The story this week of John, a 16-year-old in St. John’s who burned down a boarding house and ended up killing a man, is disturbing.
The media covered the story extensively after the release of a report by Carol Chafe, the advocate for children and youth in our province.
John (not his real name) was a troubled kid back in 2011.
At 16, he was basically on his own in the world. He had moved out of his family home and was the responsibility of the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services. How he got to that point is important, but not the issue I want to focus on here.
Suffice it to say he was a kid in danger and in need of supports not readily available in the community.
Chafe’s report leaves little doubt that Child, Youth and Family Services let him down.
John is one of many kids who find themselves wards of the department, no longer under parental supervision and in need of everything from basic survival skills to real guidance during the most critical years of their lives.
John found himself living in a boarding house with a group of much older men. He spent seven months in that living arrangement before setting his mattress on fire and causing the death of Carlos Escobar Medina.
Immediately after he set the house ablaze he regretted it and called 911, admitting he caused the fire. He did not know then that a man would lose his life as a result of his impetuous act.
Say what we like about all of the things that followed that fateful night, there’s no denying that John was desperate to get out of the circumstances he was dealing with in that house.
His decision to light the fire and burn the place down indicates things no one seems willing to address.
How does a boy, ill-equipped to face the harsh reality of a world where deprivation is the norm, end up in such a place? Who decided that John — with all of his burdens and antisocial issues — was a good fit for this kind of living arrangement?
It bothers me to think that someone signed off on that decision. I can’t help but think that John was not so much cared for as warehoused — find a place to stick him and leave him there. The consequences of that decision were not considered, and John’s future was not on the agenda.
Judge Colin Flynn, in handing down his sentence after the fire, said a tragic set of circumstances led to the death of 54-year-old Medina.
John pleaded guilty to manslaughter and three counts of arson with disregard for human life, and he admitted to breaching two youth court orders. His story led the child and youth advocate to conduct a full investigation, and her report is scathing. Everyone who had a role to play in this boy’s life let him down.
The Telegram’s story on Wednesday brought me to tears. “When firefighters and police arrived on the scene that morning,” the reporters wrote, “the teen was on his knees on the sidewalk, sobbing uncontrollably.”
He lit the fire, called 911 and then cried.
Part of me is horrified by young John. Why he left home in the first place is as disturbing a question as are the outcomes of his experience in the care of Child, Youth and Family Services.
John will spend three years of his life in custody.
What will he be subjected to, and what will he learn during his incarceration? Please tell me that we
didn’t simply warehouse him for a second time.
As a society, we must do better. There are too many troubled youth out there and we are much to quick to say, “out of sight, out of mind.”
He fell to his knees, called 911 and cried that night.
And now, I cry for him.
Randy Simms is a political commentator and broadcaster. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org