Job opening: Crime fighter, no cape required.

By Ann McRae

Today’s crime fighters wear jeans and sweaters, carry a cell phone and work for a vast network of modestly funded agencies.

Furthering Our Communities: Uniting Services (FOCUS) Rexdale is the City of Toronto’s first foray into a model of crime prevention that was first developed in Glasgow and later tested in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

A familiar scenario

Picture this:

A young man with low education and a low-paying part-time job is stressed out over his limited chance to improve his financial situation, and by his six year old child’s untreated autism. He snaps over one more degrading remark at work, and quits. He goes home angry, damages his own door when he kicks it open, not knowing his autistic son was holding it shut. He rages at the child, gets in a scuffle with his girlfriend who calls the police.

The police order him to leave for the night. He gets stoned and comes back. Mother and children flee.

A police officer takes them to a shelter, arresting him the next morning. A shelter worker sees signs, which obliges her to contact Children’s Aid Society. The children are placed in foster care.

The landlord sees police cars and upset neighbours. The landlord begins an application to terminate tenancy due to the illegal act of damages to his property.

The social assistance worker is asked to re-direct the assistance cheque to the mother, but doesn’t know the young man had been working.

Social assistance levies a large debt against the family, and reduces assistance because the children are in foster care.

Rent falls behind while eviction proceeds.

What if...

...all the agencies that know about this family’s troubles could sit together?

...the child’s school referred the parents to some support?

...support or hope or counselling could help the father keep things in control?

...the police, crown attorney and duty counsel could divert the man from conviction to community service for the housing provider?

...the housing provider could hire him as a painter, after his community service?

...he could avoid a conviction and be so proud of his success that he opened a painting business?

So, where do we start?

Community initiatives are always hard work. Justifying every nickel of funding is also hard work, because the results are very difficult to measure. How does one put a price tag on changing lives and changing communities?

In Rexdale, groups including the City of Toronto, youth crisis agencies, public housing providers, Toronto social services, Toronto Police Services and Rexdale Community Legal Clinic gather at the table. In this context, “coming to the table” is not just jargon. It is a weekly meeting!

Following the Saskatchewan model, the purpose of FOCUS Rexdale is first, to identify a person or family at high risk of:

  • gang activity
  • violent incident
  • criminal involvement
  • homelessness
  • suicide.

Often, there is a complex web of issues or a snowballing of events that create the high risk situation.

What’s on the table at FOCUS Rexdale?

When all the partner agencies gather behind locked doors, then what? Who will be the one to mention this family?

Maybe it will be someone from social services or a police officer who flags what has happened.  Or perhaps it will be the Youth Justice Worker at Rexdale Community Legal Clinic. She got a call from the father on the morning of his release. Duty counsel at the courthouse, after a short conversation with his wife, identified him as a person at extreme risk. The entire family unit fits this red-flagging measure when immediate intervention is needed.

Too often, the legal clinic gets called only when an eviction is looming, or a suspension from social assistance has caused enormous rent arrears to pile up, or when an eviction has already happened, or when a jail term has just ended. At Rexdale, special project funding allows us to be “at the table” and to be part of the change that is needed.

If all legal clinics could partner with all service agencies in this way, it would be the legal equivalent of distributing flu shots for free. While this only offers a measure of protection, we are stronger to meet the challenge when it comes to our door. Similarly, strong partnerships can shore up our resources, strengthen our communities, and help stop the spread of the diseases that are despair, crime and the cycle of poverty.

Ann McRae is the Director of Legal Services at Rexdale Community Legal Clinic. 

This piece originally appeared on Rexdale Community Legal Clinic’s blog.

2 thoughts on “Job opening: Crime fighter, no cape required.

  1. Judith Wahl

    And what about privacy law? Or the legal clinic staff duty of confidentiality under Rules of Professional Conduct? Sharing of info about a client with some or all these services MAY be possible if a client consents to having their story shared with others but they would have to have full disclosure of the parties at the table,what info would be shared etc . and then give consent to the lawyers or legal worker .

    I know this type of model intuitively sounds great . Similar models have been touted in Elder Abuse Response groups across Ontario and across the country for many years and that’s why I’m familiar with it . I was very briefly part of such a Elder abuse team in Toronto . I say briefly because I quickly figured out that agencies were sharing info about clients without consent ; that even if no names were provided, everyone KNEW who the client was so its was still a breach of confidentiality; and as a lawyer I knew this was not appropriate for me to be at that table unless the people we were talking about had given a fully informed consent to have their private information discussed. I also found that the people at the table were talking about MY clients with no knowledge by the client that their personal info was being shared with police services, with other social services on which they depended, with agencies that had nothing to do with them . I could then not participate ( again without specific consents) and that’s why I quickly withdrew.

    There are other problems with this model – at ACE we frequently act for clients trying to get services from public agencies and advocate for them about access and eligibility so some parties at the table in fact may be the party with whom we would be advocating with for our clients — so although also key to our clients they may not be following the law in the way they operate so they are the technical “opposite” party . Sharing info about clients may also “taint” a relationship with another agency as the client is labelled as “difficult” , “challenging”:” etc . The client may have a legitimate dispute with one agency and be considered the ideal client at another but when the “bad” stories are shred then the god relationship may be affected. . Another problem is that clients who find out that you have been talking about them with others without consent may lose trust with you and the other agencies so this model actually may be a barrier to assisting the client.

    I did discover from not being at the table but being asked to provide education for the parties at the table that many of them had fixed false beliefs about the law and their own duties particularly misinformation about consent, and capacity , and privacy and some of the barriers to clients in getting assistance from particular services was that they had devised policies and practices that did not follow the law about access and eligibility for their service.

    This past year I was part of a consultation group looking at Best Practices in respect to Elder Abuse — this same model was proposed for the “best practice” — I raised these issues about confidentiality etc — and in that best practice it also involved sharing of personal health information – I did not sign off on that best practice and instead withdrew as i did not feel that privacy and confidentiality and compliance with PIPEDA and PHIPA and professional obligations had been addressed.

    I would suggest thinking through privacy and confidentiality and then looking at how consultations could take place without breaching the basic rights of the clients to privacy . Maybe Rexdale and this group have figured that out . It would be interesting to know if they have and how they address these issues in participating at this table.

    1. Ann McRae

      Confidentiality is definitely the lightning-rod issue for FOCUS Rexdale, followed closely by consent. Frequently, our clinic’s representative at the table, Tameka, ( a licensed paralegal who is very attuned to her professional obligations) sits mutely through discussions, struggling with how the other agencies at the table deal with these issues. City of Toronto legal staff also wrestled with these problems before giving the green light, and put protocols in place. Tameka cannot, of course, disclose whether or not our clinic is already involved with an at-risk family or individual, but can only make general statements about services available. She has to wait for a client’s informed consent before discussing a matter with another agency. Despite these ongoing challenges, we see value in being at the table.
      And yes, there are huge risks and challenges to be weighed. Part of our clinic’s role is to remind the others of privacy, confidentiality and consent issues.


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