OZ to the rescue in Toronto's GTA
It is not easy for young people to navigate the Canadian justice System (CJS) especially when they aren’t white! Just someone’s opinion or is it a matter of fact? Well, in Toronto it is a fact, at least according to both civic and community groups.
Recently, Toronto, Mayor John Tory, several community leaders, the police and spokespersons for the provincial and federal governments, unveiled a programme to assist young Black people and their families deal with the Canadian justice system.
It’s called “The Ounce of Prevention” (OZ) program. Funded by Public Safety Canada, OZ is a newly established “wraparound Afrocentric initiative” aimed at assisting Black and racialized youth, (and their families), to navigate their way through the courts, encounters with the police and correctional facilities.
Oz is made up of five partner agencies: the Delta Family Resources Centre (Delta Family), For Youth Initiative, Somali Woman and Children, Think 2wice and Urban Rez Solutions. OZ describes itself as being “on a mission to create a Toronto in which the future of Black youth and racialized youth is not determined by their interactions with CJS by providing family and individual counseling, as well as support in court, while incarcerated, after release, and other services. “
“ We are responding to the overrepresentation of Black and racialized youth in the criminal justice system, “ said Ken William, the programme manager at the Delta Family
Resource Centre told The Caribbean Camera. “The good news is that we already have a staff of 12 who are very well connected, within the court service, with duty councilors, the correctional institutions and the police.”
“ We are often contacted by police officers that want our help in having a diversion rather than an arrest! They are aware of our programmes.”
“Last week was the official launch, but we have been up and running since the New Year. We did get funding last year but the kick-off was held back (because of the pandemic),” he noted. “We have been making prison visits and monitoring (online) court proceedings for months.”
Williams and the Oz team are headquartered at 2141 Kipling Avenue but again, because of the virus, are not open to the public.
“ Most of us are working from home. We are connecting with people in need of our help through referrals from the courts and police and our web- site (https://dfrc.ca/ newsite2/an-
ounce-of-prevention/) ” explained Williams. “Money is not an issue. We do not charge for the help we give. We aren’t legal aide, but we help get people connected with the right agencies. We aren’t housing either but we can help when needed.”
Eligible OZ clients, whether they are young persons or their families and caregivers, must be residents of Toronto or the Greater Toronto Area to access this new project.
“It is clear that Black and racialized youth are overrepresented in our criminal justice systems. OZ will not only support Black and racialized youth as they navigate the criminal justice system but, more importantly, ensure that their past does not hinder their future,” said Mayor Tory.
“This program makes a strong case for the need and the importance of Black-led and Black-serving organizations. It is vital to invest in our communities, particularly in Toronto’s Black communities, which continue to face social and economic barriers.”
Shawna Coxon, Deputy Chief, Toronto Police Service, attended the media briefing and pledged her support to OZ.
During the COV- ID-19 pandemic, the OZ consortium is commit- ted to providing a broad range of services by telephone and online including:
· Representation at video court proceedings;
· Support letters for court-related matters;
· Information and/ or referral assistance with release planning for those exiting the prison system;
· Assistance to youth and their families seeking information on relevant programs and services available in the community;
· Free counseling for youth and their families;
· Assistance for coping with stress and anxiety.
Story by Stephen Weir for the Caribbean Camera