“Looks like Carl’s out”
“How can you tell?”
“Because my newsfeed is full of his gang crap again.”
And so it goes.
Carl first came into my life when he was 15. Now 20, it has been discussed on many occasions by his various lawyers and justice workers when he will be considered a Dangerous Offender. Not if. The inevitability of this act, the sure thingedness of his classification as a violent, repeat, dangerous individual walking among us causes hardly a shrug by anyone that knows him. Rather, they simply shake their heads and sigh, hoping in the meantime that he does no real harm to himself or others before his next foray into crime.
Funny, charming and with a hellishly good cadence, he knows how to tell a story. Carl, who’s name is obviously changed, is a survivor. With an alcoholic mother, a barely-existent father who means well but has his own history of addiction, violence and sexual abuse, a step-father that is an active gang leader, one dead older brother (stabbed at a house party and left to die in the alley when Carl was young), another in jail for gang-related activities, and a younger sister who is equally charming but equally unhealthy (with a brand new baby taken away by the hospital social worker at birth), there aren’t many positive family options for this young man to emulate. He’s been in and out of jail on various charges of increasing severity since he was 14 years old. He has been in foster care and group homes the length of his childhood and has been moved “too many times to count”, all before he was 15. At 16, though still a ward of the province, he chose to move in with his mother. He has been living with her, in various shelters and with other family members off and on ever since. During this time, he decided to “get down” and took his minutes. This means that he was jumped into the gang by a group of his new peers. He called me from the hospital afterwards and asked me to take him to McDonald’s. In bandages and a broken nose, he ordered everything from the Value Menu and ate like he hadn’t seen food in months. Six weeks later, he called me in the middle of the night, and asked me for ten dollars to get a bus ticket. He was on the run for the first time. (I didn’t oblige, but I did take him back to McDonald’s and then promptly called the police after dropping him off at the place he was staying.)
About a year ago, Carl found Jesus. He moved to the reserve, staying with an old foster parent of his. He spent the summer staying sober by discovering the power that came from exploring his spirituality. He gained weight and worked out. He stopped swearing and carrying a machete. He looked good. He sounded good. “I’m happy. For the first time since I was a little kid living out here.”
Then his mom got sick and begged him to come back to the city. He returned. His tone changed. He stopped discovering. He started drinking again. He experimented with Meth for the first time. He called me and said “whatever. The rez was bunk. Boring as. Ima do me from now on. I’m back.”
Two weeks later he called me from jail, angry and detoxing. He had been picked up by the local police one night after a fight over some pizza. The only reason the person he stabbed was still alive was, according to the prosecution, because the coat the young man was wearing was thick, and the knife Carl had was too small. “Get me the fuck out of here. These are bullshit charges. Fuckin’ sniff. I didn’t even cut him.” He became curt, and rude on the phone. He threatened me. I hung up. A week later, I received a Facebook message from him (dictated over the phone to a proxy.) “I’m sorry I yelled. I was jonesing. I’m sorry. Please come visit me in jail. I’m scared. Please tell my mom to come to my court. Please go by her place and tell her that ‘Carl says just quit the drinking for one day and come to courtroom 4 at 930’. I’m sorry. I’ll call you. Please answer next time.”
His mother didn’t show. One of the most difficult parts of my career has been to look a young person in the eye and try to explain to them that they are individuals that matter, when all they want is the love and respect a child deserves from a parent. This heartbreak is a repetitive one. Every time Carl needed his mom and she was too wrapped up in her own addictions, sadness, pain…every single time he needed her and she wasn’t there, it broke his spirit just a little more.
I have long been astounded by both the resilience and the martydom of the relationships that broken children have with their broken parents. Long ago, I was angry with these parents for abandoning their children; for putting them at risk; for bringing them into this world and then sending them out to be savaged by it like a lamb to the slaughter. And then I realized that someone (the system, residential schools, their own parents or their own demons of mental illness, addictions and poverty) did this to them too. Thankfully it is a rarity to wake up in the morning a callous and uncaring being that would willfully hurt a child. It is much more common to wake up in the world as a parent with no skills, no support, and no way to fix yourself, let alone provide your child with a safe, supportive and healthy environment.
The trouble with Carl is that Carl doesn’t know anything else. Diagnostically, he is 12 years old. Though a man of 20 in physique and capacity for language, he has been assessed as being cognitively on the same level as someone in grade 5. He has challenges with reading comprehension, impulse control, memory and logic. He has no real-time understanding of causal relationships, and cannot equate his actions (e.g. stabbing someone over pizza) with their consequences (spending three months in jail.) His coping mechanisms are anti-social at best and incredibly risky and damaging at worst. He was diagnosed with FASD at 16 years of age. Repetition and patterns with real structure and immediate sensory feedback provide him with the best chance of stability and success.
His adventure on the reserve was successful for three distinct reasons. Firstly, the home he was in was dry. There were no drugs, there was no alcohol and there were no people who were using allowed to visit the home. Secondly, he was kept busy with new and interesting experiences. He was constantly finding stimulation in a multitude of ways. Finally, he was provided with a strict routine. His incredibly devout foster mom ran a tight ship, and the structure of this routine allowed him to flourish in those short months he was with that family.
When he returned to the city he was listless, surrounded by drugs, alcohol and anti-social influences, he fell into the familiar patterns of the ‘hood. He fell in love with a girl who, at 14, was his intellectual equal. She gave birth to his second child just over 8 months ago. With all of these exciting and visceral experiences at his feet, I find little wonder he was unable to stay sober.
He was on a 12 day binge when he got picked up this last time. Aggravated assault and robbery. He stole a skateboard from a 10 year old in a park. When the elder brother of this kid confronted him, Carl beat him badly with the skateboard. He was released because the victim refused to testify and the Crown’s case fell apart. He got lucky.
It took just under a week for the awe of freedom to wear off for him. From the posts he made on Facebook, he went from leaving a life of crime behind for good to repping the gang and flying the flag once again. He’s back on drugs and has been drinking. He’s also dealing openly with status updates regularly asking “Who needs? I got!” and “Molly molly molly who needs her?” which, for someone whose Facebook is constantly monitored by the Police is particularly unclever.)
Jail works for Carl because it keeps him sober, fed, and well rested. Jail gives him a routine and allows him to feel and be safe. (He once called me and practically screamed “Stephanie! They let me eat toast in my room anytime I want!” I would point out that he was not in a hotel room but a jail cell.) Jail has allowed him to advance his education and participate in sober, healthy programming. Jail has provided him a port in the storm of his life. But to write this is a frightening thing because jail is not a place where anyone should be. Incarceration for him, and so many of his peers, has become an incredibly expensive escape from a tumultuous reality. More than that, it has become an inevitability.
When my colleagues and I were setting up the youth shelter a few years back, I met senior management of the provincial Community Living program. Candidly, they shared they were unable, unprepared and unwilling at that point, to work with youth and young adults that were living with FASD. “Stephanie, we just aren’t prepared. These folks need care we cannot provide. We can’t put them into the group home setting with four or five other men living with Down’s Syndrome. They’re on a totally different spectrum.” The implication was that the group of young men we were talking about, those living with FASD and falling through the cracks in the system, those young men like Carl, were volatile and beyond the scope of the programming offered by Community Living. FASD has been a real, significant medical diagnosis since the 1970s. Since that time, our understanding of the disorder has expanded and we are better equipped with knowledge that will allow us to deal with its debilitating impacts more effectively. That being said, a full-scale community response is slow and programming (particularly around housing) remains even slower.
Despite the increase in awareness and advances in training and education around FASD, key areas need further targeting. The judicial system is one of these areas. A social worker that did training at the Correctional Centre in the community where I used to work shared with me once that, during a training, she asked management for statistics on the prevalence of FASD in the jail. They estimated between 5 and 10% of the inmates would be diagnosed (or suspected). She was shocked at how low these numbers were. In her opinion, she felt that these numbers were significantly higher. In fact, she shared with me that she suspected, based on her experience and an internal follow-up review within Social Services that approximately 80% of the inmates at this particular Correctional facility were current or former Crown Wards. She said that fully 60% of these Crown Wards were either diagnosed or suspected to have FASD at some level. Recently I emailed and asked her about these informal “stats” again. “I stand by them. I can’t prove them with a study or anything, but I stand by them.
First and foremost, I learned through my experiences working with those diagnosed with FASD that empathy is imperative. Without that you will not get very far. As a community, we need to be approaching the issue with empathy-based solutions rather than the punitive ones that we do now. Think of how much better Carl’s life might be (and ultimately how much safer the community would be) if we could provide a safe, structured place for him to thrive. As we learn more and understand the incredible impacts of FASD on individuals and the community, we can create better spaces for programming, improving the outcomes of these youth and young adults. We can create better, safer alternatives for them that aren’t the (incredibly expensive) options found in jail. Don’t these members of our community deserve better than what we’ve provided them so far? Isn’t Carl a human being with emotions and value? Shouldn’t we think about him too? Shouldn’t we work to help him and others like him understand just how important he is, how much he matters and provide him with a space to belong? I think so. What about you?