The Most Heartbreaking Job in Canada

Sex delinquents in bobby socks, heavy drinkers in their teens, unloved castoffs from broken homes end up at the Training School at Galt, Out. Seven in ten emerge as normal young women—thanks to Isabel Macneill, who has made a success of what most people would call

JUNE CALLWOOD December 1 1953

The Most Heartbreaking Job in Canada

Sex delinquents in bobby socks, heavy drinkers in their teens, unloved castoffs from broken homes end up at the Training School at Galt, Out. Seven in ten emerge as normal young women—thanks to Isabel Macneill, who has made a success of what most people would call

JUNE CALLWOOD December 1 1953

The Most Heartbreaking Job in Canada

Sex delinquents in bobby socks, heavy drinkers in their teens, unloved castoffs from broken homes end up at the Training School at Galt, Out. Seven in ten emerge as normal young women—thanks to Isabel Macneill, who has made a success of what most people would call


FIVE and a half years ago, a crisp erect woman named Isabel J. Macneill found herself faced with what most people would consider the most heartbreaking job in Canada. With no previous training for the task she was placed in charge of Canada’s largest school for juvenile girl delinquents, the Ontario Training School at Galt. Her job, which seemed almost impossible, was to return to normal society the byproducts of human cruelty and depravity—hundreds of teenage and under-teen-age girls who had been starved, beaten and raped, but seldom loved. Every year Miss Macneill receives about one hundred of these hard-eyed heartbroken children between the ages of nine and fifteen. It is her job to help them understand themselves and thus find their self-respect.

Miss Macneill was appointed precipitously when a Canadian writer, Gwenyth Barrington, visited the school at its wartime location in Cobourg and reported that the children were flogged, locked in basement cupboards for such offenses as laughing or scraping their chairs, and were fed on bread and water for days at a time. The Ontario Department of Reform Institutions denied all the charges but there were some ugly stories the newspapers began to recall: a mass breakout had once

been controlled only after a night supervisor had been slugged; a seventeen-yearold escapee had drunk iodine in a suicide attempt to avoid being returned. The superintendent resigned and the department selected Miss Macneill.

Her background included neither social work nor penology. During the war she had commanded all the Wren training in Canada at Galt, in the same buildings where the school now is (the school had been loaned to the navy). Sometimes she explains her appointment with a terse, “They hired me because I kept their buildings clean.”

Among her qualifications were her intelligence, her administrative ability and her air of authority. She moves, with no waste of motion, like a woman accustomed to command.

“Don’t turn your back on these girls,” she was warned when she arrived to take over at Cobourg. “They’re vicious!” She had expected to find eighteen-year-olds, and the tender ages of her charges shocked her. She had planned to give the job a year’s trial; she knew, looking at the small bitter faces, that she would be there much longer.

For woven into the case histories of the children in the Galt school are tales of such horror and depravity that many Canadians will scarcely give them credence. Three out of every four girls are sex delinquents and dozens have been the victims of incest. One eleven-year-old child in Miss Macneill’s care was earning forty to fifty dollars a day on Toronto’s Jarvis Street as a prostitute. Another arrived boasting that she had relations with fourteen boys in one night.

Miss Macneill quickly recovered from her initial shock and began to attack her job with unflagging vigor and dispatch. She bought the latest books on experiments in the science of penology, and studied the theory of counseling a delinquent rather than merely containing her for the length of her sentence. Juvenile delinquents, she learned, never happen overnight. In every case she found a pattern of rebellious

behavior beginning with a seven or eightyear-old who lied, stole trifles and stayed away from school.

She found that the common denominator in all juvenile delinquency, without a single exception, was an unsatisfactory home—a home where there was divorce, separation, illegitimacy, prostitution, alcoholism, drug addiction, incest, unwanted children or, occasionally, overprotection so that the child never felt the consequence of her misdeeds. Delinquency, she discovered, is a word for the natural rebellion of a child against an unpleasant situation. Forcing table manners and good deportment on such children in an institution would only make them more efficient delinquents, better able to fool authorities; the child would have to recognize her problem and learn to live with it if she could ever expect to be a well-adjusted adult.

Under her command the school rapidly lost the heavy screens that had been placed over the windows. Corporal punishment was banished entirely—no one on the staff is permitted to touch a girl—and psychologists, case workers, a psychiatrist, sympathetic house supervisors and teachers were hired as the budget permitted. The cost of the rehabilitation program— four dollars and fifty cents a day per child —is the highest, of any reform institution in Ontario, but Miss Macneill has made her school one of the world’s most progressive penal institutions.

Her salvage record is impressive: almost seventy percent of her girls eventually rejoin the community as happy and welladjusted women.

A delinquent girl may be committed to the school by the juvenile court any time before her sixteenth birthday. Though the school has had a child as young as eight, the majority of new girls are fifteen. A few girls are admitted each year at the request of some agency such as the Children’s Aid Societies or the Big Sister Association. Girls are sent to the Training School only after every other treatment has failed: foster homes, beatings by their parents, warnings by schoolteachers, probations, terms in homes for pre-delinquent girls and counseling. They are committed to Galt not because they are a menace to the community as boy delinquents are but because they are a menace to themselves.

The girls are wards of the Department of Reform Institutions until they are eighteen. Most of them stay in the school eleven months, or until the staff feels the child is ready for a placement. Some go back to their homes with a new understanding; some hire out as domestics or student-helpers; some go into approved boarding homes and take jobs as factory workers, sales clerks, hairdressers or waitresses. Any violation until they are eighteen—such as a sex offense, drinking or failure to report a change of job—means that the girl is returned to the school.

The two-million-dollar Training School is housed in five neat red-brick buildings grouped with a tidy hand around a concrete square. The view is peacefully pastoral. Nowhere on the seventy-two acres of lawns and fields is there a fence or a wall. The only hint that these buildings are among the thirteen establishments under the control of the Department of Reform Institutions is the ornamental iron grilles, painted green, on the lower half of every upstairs Continued on page 90

Continued on page 90


window. These are intended as safety precautions to prevent children falling out of the windows; girls who wish to escape at night get out through the top half of the windows, lowering themselves to the ground by means of sheets knotted to the ornamental grille.

Fewer than twenty-five percent of the girls try to escape, but some of them run off as many as fifteen times. All but a few are returned within a week because the staff know the girls well enough to be able to figure out where they will head for.

One of the five buildings contains the administration offices, the schoolrooms, an auditorium and the domestic-science room; another is the infirmary which is generally deserted except during the annual epidemic of flu. A dentist and doctor from Galt attend the children and the school has two resident nurses. Each new child is given a thorough medical on arrival, including tests for venereal disease: the school once had a nine-year-old with a raging case of gonorrhea.

The other three buildings are the residences, one of them double-size and joined by an annex containing the dining room and kitchen, with the detention cells upstairs. The six cells are for seriously disturbed girls who fight with the other children, break furniture, refuse to go to classes or have been returned to the school after running away. The girls are kept in the cells from two to six weeks, depending on their conduct, during which time they attend classes if they are calm enough, and receive their normal meals. At night they are locked in their rooms, with a covered pail for a toilet. The house mother checks the rooms every hour.

Miss Maeneill intended at first that the detention cells would resemble the bedrooms in the residences—single or double rooms with pink or blue walls, flowered curtains and pretty spreads on the bunk beds, with the only addition some light mesh screening covering the window. This turned out to be impractical because .among the cells’ earliest occupants were six psychopaths, girls with what psychologists call “inadequate personalities,” who can’t learn from experience. The six girls, none older than fifteen, ripped radiators out of the floors with their bare hands, smashed solid marble partitions in the bathroom, and tried to set fire to the ! building with smuggled matches. Since I then the cells have more of a prison i atmosphere with heavy mesh screens ! protecting the windows and radiators, i Sheets, spreads and curtains have disappeared because of the danger that some mentally sick girl might use them to strangle herself.

The bedrooms in the residences, locked in the day to prevent thieving, are pathetic reflections of their mixedup occupants — sophisticated youngsters who long at the same time for the childhood they never had and for ! womanhood which they trust to solve their present miseries.

The first Christmas Miss Maeneill was at the school she asked a Rotary Club to supply dolls for her thirty children under thirteen. The older girls, even those seventeen, promptly stole them. Now every child has a doll, which she places in its freshly ironed dress on top of her bed.

The walls are hung with pictures of movie stars, mixed with cherubic soapj advertisement babies and newspaper ! clippings of jockeys, stock-ear drivers

and wrestlers. The girls display all their possessions on top of their varnished dressers: empty perfume bottles, lipstick cases, a length of red satin ribbon, a dime-store brooch, an embroidered handkerchief and a scuffed powder box full of bobby pins—-all mounted on a crocheted lace doily.

They keep their clothes in narrow closets in the bedrooms and have almost as much choice as the average adolescent living at home. Most of them arrived at the school with only the clothes they were wearing. The school spends an average of one hundred and forty-four dollars a year on each girl’s clothing.

Running the school is a job that requires considerable mental agility. One dull morning when Isabel Macneill was walking into the administration building, sunk in gloom because one of the paroled girls wasn’t making out successfully, a tiny twelve-yearold, her eyes wide with terror, popped up beside her.

“Miss Maeneill,” she shrieked. “Do you believe in hell?”

The auburn-haired superintendent stopped and stared. “That’s a very difficult question,” she began.

“Please Miss Maeneill, oh please,” cried the child with tears running down her face. “I have to know. Do you believe in hell?”

The superintendent thought a moment. “You come to my office around eleven,” she said. “I’ll answer you then.”

It wasn’t an answer to be given lightly. The child had been a prostitute and the prospect of eternal damnation might unsettle her reason. Conversely Miss Maeneill could deny no religious teaching since belief in God is the strongest therapy for a sick mind.

“I can’t tell you about a hell after death,” Miss Maeneill later told the child, “but I’m sure of this: By our

mistakes we make our own hell on earth. You have already known that kind of hell. I don’t think you can ever again be as unhappy as you already have been.”

The youngster considered this and then, cheered by the assurance that the worst was behind her, went outside to roller skate.

Girls and Staff Talk it Over

Miss Maeneill is a firm believer in letting the girls meet in the long pleasant living room of her home on the school grounds to iron out mutual problems. A teacher once remarked in class that the purpose of the school was to give the girls the same kind of guidance they should get at home. One of the students contested this and a meeting was called.

The first point the girls brought up was that they weren’t free to wander into Galt for a movie in the evening, as they would be at home.

“But you made that choice yourself,” Miss Maeneill pointed out. “You were all given warnings that if you didn’t change your behavior you’d be sent to the school and all of you decided to continue your old habits anyway.”

One girl observed that the school differed from home because no one beat her.

“We don’t believe hitting you will help you,” Miss Maeneill answered.

There was a long pause. “We aren’t locked in our bedrooms at home,” a child said spiritedly.

“That’s because at home when you’re sent to your room for being bad it’s easy to supervise you and make sure you stay there and think it over,” replied Miss Maeneill. “You aren’t locked in at night here but only in the daytime when you need to be alone to

cool off. The school’s too big to supervise a child who is supposed to stay in her room but if you’d like to try the honor system we’ll try leaving the doors unlocked next time.” (The next child sent to her room for an hour for misbehaving was discovered a few minutes later waltzing down the corridor. The school reluctantly returned to locking the doors and the miscreant had to bear the indignation of the other students.)

The last point brought up at the meeting was, “We don’t get the affection here that we get at home.”

Miss Macneill asked the group, “How many here aren’t getting as much affection as they get at home?” Half the girls in the room raised their hands. “How many are getting more affection here than they get at home?” The other half shot their hands in the air. “We’re not doing too badly,” Miss Macneill said with a grin.

Isabel Macneill sometimes describes her school to strangers as “just like a private boarding school—except that it isn’t as strict as most.” This is true: the girls run and laugh in the halls, straggle from building to building with

no effort at regimentation and dress becomingly in a variety of clothes that bear no institutional stamp.

An average day at the school is a balance between education, work assignments and recreation, as in all boarding schools, with the mighty difference that the Training School has five staff social workers who have appointments with the girls throughout the day in an effort to get at the cause of their social maladjustment. They invite the girls to talk out their problems and some girls can speak of it at once. One child had been raped by her father when she was six years old and she told the social worker of it in a mildly aggrieved tone. Most girls, however, spend several appointments with their social worker (called a counselor) describing their boy friends and then, gradually, as they gain confidence in the young university-educated girl across the desk, they begin to reveal the tragedies in their young lives. One Indian girl placidly told of watching her mother cut her father’s throat.

“What did you do?” asked the counselor, keeping her voice calm.

“I went across the street and had a cup of tea,” said the child. She was then ten years old.

Some girls never confide in their counselors, keeping dozens of appointments and filling them with meaningless chatter. They are usually the best behaved girls in the school, polite and respectful and conscientious about their work assignments. They are also the school’s worst failures.

“We never get at girls like that,” Isabel Macneill explains. “They keep everything to themselves and figure they are putting something over on us. They bide their time until they get out and then hurl themselves with zest into their old activities.” A child with a constant expression of abiding inno-

cence was once the natural choice to play the Virgin in the school’s Nativity play a few years ago; when she left the school she promptly became a prostitute.

The troublemakers in the school, paradoxically, make the best adjustment to normal living. They work out their bitterness and frustrations in cursing the staff, breaking furniture, running away, going on hunger strikes, writing obscenities on the walls (which they are required to wash off later) and throwing screaming, kicking temper tantrums. One child whose constant response to all suggestions was “Go to hell” is now a model wife and mother.

Another child used to smash windows with her fist, until the nurse warned her that she was in danger of crippling her badly slashed right arm. One night she punched out thirty-six panes of glass in staccato succession and sat on the floor holding her bleeding arm and crying, “Why don’t you beat me? Why don’t you!” Later she whispered, “I want to pray, but I don’t know how.” Dorothy Barrass, the assistant superintendent, nursed her through that crisis. Now that girl is a nurse’s aide in an eastern Ontario hospital and the police chief of her town recently told Miss Macneill, “There is one girl you can really be proud of.”

Most girls in the school attend classes most of the day. There are three academic classrooms teaching grades three to ten, and two vocational-guidance classes where the girls learn typing or dressmaking. A beauty shop provides instruction in hairdressing and girls who want to be waitresses can volunteer to be kitchen girls and draw a dollar a month in goods from the tuck shop. Last year only about fifteen percent of the academic students failed their year. The school arranges for some of its high-school students to be driven into Galt to attend classes at the Galt Collegiate Institute.

In spite of Galt’s acceptance of the Training School on its outskirts, the girls who go to the collegiate require considerable courage to face a classroom of contemporaries who stare and giggle. Each year a few Training School girls abandon the effort in tears but last year one girl not only stuck it out but was so popular that she was elected captain of the junior basketball team.

One of last year’s Training School students is attending a collegiate this year in a western Ontario city. Her new teacher asked the routine question of where she had attended school the previous year.

“The Training School at Galt,” she told him honestly. There was a long pause.

“Well,” said the teacher clearly, looking around the crowded classroom. “Then you’re a bad girl.”

“No I’m not,” she said quietly.

“Then why were you sent there?”

“For a lot of reasons, but they don’t matter now.”

The girl wrote Miss Macneill in great glee. “He’s calling me ‘jailbird’ all the time,” her letter read, “but it doesn’t bother me. I know I’ve got my problem licked.”

Miss Macneill always advises her departing charges never to lie about their commitment to the Training School. “If a boy wants to marry you and lie’s wondering about your past, bring him here to me and I’ll talk to him,” she tells them. “If your employer is doubtful, have him phone me, collect. There’s no sense in going around being afraid all the time of being found out. Most people are understanding.”

The school receives dozens of applications from people looking for cheap domestic help and often places girls in approved homes. Wages of thirty dol-

lars a month are not uncommon, but the school holds out for as much as it can get for the girl. The placement is supervised and, although more than half the girls fail to adjust to their new life at the first try, perseverance has often been rewarding.

“Our greatest need is for people who will tolerate a slip or two,” Isabel Macneill tells the applicants. “We can’t expect these youngsters to be perfect at once-bear with them and give them some warmth.”

One family took in a child who had been an alcoholic when she was fifteen. Soon after she arrived she went on a sensational bender and disappeared for three days. They found her, helped her to join Alcoholics Anonymous and now she is back at high school, a brilliant and sober student.

When a girl fails in her first placement she comes back to the school humiliated and despondent and the work of building up her self-respect begins again from bedrock.

The school has a staff psychologist, Mrs. Mary Robinson, who examines new girls to determine their intelligence quotients, which range from an imbecilic thirty-two to a genius one hundred and forty-two.

Fights Dissolve In Laughter

Mrs. Robinson is conducting experiments in group therapy at the school, watching the girls in the classroom and at play to discover their degrees of social adjustment. A few weeks ago she was teaching a class in vocational guidance while a social worker unobtrusively noted each child’s reaction and behavior. “I hear there was quite a disturbance this morning in one of the residences,” she began. “Who was it? Mildred and Dorine? I understand there was quite a fight and everyone else piled in.” The girls laughed and Mildred and Dorine exchanged embarrassed smiles.

“Now, if you girls wouldn’t mind coming to the front, I’d like you to reenact the whole thing for me so we can see what went wrong.” The girls, accustomed to this routine, joyfully portrayed how Mildred asked Dorine to bring her a pail of water to wash the steps without saying please and how Dorine responded with explicit directions as to what Mildred could do with the pail, the water and the stairs. The argument began to seem funny to both of them.

“Let’s suppose you didn’t want to bother having this fight,” suggested Mrs. Robinson. “Let’s see you show us how it could have been avoided.”

Both girls responded enthusiastically. Mildred said “please” three times while requesting the pail of water; Dorine insisted she would be delighted to help; Mildred responded that she was extremely grateful. The class howled with laughter and the social worker in the corner scribbled rapidly on her report.

Later in the week the report was compared with a dozen more from house mothers and teachers at a staff meeting intended to give a whole picture of each child’s behavior. This technique helps to discover as early as possible when a youngster is trying to withdraw into a shell; when this is noted everyone on the staff will make unobtrusive attempts to include the problem child in every activity.

Withdrawal is an urgent problem at the school, a symptom of the mental illness which is a danger in highly disturbed personalities. Five or six girls break down every year and must be sent either to the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital or the Ontario Hospital at St. Thomas. Last October the psychologist checked one particular child every

day—she was insisting that God was talking to her, advising her to steal.

A problem that has the psychologist baffled is the current fad in the school of “carving.” For some months the girls have been absorbed in cutting names on their arms or legs with broken pieces of glass. An Indian girl who carved her boy friend’s name on her leg last fall was equally unable to explain it. “1 dunno why,” she shrugged. “I just felt like it. I’m glad it just had five letters because it sure hurt.” She cut the name deep enough to retain the scars all her life. A few of the girls prefer to have another girl burn the name on their backs with matches. One girl proudly bears the name “Isabel Macneill” in deep scars on her back; she refused an offer by her foster mother to have it removed by plastic surgery.

In the evenings Miss Macneill and her assistant Miss Barrass, who shares her home with her, sometimes change into slacks and visit the girls in the residences, which are still called Drake, Collingwood, Nelson and Beatty, a hangover from the Navy’s occupancy of the buildings. The girls have a choice of activities: movies, folk dancing, Girl Guides, Bible class, sewing instruction, choir practice, arts and crafts. Before bed they sit in the com*mon room of their residence, listening to the radio, watching the fire in the fireplace or doing their homework. Girls over sixteen are given three cigarettes a day, which they smoke under supervision at this time; non-smokers get three candies.

One evening recently when the two women were having a cigarette with a group of sixteen-year-olds in their dressing gowns a younger girl dashed in the common room barefoot to report wildly that two girls were getting ready to “run,” the school’s word for escape.

Miss Barrass and Miss Macneill rounded up the two youngsters who had been struggling to open the top half of their bedroom window. They were fourteen, both pretty and gentle looking. The taller one explained that she had only been helping. Miss Macneill studied her a moment and accepted her story.

“Why were you running, Joan?” she asked the other. No answer.

“If I unlocked the front door and held it open, would you still run?”

“Yes,” the child said in a choked voice.

“You know what could happen if you hitchhiked a ride in a truck. Some of those men don’t pick up girls withoutexpecting payment. You don’t want that kind of trouble, do you dear?”

There was no pause. “I don’t care what happens to me,” the child said distinctly.

“If you can’t tell me about it, would you like to try and write it down. Go out in the corridor with this paper and pencil and see if you can write what’s bothering you.”

After Joan had left the two women waited in an expectant silence. Suddenly there was a crash of breaking glass.

“There she goes!” cried Miss Barrass, leaping to her feet. She rushed out of the library to find the child huddled against the wall crying bitterly. She had thrown a shoe through a window.

“You’ll feel better now,” Miss Barrass said soothingly, putting her arm around the shaking shoulders. “Come on dear, we’ll go for a walk.”

As Miss Macneill left the residence a few minutes later the girls called good night to her from their windows and their young voices echoed on the concrete parade square where the Wrens used to drill.

“Good night mom, I’ll be good tomorrow.”

“Good night dear. You try.” +