Though isolated outbreaks of teen-age violence alarm many adult Canadians, juvenile delinquency has actually decreased. Reporter Katz claims we could stamp out the gangs that remain if we spend money on wise prevention instead of punishment

SIDNEY KATZ January 15 1951


Though isolated outbreaks of teen-age violence alarm many adult Canadians, juvenile delinquency has actually decreased. Reporter Katz claims we could stamp out the gangs that remain if we spend money on wise prevention instead of punishment

SIDNEY KATZ January 15 1951

THE WORD “teen-ager” has so often been associated with words like “vandal, hoodlum, irresponsible, brutal and delinquent” that many adult Canadians suspect the n-agers of today have about the same standards behavior as the folks of Sodom and Gomorrah. And in the recent past there have been vicious dents which make the fear very real indeed. Like the case in Vancouver where a group of boys the face of a passerby with razor-edged spring knives. Then follow the flaming headlines in the daily papers, the angry editorials, the outraged letters-to-the-editor.

But is it true that today’s teen-ager is more criminally minded than the teen-ager of 1940 or 1920? Has juvenile crime in Canada reached an all-time high? Can we believe that, large numbers of teen-agers even those from respectable homes are waging an organized war against society? 

To find the answers to these is at firsthand I traveled from Montreal to Vancouver, stopping over in several communities, discussed juvenile crime with police authorities, s, social workers and with young delinquents, Conclusions can be summarized as follows: 

There is no cause for general alarm. Newspapers, magazines, and radio have perhaps unintentionally exaggerated the prevalence of teen-age delinquency. In Vancouver it was reported recently teen-agers had smashed every street, light over lock area. Investigation showed a broken line responsible for the blackout. And .. of a committee appointed to confirm a ... “thousands of dollars” in property damage had been done on Halloween of 1949 in Vancouver found no evidence to prove it.

The fact is that juvenile delinquency cases have been dropping steadily since 1942; latest estimates indicate that they have reached a new low.

At the same time it is becoming more and more apparent that the behavior of anti-social teenagers is no mystery. During my entire survey I did not speak to or hear of a single delinquent whose conduct could not be explained quite simply by a person of average intelligence once he knew the facts of the case.

I returned home with a sickening feeling of frustration. Because social scientists have unraveled many mysteries of human behavior, delinquency can be prevented. Yet through a false sense of economy we are withholding essential services from young people who desperately need them. To the troubled confused youngsters who blindly turn to crime, too often our reply is: “Punishment is the easiest way to deal with you. It’s too expensive to help you find yourself.”

Statistically, the picture of juvenile delinquency in Canada is bright. In 1928, 10,133 youngsters were brought before juvenile courts across Canada; by 1948 the last year for which there are complete estimates the figure dropped to 7,878. From 1942 to 1948 they declined about 60%.

More recent statistics show this trend is continuing. In Calgary, a city of more than 100,000, there were 200 major cases of delinquency involving youths under 18 in 1939. By 1948 it had dropped to 86; in 1949 it stood at 83. In Saskatchewan, Hugh Christie, who heads provincial correction institutions, predicts that when 1949-50 figures are tallied juvenile crime will be down 40%.

Or consider the reports from our federal penitentiaries. In 1944 there were 486 prisoners under 21 — 15.8% of all federal convicts. In 1949 this dropped to 481—only 11.38% of the penitentiary population.

Juvenile delinquents and gangs are not a modern phenomenon. News reports of 50 and 75 years ago have a familiar ring. An indignant editorial in the Toronto Truth of Aug. 16, 1884, says:

There are far too many corners in Toronto infested by young blackguards who make a point of insulting as many as possible of those who pass by. The police should attend to these reprobates much more thoroughly than they do.

One thing I found true was that some teen-age delinquents are tougher than their predecessors of several generations ago. The reason is that youngsters pick up the bad habits of their elders sometimes with greater alacrity than they adopt the good habits. Some teen-agers drink excessively; but adult alcoholism has reached an all-time peak (an estimated 55% of all Canadians now drink). Some teen-agers carry dangerous weapons; but since the war there has been an unprecedented number of adult gun-toters around. Some teenagers lack respect for their parents; but remember we’re living in a time when many adults are callously indifferent to their aged parents.

In some communities I drew blanks when I tried to seek out teen-age delinquents. In Arnprior, a town of 4,400 in the Ottawa Valley, Provincial Police Corporal Les Throop told me: “If I only' had the teen-agers to worry about I wouldn’t have any worries.” He and his men have been supervising teen-age dances for three years and have yet to lay a liquor charge.

Twenty-five miles farther along the valley, in Renfrew, Sgt. Dan Henderson, a chunky red-faced policeman who has been on the force since 1929, told me: “In the past 20 years the population has doubled but the number of young people who give us trouble has remained the same.”

In Durham, a town of 4,000 in Grey-Bruce County, 100 miles northwest of Toronto, months go by without a single teen-ager being involved with the law. In Durham public school (276 children) there wasn’t a single case of hookey during an entire term. In the high school an attendance record of 98% is normal.

Why the difference between the constructive, law-abiding youth of Durham and the apparently callous knife-wielding delinquent of Toronto or Vancouver? What causes delinquent behavior? In brief, these questions could be answered as follows:

No child is born delinquent. But children do learn from the world that surrounds them—first in their homes, later in schools, churches, communities. If a child is brought up in an environment where his physical and emotional needs are not met properly then he will behave differently from the child raised in an environment where they are.

Parents are the greatest influence on a child. The child imitates the parent and accepts what he says as gospel. The way parents treat him will determine his attitudes when he meets people outside.

Authorities on teen-age behavior repeat: No child is a “born criminal”; no child is “naturally bad”; no child has “inherited a criminal streak.” The responsibility for delinquency can be properly placed on the parents, the community and society. Usually it is a complex mixture of all three. I received tragic confirmation of this from teen-agers in every community where delinquency is a problem.

One night I spent cruising Montreal in a police car and an excited thick-set man smoking a thin black cigar came rushing up. He was dragging a 14-year-old boy and shouting at the top of his voice: “This boy is a thief, a criminal; he will end up on the gallows.” The boy— his son—had stolen money from a neighbor and the father insisted that the police take him away.

After the father left I talked to the 14-year-old “criminal.” He had a thick, black mat of hair which looked as if it hadn’t been combed for months. The faded top of pink pyjamas served as a shirt; his trousers were old dirty grey tweed spotted with holes; his wrinkled scuffed black shoes were muddy and several sizes too large. There were large patches of scar tissue on his chest and wrists. As I spoke to him vermin hopped over from him to my bare arm.

At first the boy was too choked up to speak. Later, over pop we bought at the police headquarters cooler, he was able to tell me something about himself.

He lived on one of the most notorious streets in Montreal - a street internationally known for its houses of prostitution. Families were jammed into small houses and there was a great deal of drinking. There were six in his family and he slept in the kitchen with two others. Six months earlier his family took in a 40-year-old boarder. The boy became involved in a homosexual incident with the man. The father was not employed steadily and there never was enough food in the house.

“I don’t like it at home and I don’t like it at school,” the boy told me. At 14 he was only in Grade 4.

In Toronto I spoke to a 20-year-old who’d been to prison five times. In a noisy downtown tavern he groped for an explanation to his criminal career. As far back as he could remember, he told me, he’d hated his home where his father continually carped at his mother. To escape the gloominess of his home he joined a neighborhood gang and when his family moved out of town he refused to move with them. He was 15. He got a job but he wasn’t equipped for it. He found it easier to steal as other gang members did. Early one morning he started to yank a radio out of an unlocked car, pausing to eat a strawberry shortcake which he found on the back seat. A police cruiser caught him in the act. He fled and the police fired at his legs. They caught him at a lighted intersection.

In Regina I was fold of an “incorrigible” 15-year-old. In the eyes of others he was an ungrateful boy who ran away from school and later from a good job. But a social worker interested in the case told me the rest of t he story the part the public seldom gets to hear.

His father was a drunkard, unfaithful to his wife. She left him and moved to Regina, taking the boy with her. Another man came to live with them. One day he was shocked to discover that the new man wasn’t legally married to his mother. At school he imagined the others knew the shameful secret. “I went as long as I could stand it; then I ran away,” he said.

He got a job, stuck to it for a week, then fled again. His employer was puzzled. “He was getting along fine,” he said. What he didn’t know was that the boy again felt incapable of facing the public. He felt guilty about his mother’s immorality and was convinced he’d turn out “bad” like his father—unable to hold any job.

In Calgary I was told of a 14-year-old persistent offender who stole and ran away from home. The running away started when he was eight the year his parents split up. He has spent the last five years living alternately with his mother, who is a prostitute, and his father whom he seldom sees. In the rare moments that he’s able to talk about these things the boy says: “I wish Mom and Dad would make up so we could all be together again.”

In a small southern Ontario town I met two more products of a wrecked home: a brother and sister. Their father was a $10,000-a-year executive who lived in the best section of town. What then would lead his boy to threaten someone with a knife? What would lead his daughter into disreputable dives with known delinquents? Not so well publicized was the fact that both parents had been chronic drinkers for years and often stayed drunk at home for three or four days, leaving their offspring to fend for themselves.

These are typical cases of juvenile delinquency I encountered in my trip across Canada. As I sat talking to teen-age boys and girls in trouble, in pool halls, alleyways, corner lots and restaurant hangouts, the words of James Plant, a youth worker, came back to me time and again.

Juvenile delinquency is a thing that happens to an individual — not a thing he does. The juvenile delinquent is a person striking back at society's failure to give him what he wants out of life. He’s the sensitive member of the community trying to tell us what's wrong.

Multiply the misery and emotional loneliness of a single juvenile delinquent by five, by 10, or by 20 and you have the makings of an antisocial juvenile gang.

Every large centre has been disturbed by juvenile gangs since the war’s end. Toronto has had its Beanery Boys, Junction Gang and others who beat up streetcar conductors and rookie policemen. For a time Montreal gangs engaged YMCA members in pitched battles. Winnipeg had its Dew Droppers who broke up dances with knuckle-dusters and knives. In Vancouver gang activities became so flagrant that a special mayor’s committee was organized to meet the situation.

How are gangs organized? How are they run? Why can’t they quietly fit into communal life? Perhaps these questions can be answered best by describing one gang I contacted in Toronto.

The members range in age from 14 to 20. They all come from the same neighborhood and their code is simple: you stick together. Whenever a buddy is in trouble you go to his rescue no matter what the odds. They are mostly unwanted, unloved children seeking revenge on a world which has neglected them and made them feel inferior. Of 40 boys in this gang half came from homes where death, desertion or disagreement had taken away one or both parents; the majority of the others came from homes where parents rejected them.

Bad neighborhood conditions contributed their evil influences. Some inexperienced youngsters who live in sections where there is nothing to do and where there are already groups of kids with delinquent records are apt to “run with the gang” and get into trouble.

Lon, for example had a weak unstable father who withdrew from life and became a chronic invalid, leaving his wife to support the family. The father, frustrated by failure, always belittled the boy. Lon grew up resentful and shy. He couldn’t mix with kids at the “Y” or Sunday school. It was different with the gang on the corner.

Cappy’s parents were divorced when he was 3. As long as he could remember he was farmed out to friends and relatives, some of them pretty cruel. At 15 he can’t remember his father and hardly ever sees his mother who works. His entire social life is spent with the gang.

Most of the boys have not got beyond public school. Half were having trouble in getting or holding jobs. Spoiled by early emotional experiences, they bristle against authority and regulation. Why didn’t they spend their time at the neighborhood “Y”? “Too supervised, too fussy. Mostly for high-school kids.”

The girls who hang around with the gang are driven by similar needs —to feel wanted, to feel important. They have a desperate need for attention. Two of them stole clothes in a department store for two of the boys. Another shoplifted to enable her boy friend to eat. One of the boys was caught with stolen goods and informed on the girl who stole them. “The hell with the dame,” he said. “She got herself into it; it’s her own funeral.” Girls who went to these extreme limits to win male favor generally wound up despised and exploited.

What kind of homes do these girls come from?

Kay is an attractive 17-year-old whose mother and father are separated. Her mother, the only person who might counsel her, is drunk most of the time.

Jean, oldest of five children, lives in an uncomfortable bare house with draughty doors and windows. Her father can’t keep a job; her mother is incompetent. She has to hear much of the responsibility at home.

I found this gang pattern repeated with variations in other communities. In Winnipeg the now defunct Dew Drop gang started in a temporary housing project. The overcrowded huts had no bathing facilities and teen-agers had no privacy. They spent their time on the streets. Typical of their leaders was a 17-year-old boy whose parents worked and who spent all his time in a pool hall.

In Regina not long ago a gang of eight, boys from North Annex became involved in a window-smashing episode. North Annex lies in a no man’s land between the boundaries of Regina and the wealthy rural municipality of Sherwood. Typical of the overcrowded living conditions is a five-room bungalow which houses three families. The basement—a crude dug-out—is occupied by a mother, father and five children who use an outdoor toilet and haul water from a well.

One of the youngsters complained, “We have nowhere to play, nothing to do, nowhere to go.” A drive-in theatre and two pool halls are the only public recreation facilities. There are no playgrounds and no supervision, no local police. The RCMP, who come running if anything serious develops, say North Annex is a “sore spot.”

The Regina Welfare Bureau, serving a city of about 70,000, has a total case load of 428. Of these, 40 are to be found among the 225 families in North Annex.

Many teen-agers I met resent the popular theory that a number of boys going around together constitutes a gang and as such they can be up to no good. A member of one Vancouver group which police have been watching for some time told me: “The cops are dead wrong. We’re not a gang. We’re just a hunch of friends. After a dance we get together for coffee and the cop thinks it’s a mob. A guy that hasn’t got friends isn’t human!”

But he admitted that his friends usually behaved well as individuals hut sometimes not so well when they got together. “Maybe one guy will rip a hoard out of a fence; so another guy heaves a bottle through a window. Each guy tries to be a bigger shot than the rest. Pretty soon all hell breaks loose and we’re in trouble.”

In Vancouver 17-year-old Tony told me he and his friends spend a lot of time with women. “The idea is to ‘score’ with every dame that’s not too bad - looking,” he said. “Why else bother taking out dames?”

Tony and his friends give a new girl “the big con.” He explains the technique: “You tell them that you love them, that you’re going to get a job. marry them and buy a house and a television set. Most of them fall for that line. It’s amazing what some of these dames believe! They don t know nuthin’! If they get into trouble I guess it’s their own fault.”

Flaring newspaper headlines about teen-age delinquency has had its effect on the youngsters themselves. One group of eight- to 12-year-olds in Vancouver gloried in stories about teen-age thefts. “Imagine,” one boy said admiringly, “six guys took 50 cars.” Newspaper clippings are often regarded as a badge of honor. In Regina youngsters in the industrial school proudly save write-ups describing their escapades. Most youths are cynical about the role of the Press in this matter. A member of Toronto’s Beanery Gang summed it up this way:

“The papers carry stories about, us to sell copies, not to help us. Most of the kids glory in it—they like being Public Enemy No. 1. But the result was they made us out to be big-time criminals as far as the public was concerned. And that led to a lot of serious trouble that could have been avoided.”

It was a Toronto reporter who primed two members of this gang with beer to get a story. Both boys became drunk and stole a car. They were caught and sentenced to a year in reformatory.

Something Better than Jail

What can we do to prevent juvenile delinquency? How can we reclaim youngsters who have already run afoul of the law?

Here are the suggestions of men and women trained in youth work whom I interviewed all across the country:

1. Work toward the abolition of poverty. Not every child born poor will become a delinquent, but poverty is a factor in at least 80% of the homes delinquent youths come from. Crowded sub-standard ho.using, unemployment and illness are disasters which often make it impossible for adults to be good parents.

2. Stop believing that punishment is the answer to delinquency. Meeting crime with vengeance doesn’t reform the criminal; it only makes him worse. A Toronto youth who had been lashed three times in prison told me, “All it did was to make me more careful. They won’t catch me the next time. I see red every time I spot a cop. You can’t beat stuff into anybody.”

Most delinquents, because of childhood beatings, consider themselves outside society. Their greatest need is intelligent and sympathetic guidance to make them feel they belong to the community. For those who have faith in the whipping post it would be well to examine results of a study made in Delaware. During the past 45 years, of 16,000 lawbreakers lashed once, 62% repeated their crime; of those who were lashed twice. 65% repeated their crime.

I do not mean to suggest we should abolish our present police and prison machinery. Until adequate preventive and reformative services are available society has to be protected. A community cannot stand idly by and watch innocent citizens gashed by spring knives and valuable property wantonly destroyed. In Winnipeg, for example, stiff jail sentences broke up the Dew Drop gang. But we must press for something better: punishment is only a temporary expedient; it is not a permanent cure.

3. We need a complete and modern system of corrections. The delinquent should be treated as a sick person, his condition diagnosed and treated. This means juvenile courts for every province, raising the juvenile age from 16 or 18 to 21 and providing adequate psychiatric and probationary services. If the delinquent must be sent to an institution then he should be classified according to his personality and offense. His time should he spent on a program whose only purpose is rehabilitation. After discharge there should be an “after-care service.” Such a program must be administered entirely by trained people.

4. More recreational services—with trained leadership. Let’s have more skating rinks, gymnasiums and community centres. But let’s staff them with people trained in working with groups. Untrained leadership will not give help to youngsters who need it most.

Winnipeg has a remarkable development in a network of 43 community clubs. But they have failed to involve sections of the North End youth who need more recreational outlets. As one boy put it, “They’ve got nothing we want.” The trained social group worker can study the youngsters in an area and skilfully involve them in a program of their own liking.

In a single year a trained social worker helped to change the character of the roughest gang in Toronto. Social group work techniques are being used in settlement houses of Vancouver. Teenagers using these agencies not only ave fun and exercise, they also find themselves in an atmosphere where they can discuss freely the things bothering them.

5. More individual services for youths and their families. Everywhere I went in Canada I found an appalling shortage of mental health services. In Brandon, Man., a single psychiatrist was serving an area 60 miles closest to the Saskatchewan border, 60 miles south to the U. S. border and as far north as Flin Flon. Ontario is probably better supplied with social services than most provinces yet Kirkland Lake (pop. 19,000) has no local psychiatric or psychological services. Peterborough (pop. 30,000) has no facilities for mental health although the need is recognized as great. At Timmins (pop. 30,000) I learned that, “We are served by a traveling clinic— but it hasn’t been here for more than a year.”

The Proper Kind of Help

Perhaps our mental health clinics wouldn’t be so busy if we did more preventive work in mental hygiene. We should strengthen our family and child services by adding more trained workers. School-age children should always have a place to bike their problems—about family, sex, religion or getting a job.

Naturally, social services cost money, But for every dollar spent on the prevention of mental illness and delinquency now, thousands of dollars will be saved in years to come.

And let’s not forget the human element involved. There’s a shy lad in Montreal living in mortal fear of his invalid father. There’s a 17-year-old girl in Winnipeg who spends most of her evenings away from home because both parents drink. There’s a defiant 16-year-old boy in Vancouver whose overworked widowed mother is at the end of her strength and hope.

These youngsters—and thousands like them across the country—are in trouble. They need help, the proper kind of help. If they don’t get it they will be lost to society for the rest of their lives.

This concludes Sydney Katz' three-part report on teen-age Canada. The first part appeared in Maclean's Dec. 15, the second in the Jan. 1 issue. ★