” said Jay Strosberg of Sutts, Strosberg LLP, one of the law firms working on the lawsuit.

The other law firm is Koskie Minsky LLP.

The class action hasn’t been certified yet and contains allegations that have not been tested in court.

A spokesperson for the ­Ministry of Children and Youth Services said the province is committed to the safety and well-being of inmates at youth detention ­facilities.

The youth justice system has undergone a transformation in the past decade, spokesperson Peter Spadoni said in an emailed statement. “Across the province, there is a downward trend in the use of secure isolation in youth justice facilities.”

The suit alleges the plaintiff was put in solitary confinement for long periods at the Genest Centre and subjected to “improper use of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments,” according to ­lawyers.

“We’ve spoken to a lot of young people, and these are the most vulnerable people in society. Just the fact that they’re involved in the youth criminal justice system means they likely have problems, like mental health problems,” Strosberg said.

“The things they told us — they’re not allowed to eat with others, not allowed to go outside . . . Nothing good can come of it.”

Several international organizations have condemned solitary confinement of young people.

Ontario’s advocate for children and youth has called on the ministry to stop putting kids in solitary confinement for more than 24 hours.

“An absolute ban on solitary confinement for more than 24 hours is consistent with the position of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture,” the children’s advocate said in an August report.

The report found young people were put in solitary confinement anywhere from one minute to 15 days, depending on the facility.

About half the youth interviewed by the children’s advocate said they were denied access to a lawyer.

Ontario’s Child and Family Services Act says solitary confinement should only be used in very particular crisis situations.

The lawsuit alleges the province breached its own policies, keeping youth in solitary confinement for longer than necessary, including keeping those under 16 in ­solitary for longer than eight hours a day or 24 hours a week.

The class for the lawsuit includes all children incarcerated in Ontario youth jails subject to solitary confinement between Jan. 1, 2007 and now.