According to medical researchers, people with brain damage are two and a half times more likely to be incarcerated. A new program in the central Okanagan aims to support young people with brain injuries who come into conflict with the criminal justice system, so they can change paths before it has a lasting impact and permanent in their lives.
Brain Trust executive director Amanda McFarlane told Black Press Media that it is easier for young people with brain injuries to recover and get out of the justice system because the system is more lenient. It’s also easier for young people to change old patterns as their brains develop, she said.
Brain Trust Canada is a charitable organization that provides services to people living with brain injuries, and the new youth program is an extension of its crime prevention and reduction program. The goal of the program is to help young people overcome the legal, educational and social challenges they face.
First, the program will help young people re-establish trusting relationships and begin to address unmet needs. Next, the team will help young people break any patterns that lead to their run-ins with the law.
Youth in the program will also have an advocate who will come forward during interactions with police to explain their injury and help them communicate.
So far, a trained volunteer with lived experience has bolstered the advocacy role, and McFarlane hopes to see membership grow if the program can secure more funding.
McFarlane said most of the young people she works with who have been involved in the criminal justice system need comprehensive support, as brain injury often overlaps with other vulnerabilities, such as trauma and substance addiction.
“We have these big boxes [prisons] lots of people who are just traumatized and I have a problem with that. That’s why I’m really passionate about this program. So, I thought, okay, can we stop a lot of people from getting into this system that we know they can never get out of? »
Often, programs that support people with substance use disorders or mental illness are not equipped to provide the services that a person with a brain injury needs, such as speech and language support . Yet many people with a pre-existing mental health condition who develop a brain injury are denied neurological services, she said.
“Nine out of 10 times they’ll say ‘sorry, you had a pre-existing condition, so you actually belong in [the mental health team’s] workload,” McFarlane said.
People with brain damage are at risk of developing substance use disorder for a variety of reasons. A key issue is neuropathy causing extreme pain throughout the body, McFarlane said. Sometimes people turn to street narcotics when they leave hospital after suffering a brain injury because they haven’t received adequate support to live with their chronic pain.
Another challenge: Unless a doctor registers the brain injury as “moderate to severe,” a person with a brain injury will not be eligible for any government-funded services, McFarlane said.
Access to health care is not equal for everyone, so this need for documentation leaves many people with brain injuries without the support they need, she said. Researchers are set to develop practical screening tools to identify undocumented people with brain injuries so they can receive the services they need, McFarlane added.
Brain damage also adds to any inequities in the criminal justice system, such as the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prison, McFarlane said.
Community foundations and United Way BC Interior South Branch are funding the pilot program through its Youth Grant Initiative program. This year’s grants of up to $2,000 will fund a total of 13 youth-designed and youth-led initiatives in the region, according to United Way’s press release.
Its youth-led review committee decided to support this program with the grant, said United Way’s Southern Interior Community Investment Coordinator Naomi Woodland.
The youth crime prevention group received the funding last month, and the program will likely be able to report on its results within the next six months, Woodland said. With positive results, Woodland hopes the program can expand with more funding.
“I personally think this will probably work as a pilot program and will hopefully attract future funding in the next few years. So hopefully we will be able to support more young people away from the criminal justice system and in more meaningful life situations.