20 years: Youth diversion still shining

Maple Ridge-based restorative justice program still struggles for consistent funding from the province

Ridge Meadows Youth Diversion Program coordinator Ranjit Kingra (left) and program assistant Anna Black hold a goal aspiration poster made by participants to help them make positive plans for their future.

Ridge Meadows Youth Diversion Program coordinator Ranjit Kingra (left) and program assistant Anna Black hold a goal aspiration poster made by participants to help them make positive plans for their future.

It’s been two decades now that the Ridge Meadows Youth Diversion has been steering kids clear of courts and prisons and potential lives of crime.

And after two decades of good work, one concern remains the same.

“Twenty years, same struggle,” said program coordinator Ranjit Kingra.

Every year, the youth diversion program has to scrimp and save to get enough grant dollars to fund its $95,000 annual budget.

For that amount, each year Kingra and Anna Black help about 100 kids who’ve been diverted from the court process, in which they could have been charged and stuck in the justice system.

Instead, the pair guides them through a restitution and accountability program that keeps them out of jail and allows them a second chance.

“For us, it’s always been about the sustainability of the program,”  Kingra said. “What you spend in raising the funds, it kind of takes away,” in support for the children.

While kids are spared the court, the youth diversion program is no picnic.

The first part of the process involves the kids attending either an accountability panel, or depending on the crime and the willingness of victims to be involved, a family conference.

At those meetings, the teens are made aware of the consequences of their actions. The process allows youth to take ownership and accept responsibility. Reparation, if appropriate, is required.

“It can be rather intimidating for them and it actually is the start of the whole process.”

After the panel, kids work on an agreement, spelling out how they’ll atone for their crime and are assigned a mentor, an adult who will help them non-judgementally.

Restitution can involve community service, one-on-one counselling, apology letters or essays. Kids can also be referred to a variety of agencies for further help. Once kids go through the process, more than 80 per cent never get into trouble with the law again.

“When we do the agreement, we look at the underlying causes. If there’s something going on their lives, we can help support them through it,” says Kingra.

Of the total spectrum of crime – youth diversion only deals with the less-serious cases – half of the offences are shoplifting, with the balance being other charges such as assault and mischief.

But technology is changing the nature of crime. With cellphones and tablets, more kids are getting into cyber trouble by posting harmful material.

“That’s a big part of educational awareness. They just don’t get that it’s wrong.”

Given that they’ve spent 20 years saving kids from a life of crime, Kingra and Black should have a large stockpile of feel-good stories from kids who’ve turned their lives around.

But once they’ve done their time, the program steps aside and lets kids move on – no follow-ups are done and records are destroyed after two years.

And with the program moving into its second decade, the focus is on staying active and raising funds. With its “$20 for 20 More Years drive,” the program asks supporters to cough up that amount, and gives them 20 reasons for doing so.

Youth diversion is also part of the Rotary duck race this year.

“For every dollar that’s invested in our program, it actually saves $6.50 to the community,” in reduced court and policing costs, Kingra said.

The financial struggle means labourious seeking and filling out grant applications.

Each year, the program has to apply for a gaming grant and it can take a few months before it’s known if the crucial cash will come in. Last year, that accounted for $38,000 of the budget.

“It’s always a nail biter for us,” said Kingra. “The gaming grant is pages and pages.”

The District of Maple Ridge helps out with a $20,000 fee for service and the City of Pitt Meadows adds another $6,500 yearly.

Other groups, such as the Colleen Findlay Foundation, the Meadowridge Rotary Club and the Maple Ridge Community Foundation, also assist.

Blenz Coffee on Dewdney Trunk Road is also holding a fundraising day May 7, the last day of Youth Week, by donating part of its proceeds from the day’s sales.

The diversion program is not alone in its fiscal fights. Kingra says not one program in the province is fully funded, although the programs in Burnaby and Surrey though are funded by those cities.

The lack of support could be because, while criminal law is federal, the entities are seeking provincial funding.

The local youth diversion program has never received federal dollars.

“So many programs that our youth really need – we have a lot of need in this community … a lot of youth that have needs,” says Kingra.

“Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows have a lot of good programs. We just need to keep them and make them sustainable.”