Youth crime and you | The Coast Halifax

Youth crime and you

Social worker Della LeClair shows it takes a village to raise a young offender.

Think of every high-profile crime involving a young offender in the last three years.

The Common table-leg attack, the shooting above the One World Cafe, the Dartmouth stabbing death of cab driver Ken Purcell, the quadruple stabbing outside the Halifax Forum, the north Dartmouth torture and beating of Kathie-Lee Bennet, the fatal stabbing on Gottingen Street outside Ahern Manor and of course, the high-speed crash that killed Theresa McEvoy.

Clinical social worker Della LeClair, who started at the Nova Scotia Youth Centre in Waterville in 2005, knows more about the kids involved in every one of those cases than you or I will ever know.

Or maybe not.

Della can’t really say. She can’t talk about individual cases. She can’t talk about what her clients say. She can’t even talk about who they are.

What she can say?

“These are kids, right? Every time you feel you can bring them a step closer to realizing there’s something else, that’s a step better than it was. 

“I mean, these are kids. They’re kids.”

Kids in jail.

• • •

The kids don’t call it the Nova Scotia Youth Centre. No one does, really, except the woman at the Waterville bakery who responded in what I took to be her ironic best when I stopped for a loaf of white bread and asked if I was far from the jail. “You mean the youth centre?” she said.

Yes, the youth centre, which makes it sound like a big, well-lit room where kids go after school to make posters for student council elections, not a detention centre for 12- to 18-year-olds (and some who are past that; if they’ve breached youth probation, they can be as old as 20) serving sentences for crimes like break and enter, assault, sexual assault and murder.

Everyone calls it Waterville. And it’s a word, at least for people outside the geographical place, that is synonymous with jail.

He got sent to Waterville.

Watch out or you’ll end up in Waterville.

I’m going to Waterville.

The youth centre is off Waterville’s main drag, which is to say, the 800-soul-wealthy village’s only drag. The road to Waterville is a quick zip off Highway 101’s exit 14. The road is a two-lane route lined with schools and split-level homes and stores, all in the tradition of small towns throughout the Annapolis Valley. There’s Joe’s Pizzeria, the Copper Cactus Tanning Salon, Central Kings Rural High School, Valley Credit Union and the Sourdough Country Bakery, where you won’t find a fluffier white and you can take home a coconut cream pie for $5.50.

The youth centre—just past the bakery, on County Home Road—is a circle of low-rise buildings. Clad in white siding and fronted with everywhere-you-look-these-days beige brick, Waterville’s buildings have one distinctive characteristic—emerald-green roofs. But Oz this is not—neither L. Frank Baum’s fictional city nor the gritty HBO prison drama. Though there are shades of both behind the youth centre’s doors.

“Hi. I’m here to see Della LeClair.”

This is reception, Any Office, Canada—filled with colours that have no colour and furniture whose primary aim is to be durable and easy to clean while trying hard to not look like serviceability is its defining characteristic. I sign in below a community member who is there to run a sweat lodge, an irregular occurrence at the centre that makes for a break in the uniformity of the half-hour-clocked schedule of every other day. As deputy superintendent of programs Mike Sampson says, “From 7:15 in the morning until10:15 at night, there is a schedule. Even for recreation, like if they’re sitting around playing cards or watching TV, that’s scheduled time. Not as structured, but it is scheduled.”

I get a pass to hang around my neck (#1, blue, good for the whole facility) and sit, meditating on the sign: Do you have any Keys or a Cell Phone to lock up?

Well, um, yeah, I do, but why would I have to....

Then in comes a smiling Della LeClair.

Della is nearly 29, brown-haired with frameless glasses. A silver Celtic knot necklace at her collarbone and short, polish-free, shaped-and-buffed nails are about as fancy as it gets for her.

Della takes me to a shoe locker labelled “social worker.” There’s only one locker and there’s only one clinical social worker here. 

I cram in my worldly possessions, save my tape recorder, my notebook and my pen, and Della leads me through a set of locked glass doors to the centre’s common area. The double doors are like an airlock. The second set will only unlock after the first is shut and secured. This is where you don’t bring keys and you don’t bring cell phones. The jail proper, if you will. Keys can be used as weapons and to escape (with your car). Phones can be used to coordinate break-outs. The last one was in October 2004, according to the Department of Justice’s Carla Grant, when three youths overpowered staff during the night and escaped through a back door of a cottage.

A handful of jocular men hang around the common area’s command centre. These are the youth workers—the staff who work with kids and their mood swings, their case conferences, their successes and their occasional lashing out, 24 hours a day.

Pass through the common area and you’ll find doors that lead to the pool, the cafeteria, the gym, the weight room and the chapel. There are spaces, too, for mandatory core programming in anger management, cognitive skills, substance abuse and education. Just off the common room is the nursing station. It’s the first stop for youths entering the centre. And it’s the first place Della lets me check out, too.

The station is no bigger than a modest walk-in closet; it’s at capacity with its desk, a wall full of tabbed file folders and two nurses.

“We always have food,” one jokes, when she sees me eyeing her container of pineapple slices.

“Do you always have interesting forks?” I say. (Cute joke, right? Because the rings sit stabbed with orange plastic Halloween forks).

“No metal.”

Oh. Right.

“Della! Della! Della! I get out in 17 days!”

It’s a girl, maybe 16, in light grey sweat pants and a huge white t-shirt, with light brown hair pulled back and a pale face. She’s standing Christ-like, getting scanned with a metal detector, like she’s at the airport, happy to go on a trip, mildly annoyed to put up with security.

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

• • •

Della and I go outside. It’s big out here. In here, rather, inside the Waterville yard, whose boundary is formed by the connected cottages where the kids live and study.

“Often times we have four or five girls,” Della says as we walk. “And if you just think about the crimes you know of in the media—there’s the murder in Digby, there were three girls involved in the table leg assault, now there is the girl that was assaulted in Dartmouth. So that’s six girls right there.”

Which was the girl talking to Della? I knew better than to ask. The Department of Justice and the IWK Health Centre (which is Della’s boss) take the job of protecting the identity of youths in custody seriously. I worked every angle I could to get a meeting with an incarcerated young offender for this piece. First through the IWK—which ruled that speaking to a journalist wasn’t of therapeutic benefit, which is the IWK’s primary goal at Waterville—and next through the Department of Justice and Waterville superintendent Alyson Muzzerall, who felt the anonymity of youths in the facility couldn’t be guaranteed protection. 

• • •

The girls’ cottage is 4B—each cottage has its own kitchen and common living room with bedroom cells off it. The cells are poured concrete top-to-bottom—even the bed (which looks like a shower insert with a mattress stuck on it). There is one desk and there is one shelf. The meagre bit of glass gives light, but it must be three inches thick. 

The only thing that makes one cottage different from its connected neighbours is its specialization—one’s for the newly admitted, another discipline, another anger management. Cottage 5B has a door to the outside; it’s for kids who have earned the privilege of attending Centre 24/7, an alternative school in nearby Coldbrook where there can be up to 12 kids from the youth centre. Cottage 5A is where the offices are.

It used to house kids, 5A, back in the days before the 2003 Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) came into effect, when Canada had the highest youth incarceration rate in the Western world, including the United States. Waterville was so crowded it was practically overflowing. There were 120 kids. Every bed was full.

• • •

Now there are fewer—as of Mother’s Day, 48 boys and 14 girls. And it’s a totally different jail culture. “You have to do a lot more to end up in here,” Della says.

Back before the YCJA, more of the incarcerated youths were in for “crimes that weren’t necessarily connected to deep, pervasive culture.” Instead, maybe, it was kids who got drunk and took a baseball bat to a bunch of mail boxes. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that kid wants to be Tupac,” Della says.

These days, there are more alternatives to custody for those kids—it’s built right into the YCJA statute. But it means that the youths who make it to the facility are there for more serious crimes.

“ a pervasive 50 Cent, gang-related, swarming...crime culture rather than a messed-up-kid culture.” And just now, a boy walks by sporting grey sweatpants with his pockets hanging out at the sides like little wings. “He could be just acting weird, which is common in here. Or, have you ever watched Prison Break?” Della asks. “Leaving your pocket out can sometimes be a little thug culture.”

But which is better? When the youth centre is a place for case-hardened criminals to share war stories and stay tough, or when it’s a place where a kid who just needed a kick in the ass becomes criminalized for smashing mailboxes. “It’s a big debate,” Della says.

• • •

Della’s office is afflicted by the same government-issue bland as reception with its L-shaped desk, drop ceiling and manila-folder-yellow walls. There are signs of life, though—two travel mugs from the Second Cup, lip gloss, a plastic tortoiseshell hair clip, a Mark’s Work Wearhouse calendar with a photo of a fuzzy dog, still on last month.

One entire wall of the office is windows. It allows Della’s fluorescent light fixtures a rest and gives her a clear view of what’s going on in the yard, a Halifax city-block-sized grass field with landscaped paths at its perimeter that youths who have earned the privilege tend as paid work.

This was a job Archie Billard did at Waterville. Billard is the young offender who in 2004, high on pot and travelling at an estimated 100 kilometres an hour, crashed a stolen car and killed 52-year-old Theresa McEvoy. Justice Merlin Nunn mentions Billard’s work in the Waterville maintenance program in the Postscript to Spiralling out of Control: Lessons Learned from a Boy in Trouble, his commission of inquiry report on the crash.

Justice Nunn’s job was to determine, in a nutshell, why Billard was released two days prior to the high-speed crash even though he was facing numerous charges. His report is comprehensive and, importantly, easy to understand. It’s a primer on youth crime that anyone looking to better understand the system would do well to read. Nunn’s 34 recommendations were accepted by the province; a year and a half later they’re still being implemented.

Outside Della’s window, teenage boys tolerate today’s half-hour mandatory exercise. They walk plodding circles in the damp, sunlight-struggling morning, most in pairs, most chatting. They look like they were doing laps in first-period gym and they’re sneaking a break while the coach is off taking a piss.

Besides exercise time, and daily education and programming, the Waterville schedule includes quiet time and, with the current number of inmates, three seatings in the cafeteria. They are up at 7:15. And bedtime looks like this, according to the schedule on Della’s office bulletin board:

10:05—prepare for bed



11:00—lights out

• • •

How can they hack it?

Many of these youths are from families where there is no set bedtime. Where there’s no motivation to get to school on time. No such thing as the family gathering together at the dinner table. No after-school sports. No repercussions for bad behaviour. No authentic parental involvement. The ones who do come from families with parents who have the time, money and capacity to be involved, don’t accept the attention or follow the household rules.

But inside the facility, they all take to the structure like bees to honey.

“There’s this period of them coming to terms with the fact that where they are living has strict rules,” Della says. “But you know what? When they adapt—and even though it’s crazy, like having to ask to go to the bathroom—eventually they thrive on it.”

The problem, though, is making it on the outside—back at home, with no rules, a community that thinks of you as a thug, and the same friends you were committing crimes with before you got sent away, calling at midnight on Friday to see if you want to go do some break and enters.

“Jail is a make-believe world,” says deputy superintendent of programs Mike Sampson. There’s food, rest, support, structure and no drugs and alcohol. “So, to do well on the inside is not untypical. But it’s hard to do well when you leave here. And that’s a fact.”

• • •

Mental health treatment at Waterville works the same as in the community; it’s voluntary. And Della likes that just fine, thank you very much, even though it means some of the kids who need her services most will choose not to meet with her. “There have been lots of kids who have been encouraged—strongly encouraged—who don’t want to meet with me. Or even after meeting with me, they don’t feel motivated to work on anything. And that helps build rapport with kids. If it were not voluntary, it would make my life harder.”

And let’s face it: the job Della does is hard enough. “I have had very little success. I think I’ve done a good job. But I’ve had very little success. I’ve had one case that absolutely flourished, that’s been picture perfect. The rest are just on a scale.”

The obvious next question, of course, is why do it? Why bother? Why invest time? Why expend the energy? For god’s sake, why? When, chances are, and statistics say, more than half of the kids getting released from Waterville will be back within the year?

And the answer, as it happens, starts with this small bite of PEI trivia: “A great uncle of mine had a world record for trotters on a half-mile track.”

• • •

Della, who grew up around horses and whose family is involved in harness racing on PEI, moves her fingers along the desk. “Trotters. Their legs move diagonal. Pacers...” and she shows me that too.

“The thing about harness racing is there’s a lot of people, and especially in my family, who have this affinity for the long shot. For the horse that everyone has given up on, and it’s got a bum knee and it’s cranky and it’s been beaten and it hasn’t been treated well. But if you can sort of fix it up? Well, if it’s a horse that’s still has—the way it’s described is if the horse still has try. If it just has try. You know? Even if it’s busted up, bruised up, even if everybody’s given up on it, but for some reason it still wants to finish sixth instead of seventh. There’s something in it that still wants to keep racing. That’s worth your energy. Because if it still wants to race, then you still want to help it.”

So probably by now you’ve figured out Della is a cowgirl.

Dougie is one of her horses; Sam’s another. But Dougie is clearly her favourite, a registered American Quarter Horse. “It’s a breed, like a Lab,” she adds, because she’s used to talking to people whose sum-total knowledge about horses comes from The Horse Whisperer. “Where they get their name is they’re the fastest horse in the world to run a quarter mile.”

Della celebrated Dougie’s ninth birthday last week. She got him during the final year of her masters in social work at the University of Toronto. In Toronto, she says, if you have a horse, “you might as well say you have an elephant.”

The sentiment doesn’t go unshared at Waterville. Della sometimes tells kids about her horses in the context of her hands-down passion outside clinical social work: cattle penning.

What now?

“It’s chasing cows,” Della says (she loves talking about cattle penning).

“There’s a herd of cows and they have numbers pasted to their sides and three cows have the same number and people go out on horseback and chase the same-numbered cows.”

Della whips around to her computer, goes to YouTube, does a quick search, and turns the volume up on her external speakers. Way up. Rihanna. “Winning Women.”

“This is up near Pugwash. So they all go in...the herd’s over there...I’m in this video somewhere...see the numbers there’s no ropes or anything...see, there’s the little pen...sometimes the wrong numbers go in...and it’s fast and it’s fun.”

Della tells kids about penning as a way of explaining that being good doesn’t necessarily mean being boring.

Rural kids tend to get it; city kids, she says, are “just bewildered by the fact that I am talking about cows and horses.”

Della guesses city kids make up about a third of the population at Waterville. The Department of Justice can’t say but agrees that the rest span the province and decline in representation as the centres get smaller —there’s Sydney, North Sydney, Sydney Mines, Glace Bay, Amherst, Truro and Yarmouth. A few from Windsor, a few from the Valley.

None of the youths in the yard look particularly urban or rural. They don’t look much like anything, wearing circles in the grass in their single-colour shirts and sweatpants. Some—the ones participating in the sweat lodge at the far end of the field from Della’s office—sport only baggy shorts, shivering and rubbing their sinewy arms and not-quite-men chests. They stoke a pile of smoking wood and cradle embers on the end of a shovel as they enter the low-framed dome. Anyone who has earned the privilege (and wants to) can enter the sweat lodge (though Della’s never seen a girl participate). Mi’kmaq youths go in today. African Nova Scotian boys too. So do white youths (who make up the majority of Waterville’s inmates, though the proportion of African Nova Scotian and First Nations youths is higher than the province’s general population).

Della and I watch from her office window. 

It brings to mind philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century Panopticon, a prison design the Englishman devised to allow for many prisoners to be watched with fail-proof efficiency by few—or potentially no—guards. Bentham proposed his circular institution (with cells open to a court-held guard tower into which cell-dwellers couldn’t see and by which they could never tell when they were being watched) for use wherever large numbers of people need keeping: “punishing the incorrigible, guarding the insane, reforming the vicious, confining the suspected, employing the idle, maintaining the helpless, curing the sick, instructing the willing....”

Waterville is a little of all of that.

There are high levels of learning disabilities among these kids, endemic poverty, family entrenchment in crime, abuse, mental health problems, addiction, poor education and poor health.

Many are in the facility for “breaching.” That means they have committed a crime and been placed on ISS (it stands for Intensive Supervision and Support and it’s a level of probation that is unique to the Youth Criminal Justice Act—not custody, but more strict than regular probation). Breaching is when a kid hasn’t followed the conditions of his ISS, like not adhering to a curfew. Also, generally, youths in custody are there because restorative justice or other alternatives to custody have failed. “They do make an attempt to use as a starting point, to repair the damages and to show a sense of how their actions have harmed the community. So a lot of these kids have gone through that and it hasn’t deterred them from committing more crime.”


It’s not that no one knows the answer to why some kids keep committing crimes. It’s that the reasons are so abundant and so complex that to discuss anything approaching a comprehensive solution is at best nonsense and at worst a straight-up load of bullshit.

We’re talking here about cavernous cultural issues like the pervasiveness of crime culture in popular media. Gone in 60 Seconds. Ice Cube telling us pimpin’ ain’t easy, but it’s necessary. The Sopranos. Beanie Segal’s current prison stint for violating the terms of his supervised release. (The Philadelphia rapper and Billboard chart favourite has been in and out of court over his career, charged with assault, gun-possession, drug trafficking and attempted murder.)

But it’s not just Hollywood and hip-hop. We’re also talking about intimate emotional matters like self-actualization and self-esteem. 

“They’ve got skills in stealing cars, or doing armed robberies or break and enter,” Della says. “And there is—sometimes for the first time for these kids because their parents didn’t have enough money to put them in hockey—a sense that they can do something.” 

Wrap your head around it: imagine you have a learning disability, you’re an academic under-achiever, you come from a poor family. And imagine you’re good at something for the first time in your life. People are praising your skills. You’re a step closer to being in line with the glorified thug culture in your favourite video game (which has the same currency, really, as a kid who’s obsessed with High School Musical, perfectly memorizing the dance moves and lyrics to one of the songs). Plus, you’re making money. That’s going to give you a feeling of accomplishment. Even if that something is stealing cars or selling drugs.

Not only do many of these kids get a sense of personal fulfillment from their crimes, but they find a community in that culture.

“If you’re not doing well in school and you’re labelled as someone who has a major behavioural problem, being with a bunch of other people who have the same issues, that’s going to give you a sense of belonging,” Della says. “We all want to be part of a group where we belong and we feel connected.”

And that inevitably brings us to the issue of swarmings and random violence. The reasons behind those crimes get murkier as you consider the pay-off. What gratification is there in attacking a passer-by? What accomplishment?

Sometimes, it’s this, Della says: “What they’re provided with in here is better than what they’re provided with at home.”

You’ve heard it before. Most recently at the February sentencing of two 16-year-old girls who pleaded guilty (together with a 15-year-old) to aggravated assault and possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose in the Halifax Common table-leg attack on 66-year-old Silvia Bortignon. In a court-submitted psychological report cited by the judge, one of the girls said, “I wanted to come back to Waterville because I’m safe, I have food and I have a bed to sleep in.”

Scoff all you want; Della buys it.

“The reality is that for a lot of these kids their situation is that unstable that Waterville is home. Their life is here. Their community is here. The food is good here. It’s like: ‘Della, can you hook me up?’ Hook you up with what? ‘The curry chicken recipe.’” In that kind of situation, youth workers—who have two kids assigned to them as their primary responsibility—can become stand-ins for parents.

And there’s the lightening bolt question: when kids are misbehaving, where are the parents?

It’s a question that gets asked a lot on Maritime Morning, a News 95.7 call-in show piloted by take-no-guff host Andrew Krystal.

Krystal talks tough about parental responsibility and accountability. And, no surprise, he’s biting in his criticism of adults in charge of young offenders: “I think it’s an outrage that these people bring these into the world and throw them to the wolves. And,” he says, “they bite back.”

But Krystal’s not all ire and indignation. “Youth criminal problems are deeper than trite conversational moments,” he told me.

“We have to throw money at these social problems. We have to raise the bar in terms of cultural awareness of social problems. We have to raise the bar in terms of our communal expectations with regards to parenting.”

Della says there is “no one parent” of an incarcerated youth, but the way she talks you can tell that there are categories of adults in these kids’ lives.

There are parents who are present and engaged; fierce advocates about whom Della says, “I don’t know how they could do anything else right.” And then there are parents who aren’t there for the kids, in any meaningful way, “basically taking the line, you know, gonna do what they’re gonna do.”

And then there are the others, the parents who struggle with the same issues many of Waterville’s kids work through every day—the ones with substance addictions, low literacy levels, the ones being verbally or physically abused or the ones who are abusers themselves. And there are the ones making money illegally. When we talk about the pervasiveness of crime culture, this is as enveloping as it gets—when it’s not just the weekend life of the kid’s friends and the number one ingredient in his media diet, but when it’s in the kid’s own home, when crime’s what puts food on the table.

But listen, if we’re going to blame parents, we have to start considering our roles as community members too.

“I don’t want to convey that it’s everyone’s responsibility that these crimes are happening,” Della says, “because they are terrible crimes, violent crimes, that are creating a lot of hostility. And I do not
want to challenge that because those are normal feelings.”

But, she says “a social problem in a community is everybody’s responsibility to figure out.”

That’s partly the idea behind the five-year-old Youth Criminal Justice Act: to rehabilitate rather than punish, to repair relationships between law-breaking kids and their communities. Because, let’s face it, these kids aren’t going to disappear into thin air. 

That’s the job of the spider’s web of departments and organizations working to support young offenders inside Waterville and out. “We’re trying,” Della says, “to bridge the gap.”

And what can you do? “To be non-judgmental is probably the most key thing,” says Trina Petersen, who runs a Service Canada-funded program to help youths transitioning out of the facility find employment.

Petersen recognizes the difficulty communities have in bringing young offenders back into the fold, but, she says, what these kids need is support, both from programs like hers, from outside counsellors, and from Joe Blow on the street. “I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to change anything you’ve done in your life—whether you tried to quit smoking or go on a diet. It’s hard. And so that’s why there’s Weight Watchers and stop-smoking groups. Because people need support.”

“You can’t put it on the kid to build a relationship with a community that doesn’t want them,” Della says. “You can’t put that all on the kid. It’s the whole community.”

It’s a tough sell. 

Andrew Krystal spends three hours a day listening to callers who often talk about youth crime and Waterville. “The perception of the public is that we don’t incarcerate people long enough, our problem people. It is expensive to jail everybody. At some point they need to be released. But clearly people need to be protected and a lot of people are frustrated with a revolving door when it comes to youth crime.”

A revolving door. It does look like that, doesn’t it?

Della has had only one complete 180 in three years at Waterville—a kid who was transplanted to a new community, a new school, a new set of friends and who—and this is the important part—had the social skills to pull it off, to reinvent himself
and survive.

But most other kids seem to have a come-again-come-often relationship with Waterville. In May 2006, the provincial government relied on statistics that said 66 percent of young offenders would re-offend within one year. According to the Department of Justice’s 2006-2007 business plan, the province’s goal was to get that number down to 50 percent. (No similar goal has been set for the past two years; for that time the province has been participating in a recidivism working group with the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, to “develop an accurate definition of recidivism.”)

Faced with numbers like that, how can Della even define success?

The answer is, broadly. And she gives an example. “I think it is an improvement if they leave here they’ve committed an assault, and maybe they’re still involved in that drug culture, because selling drugs is a really easy way to make money....But at least they’re not assaulting more people.”

Andrew Krystal might be an unlikely ally, but he backs her up: “The issue that we should focus on is violent crime,” he says. “I realize the evils of crystal meth and their ilk create violent crime and desperation and soul erosion. But the issue is violent crime. If someone is still living off the avails of crime but is not committing violent crime, it’s a step up. Then again, my standards are low.”

Della wouldn’t say hers are.

“There’s something with these kids, working with them. There’s something in their faces. There’s some part that doesn’t want to be a bad kid. Sometimes the youth facility is like a big field of broken down old horses. And some of them are like, yeah, I could still race. I could still go back to school. I could. Even though everything is against them. And you want to help them. You want to be as supportive as you can.”

That’s Della for you. She’s always banking on the kid who’s still got try.

Or, she used to anyway.

Because Della doesn’t work at Waterville any more. She’s gone home to PEI.

• • •

It sounds cliched, like the worst Anne of Green Gables stereotype, but Della always wanted to be a teacher.

“I didn’t have any interest in teaching. I don’t think I would be a good teacher. I don’t like being in front of people. But,” she says she thought, “I’m in PEI and they have an education program and I would get my summers off to chase cows.”

So, education at UPEI it was—close to her parents, who split when she was four; close to the harness racing track, where she grew up; close to cows and horses—and where there’s enough room to chase and ride them.

Then, blammo! She took a third-year criminology elective and learned about restorative justice and it blew her friggin’ mind. “It was about bringing communities together and repairing relationships in communities. I just thought this is so cool because it doesn’t divide criminals and non-criminals.”

So screw education. She completed her undergrad in psychology and sociology and went to Toronto to do her masters in social work, with a focus on restorative justice and how to fit its value base (community healing) with social work (which leans toward social consciousness and tends to be victim-focused).

Combining restorative justice and social work is a mix some might diplomatically call “interesting.” Or perhaps less diplomatically: incompatible.

But here’s where things got even weirder for Della. She became a social worker who wanted, specifically, to help perpetrators. Not victims.

And which perpetrators did she assist in her first big job when she came back to the island?

Sex offenders.

She ran the western PEI portion of Circles of Support and Accountability, an “awesome little program” which identifies sex offenders who are at a high risk of re-offending and supports their returns home.

Della’s partner Mike was, at this point, finishing up his degree at U of T. And he was waiting to be assigned a church.

Yes. A church. Della is a cowgirl and a United church minister’s wife.

“The first church, you’re placed at. And I was so anti-marriage. Institution! But the thing is, he was going to have a better chance of getting a church in PEI if he could say that his wife was in PEI rather than his girlfriend. So, yeah. The church isn’t going to be happy to hear that. Sorry.”

Actually, I don’t think the church will give a damn one way or the other. Because Mike and Della signed the papers in his parents’ living room and he didn’t get a PEI church anyway. “They got me!” Della says with a Seinfeldian snarl.

But Mike’s new church was in Canard. And Canard, Della knew, was near Waterville. And in Waterville there was a youth jail. And low and behold, there was a job open. And Della got it. Hallelujah.

• • •

The IWK Clinical Team at Waterville comprises nurses (five of them, available in combination during the daytime, and sometimes found eating pineapple with plastic Halloween forks), a GP who’s there one afternoon a week, and a part-time psychiatrist who does consults and prescribes meds.

Two other clinical staffers do therapeutic work with youths day-to-day—a social worker and a psychologist.

When she came on in 2005, Della made the clinical team complete. For six weeks. Then the clinical psychologist left. That position, three years later, is still vacant, though the IWK interviewed for it this week. “I’ve been picking up a lot of the slack,” she says twisting rhythmically in her leather office chair, pensive, and fingering a “Conflict Crisis Intervention” binder splayed on her desk. “But I’m not a psychologist. I make a lot of referrals to the community, and I do the best with what I’ve got.”

Her team leader, Steve Gouthro, “lends a hand on the clinical side,” Della says. 

Gouthro is also a site manager, and the go-to guy for court-ordered assessments. “We are trying to come up to full complement or close to it,” Gouthro says.

The IWK filled Della’s position this week. “Obviously it’s difficult to recruit in this area. It can be a high pressure, high stakes field and a challenging population. A lot of people shy away from it.”

Are you assuming what I assumed? That Della is leaving because she’s burnt out? I mean, duh. Of course she’s burnt out. She’s practically been doing the work of two people since 2005. She’s treating 16-year-old convicted killers. The recidivism rate for the youths she treats is 66 percent. “It can’t not get to you,” she says.

But she also says she’s not burnt out.

“So why leave?”

She stares.

“You said you weren’t burnt out.”

“You don’t believe me.”

Now it’s my turn to stare.

Social workers are good at keeping secrets I think.

One thing though, I know: leaving hurts.

“These kids have been abandoned by usually one parent. Or they’ve been shuffled through relationships all the time. That’s what breaks my heart about leaving my job. We were at a conference, a mental health conference on attachment disorders. And the guy who gave the conference said sometimes the clinician with the offender, often that relationship is the first healthy relationship that kid has ever had. And here I am leaving. It’s great while it works. But when you have to separate yourself. It’s...yeah...”

“Will you remember specific kids?”

“For sure. I’ll wonder how they’re doing.”

“Is there a way to find out?”

She shakes her head slowly.

It’s getting late, long past the noon siren that blows from the Waterville and District Volunteer Fire Department building across the street from the jail. I’ve got a long drive back to Halifax and a loaf of white bread to pick at on the way.

Della’s got packing to do—her life has got to get shipped to PEI where she’ll will take on a contract for Service Canada doing employment counselling. Nice boring work, but, she said, when I asked her about it this week: “love it.”

Della says she will go back to youth social work, but when she does she wants to work on transitioning youths back into their communities. She wants to work on the outside. It seems Della, ultimately, wants a harder job. Not an easier one.

See, inside Waterville, kids flourish. They’re well-rested and well-fed. Away from the friends who laud them for their criminal prowess. Away from their neighbours who get flustered trying to unlock the door and get inside when they see the kid coming down the sidewalk. Away from their parents who often simply don’t care. 

That’s when it’s the best. And Della? Della wants to be where it’s worst. Where kids are plunked back into their old lives to swim or, as is more often the case, sink.

Della LeClair, some might say, enjoys setting herself up for disappointment.

But it’s not that. 

It’s that every kid Della looks at has still got a little bit of try.