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Saving the worst of the worst 

Halifax’s intervention program for young criminals is at risk of being cut.

In bureaucratic circles, the child is known as "File #400." In the neighbourhood, he's known as a terror.

In 2008, he's just 11 years old, but already well on his way to a life of crime and probably future prison and early death. Between June 2005 and November 2008, he is the subject of 55 police reports, including arson, breaking and entering, assault, property damage, theft and cruelty to animals.

His neighbours are so frightened of him that some of them have put their houses up for sale. A neighbourhood meeting is called, and then a second meeting; 150 people show up to demand that their city councillor, MLA and MP do something about that kid.

Enter the Youth Advocacy Program. Funded by a $1.9 million grant, YAP is an intensive intervention in the lives of youngsters aged nine to 14, and judged most likely to get involved with gangs at a later date.

YAP targets six neighbourhoods---in Dartmouth, the Woodside/Gaston Road area and Jelly Bean Square; in Halifax, Uniacke Square, the Bayers/Westwood area south of Fairview Cemetery, Fairview and Spryfield.

Thirty children, including File #400, are targeted in those areas. Six youth advocate workers---college students, mostly, studying social work and from the neighbourhoods or living in them---are assigned to the children and their families, one worker for five families. The worker connects the family to existing services, but also provides coaching for things many of us take for granted.

In File #400's case, for example, the parents were "unreliable," reads a report. "They were unable or unwilling to take responsibilities for their children's actions---it wasn't uncommon for he and his younger brother, who's around seven, to be out at two o'clock or three o'clock in the morning, on a school night. There was no structure or schedule in the home, there was role confusion between the mother and the daughter. There was role confusion between the parents, a lot of violence in the house. There were no rules of authority established between the parents and the children."

The youth advocate worker helped the parents learn basic skills---how to get children up, dressed and ready for school, making household rules, developing routines, returning stolen property and so forth. Eventually, a regular family life was established, and after nine months, "the criminal activity stopped," says the report. The boy entered into a normal childhood, the parents had newfound skills to raise their other children, the neighbourhood was at peace.

The Youth Advocacy Program is expensive---about $600,000 annually, or $20,000 per child. But that's arguably far less expensive than the future damage wrought by these worst-of-the-worst kids that don't get the attention: the policing and legal costs, the prison costs, the stolen property, the loss of a potentially productive citizen.

Unlike most government social programs, the success of the YAP is judged by an outside evaluator, Michael Ungar, a professor of social work at Dalhousie. Ungar can't give specifics until his final report comes out, but a preliminary report praises YAP. "It successfully targets who it's supposed to target, and it does it well," says Ungar. "We can't say that it works with every child, but it's clear it's making a big difference."

But funding for YAP dries up next year. Halifax police chief Frank Beazley and councillor Bill Karsten both praise the program. "We need to keep this going," says Karsten. "If that means we have to raise the tax rate by point six of a cent, then so be it." See more about the Youth Advocacy Program at thecoast.ca/bites.

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