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History Table of Contents
1991 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1991
Growing up on the Edge: The Emerging Generation and Canada's Future


Quebec Juvenile Court

I would like to share, very humbly, my experience as a judge for children.

I would also like to share my experience, my sadness, when I see all those young people who are suffering so much. And I would like most to share my hope in a shared future, where everyone, children, women, men, will be able to live without fear of being exploited in a more humane society.

It is our common responsibility to put an end to the suffering of our children by helping them to realize that they can achieve, helping them recapture their lost confidence, helping them to restore their self esteem and improve their self image, helping them to rebuild a love story with themselves, their parents, their friends, society, and become, maybe, for the first time, at peace with themselves and at peace with others.

It's our responsibility to help them manage conflict in a more productive, non-violent manner and to help them simply, very simply, to find a sense to their lives.

And, in doing so, we have to recognise that they are also helping us to find a sense to our own lives.

Our children our trying desperately to communicate with us, to tell us their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their sufferings, their loneliness.

But we are so busy most of the time. We don't have time to listen to them, until, too often, there is a crisis, and then we intervene.

And in what way?

What are they telling us exactly?

They are telling us that they feel abandoned, neglected, rejected; that they suffer not having a place in our lives, feeling unimportant, non- existent, in the lives of their parents, families and in society.

During the last two years, I was given the opportunity, to go around Quebec, in villages and small towns to speak about children. I went all over, to most of the provinces and to Europe. I was asked to speak about children and I did so with pleasure.

But most of the time, I listened. I listened to what we were saying about those kids, and everywhere, everywhere, I heard adults; parents, teachers, judges, police officers, social workers, saying: "We know there is a lot of suffering".

We also heard about parents telling their own suffering, their own anger, their guilt; not knowing exactly how they could meet their children's needs. But also what we spoke and what we said, about our children.

Very often I am told, Madame Judge, you are always speaking about children who are suffering. But obviously, I am a judge for children, and when children come to court it is because something is wrong. Usually when children are happy in their family, they don't find themselves in court, and they don't have a judge in their life.

We talked and we said that those children, a lot of them, were prostituting. They were on the street, they were destroying themselves. There were thousands of them.

But we acknowledged that those children were no longer children of other countries very far away. We had to realize that they were in our communities, that they were in our schools, they were in our streets. And, when we close our eyes and we want to be a little more honest, we have to say to ourselves that those children are in our homes. They are our daughters, they are our sons.

So many of them are trying to destroy themselves. They are victims and we find them in the street prostituting. We find them also using drugs.

We know that thousands and thousands of children are on drugs — eight, nine year old children.

For a long time we have recognized that when we have a drug problem or an alcohol problem, it is a sickness. We have to be cured, we have to be healed. For adults, and just in Quebec, we have more than 100 places that together as adults we try to understand the sickness and we try to help one another.

But, when you are a child — in Quebec at least — and you have a drug problem, you have to be re- educated. You are placed in a reception centre and they are let out at 18.

We haven't dealt with the drug problem. They have no skills; they have no jobs, and they find themselves on the streets. They are the homeless kids that we find on streets of Montreal.

So that is how we treat our children who have drug problems.

We also have children who are leaving school, so many of them. The official numbers are 30 percent, but some sources indicate the number is closer to 45.

Those children are not leaving school because they can't learn. They're doing so because they are overwhelmed with other problems, with other needs.

I was out twice last year to Chair a graduation of dropouts.

All those kids had left school for three years. They had committed crime, they were on drugs, prostitutes, and, yet, they were back in the schools trying to learn. They graduated, and they were wonderful.

And I heard them telling their teachers, "Thank you for loving me...thank you for believing in me...thank you for telling me that I could achieve...thank you for telling me that it was possible".

And I saw them crying, and I saw them hugging their teachers.

These were the kids that we were saying were no good, they can never learn, they will not go anywhere.

They were the most creative, imaginative, beautiful kids. They can achieve, if we would just love them a little more and listen to them.

We have so many of those kids on the streets. They are there without anywhere to go...and they are hungry. And we know those kids come directly from institutions. We know that 88 percent of them were placed in reception centres. Sixty nine percent were in foster homes, before going to reception centres; 88 percent of them have drug problems and 97 percent are alcohol users.

They are our kids and many have decided that this society is not good enough for them and they try suicide and, much too often they do succeed — especially boys.

In those two years, we talked about those hungry children and we talked about the other victims, the angry ones, who will address their anger against others, who are delinquents.

Our delinquents are telling us by their crimes that something is wrong; that they have been victims of aggression and that their needs were not met. And they are telling us in the only way they can. Not the best, obviously, but in the way that they can achieve.

What we have to realize is that this is not necessary.

It can be otherwise, it can be different.

There is something urgent that has to be done; it is to develop a new dialogue, a new communication.

I would like to share, very humbly, my experience as a judge for children.

I like to see myself as a judge of education; somebody who is helping a child to grow; a child who is suffering, a child who is telling the court, please!.

I would like to be the one who establishes a real communication with that child, by listening — not only to the words that she or he is saying — but also what he is saying, about his fears, his cries, about his crimes.

And when I understand what that child is saying, standing, deciding, doing something for him, and also accompanying him, that is for me being a judge of education. That is the first condition.

The second condition for me is helping that child find a sense to his life. That means spirituality.

I believe that if I do that with a child, the child will do it with me. If I accept as a person, to be in real communication with that child, that means that I could also be vulnerable, that means that also, I am the one who will accept to be in real dialogue, real communication.

That is not done between a judge and a child, it is done between two people who will take the risk to let themselves be known.

I think that if we always stay in our roles, we will never establish that real communication.

The third condition, is love, genuine love, which means accepting everyone of those children — as different and as imperfect as they may be — by believing, unconditionally, in what they can become.

I will give you two examples of two boys who I love very dearly. I have had them for some time before me.

I know that when speak about Patrick or Stephen, that you have Patricks and Stephens in your life. You have them in your homes, and you have them in your streets, and you have them in your schools and you have them, also, very near you.

Patrick, who is before me is 15 and he tried to kill his father.

Obviously that is unacceptable.

He pleads guilty and he recognises that is what he wanted to do. We decide that he is not going to be back on the street. Obviously, nobody is asking that.

I ask for him to be put in a reception centre and I ask for a presentence report. I want to know who is that young man, at 15, who wants to kill his father.

A month and a half later, I have Patrick back in court. And just the night before, I take all the reports home, and I am going to try to know who this child is. I am going to talk about that child.

He is six-years-old, the first time I have a report. Six and he is already under psychiatric care, because he is so aggressive, he is so violent, he has a learning disability, he is hyperactive. He is that little monster we don't want in our school. We don't want him around our children.

He is six years old, he has been in school for 2 years and that is the way he is.

So he was sent to a psychiatrist and it is clear, the diagnosis is clear. That is how he is treated, but maybe that is the solution, maybe that is the way it had to be done.

The next time I hear about that young man, he is eight and a half. He is eight and a half and now it is a report from the hospital. Quite different, now the hospital is telling me that he was brought there by the police and his mother, because she thought he had a broken bone in his face.

And when we looked into the bruise, it wasn't an ordinary bruise, it was a heel mark. His father was an alcoholic and his father would beat him very often. But then you would say, well he is at the hospital, we know that he will be cared for, it is ok.

But, when I look into the report at the end it is clear, the file is closed. It wasn't that important, we had more serious cases. He was sent back to his parents, with the same mother, obviously incapable of protecting him. But not with the same father; he was wiser, he knew that it wasn't in the face that he should kick his son.

So, the abuse continued, and you understand why; nothing was done. No support, nothing was ever done. I have reports from school, that say this young man does not go to school, he does not do his homework, he is aggressive, he is not responding to any of the rules.

That is the portrait that I have of that young man.

When I am looking for his reports at 13 and 14, I don't find any. So, the next day in court, I say could I have the report when he was 13 and 14.

There wasn't any. He wasn't in school in those days. He had left school. But there wasn't any report to the social services. Nothing was done for the school board. We were so happy that he wasn't there.

Where was he? He was on the street.

And he was explaining to me, "You know, I was happy on the street in the beginning. I was with friends and we were having the same problems and we would share that, and I would feel confident and it was ok. But we needed money, so we started stealing. We had nothing for the goods we stole, we were on drugs, so we started stealing bigger things, but that didn't work, so I started prostituting".

And that night, what had happened, is that his father had known about his activities and said, "I am not going to feed you any more" and they got into a fight and he stabbed the father.

But again you are going to say, "But Madame Judge at least the court is there and something is going to happen."

It didn't happen.

I followed the recommendations of the experts and I sent him to a reception centre and ordered therapy for his drug problem, ordered family therapy, ordered all that was suggested to me in order to protect society and to help him grow.

A month and a half later he was back before me, he had committed new crimes. He was still on the street. He had run away.

I asked him, "How is it going at the reception centre? Do you feel comfortable with the therapy? Is it good to have somebody to listen to your needs?"

And he told me that he didn't have anybody doing that with him.

I couldn't believe it and I asked the worker. She explained to me that it was true, that we were still discussing between the social services and the reception centre who would pay for these services.

A month and a half later he had nothing. He continued running away, he continued prostituting and the last time I heard of him, he was waiting for a place in the psychiatric ward.

Maybe he understood that there was no place in this society; that we didn't care enough for him.

And how many of us are paid to care, to protect that child, and do our job. How many of us were around him and we were not able to help him.

I don't know if he is still alive. But I know something didn't happen, and nobody helped him grow. Nobody protected him.

When we review the three conditions I have mentioned, we really were never in communication with that child. We never really listened to his needs. Nobody did anything for him and accompany him.

Did we help him find a sense to his life? And did we love him? Did we accept that child? And did we believe that he could become somebody beautiful?

We become what the eyes of the others make us.

And how did we look at him? Obviously it wasn't that beautiful.

It is not always that way. And I am going to talk to you about another young man that I had before me.

He was younger when he arrived in the courts. He was a very nice young man. He wasn't on the street, he was different. His mother came from out of town. She had 7 children, he was the seventh and she was fed up. She was exhausted, she couldn't do anything any more.

But again, we didn't look at her. It wasn't interesting. There was no crisis; we don't believe in prevention. So we waited for the mother to go and then we decided we would do something for Stephen.

No mother, no father, what do we do with kids? We place them. So, I placed with foster families and he was very angry.

"Why should I be in a foster family? I didn't do anything wrong. Why shouldn't somebody else pay for that?"

And he was really angry. He ran away, and he ran away again, and again. But he was such a bright kid, he was such a beautiful kid.

And I placed him in a group home, and again, he ran away, and ran away. But then it was under an institutional hat, and he got really close to the director of the reception centre.

He continued running away, but each time he would be on the street, he would phone that man. "Here I am, here I'm sticking, or I will come back, or I'm on drugs." And always, that man was there for him, whether it was 12 midnight or at 4 o'clock in the morning and he would just go and get Stephen. He went from reception centre to reception centre; open reception centre to closed reception centre until he was 18.

When he was 18 he came to see me in court. "Madame Judge, I decided I would go for treatment for my drug problems."

The last time I heard of him, he was in Vancouver and he was finishing his second year of medicine.

What happened? He was a beaten child, he was on the street, he was a drug addict!

What is the difference between those two kids?

For one, something really happened. That man from the reception centre is always around. They send letters to one another and when Stephen is in trouble he is phoning.

There was real communication.

Somebody told him, he was important. Somebody told him, you are beautiful, I believe in you. That is the difference. That person really listened to that young man's needs and stood up for him, fought for him, and accompanied him, over years and years.

We are talking about a love story that went on for many years. It is not something that goes on for a few months, it is for many years. That young man found a sense for his life. He wants to be useful.

I think that is spirituality.

If we choose to be working with children, I think we have to believe in them, love them. That is the only way they will be able to grow. And I will go further. I think it is the only way that ourselves will be growing with them. Because, if we do not have access to our own needs we can not have access to other's needs.

To stop the suffering of our children, we have to decide that we are going to listen to their language; not only the words, but what they are saying in so many ways.

In order to re-establish a real communication between an adult and a vulnerable child, the communication must be based on respect and dignity, where the adult will not impose the objective norm — ignorant of this child's needs — but be very humble with the child, and one that searches for the best solution possible.

Once a child has chosen to speak to me, to speak to me as a judge, to speak to me as teacher, to speak to me as neighbour, to speak to me as grandfather or grandmother, I cannot ignore what the child has told me.

We cannot be silent. We have to be courageous and we have to stand, because if we are afraid, how much more afraid are they?

If we are afraid to lose our job, if we are afraid to speak, if we are afraid to do something for them, we are condemning them over and over to suffer.

We have to accompany them in this long journey that helps them grow, assuring them of our tolerance for their difficulties and our support to solve them.

Love as perfect as it may be, will never suffice.

Children need the competence and good faith of adults to help them exercise their rights.

But in order to do so, we have to — as adults — have access to our own needs.

Why is it so difficult for adults to understand the language of children?

A few years ago, I met a well-known French psychoanalyst and I asked her that question.

She said, "It is so difficult at this point for parents to understand children and children to have their needs met, because at this point, parents are so tired. They feel insecure, they don't know how to deal with their own needs, so they don't have much energy to give to their children."

We are tired, and I think that we have to understand that and not be afraid to acknowledge it. Tired and guilty and alone, we often don't have the energy to cope with our children's needs. But we have to respect them and we have to have compassion and dignity for their suffering.

We must sensitize the community, in order for each and everyone to get involved because protecting children is everyone's business...not just the business of experts.

In order to communicate to our children, our faith in a shared future we, ourselves, must rediscover our own childhood spirits.

Although we believe that we have given everything to our children, we often have to realize that we haven't given them the most important part — our faith in a shared future. And to relearn hope, we must rebuild with our children a love story. And make it possible that this faith, hope and love will be a way of living.

We must realize, finally, that when we speak about children, we speak about ourselves. We speak about our fear, our courage, our needs, the necessity of listening to their language.

We are also talking about responsibility, solitude, compassion, powerlessness, generosity, the importance of collaboration.

When we speak of children, we speak of respect, of dignity, we speak of life, but mostly we speak of love; of that stimulating and securing love which will enable us and our children trustful in our possibility to find together a sense to our life.


(Judge Ruffo was joined on the platform by Virginia Miller, Director General of Youth Affairs Branch of Employment and Immigration Canada, who responded to questions relating to Government policy in the youth area).

The Minister indicated that 2,500 students are being supported in the sciences and engineering fields to keep us on the cutting edge economically with other countries in the world. Should we not at least be supporting that many people and encouraging that many people to study in the humanities, studying environmental law, the environment, ethics courses, philosophy, and peace studies in particular?

Virginia Miller: The Minister spoke most directly about the Canada Scholarship Program because it is one of our newer initiatives and I think most people are concerned about our competitiveness...of the need for science and math scholars. There is a granting council that funds humanities.

I think it is quite obvious that one of the major problems in the application of a law in juvenile courts and other situations that involve children generally, is due to the tension that exists between the social worker and the lawyer that work together in the system. And I think this is due to their difference in ideology, their difference in training and the perceptions they have of each other's role in the system. I think this is a very sad reality, because the social institution and the legal institution are probably the two most important factors in determining the fate of the youth involved. Could you shed some light on why this tension exists.

Judge Ruffo: We have to centre on the children, we are here to serve kids. I have to, as a judge, serve the kid whose is before me. I as a social worker have to do the same thing, and I as a lawyer have to do the same thing. Then it changes, we are not in competition any more. We are there to help that child. And that is what we have to tell one another. I know that at McGill they have a new program, social work and law. So we are going to be talking and having better understanding. The problem does exist, but I don't think it is as bad as it was.