The kids’ crime that no one really understands

Not even the delinquents who do it can say why they break up other People’s houses, their own schools and private businesses. Yet senseless destruction of property now costs a million dollars a year in just one city

JACK BATTEN September 22 1962

The kids’ crime that no one really understands

Not even the delinquents who do it can say why they break up other People’s houses, their own schools and private businesses. Yet senseless destruction of property now costs a million dollars a year in just one city

JACK BATTEN September 22 1962

The kids’ crime that no one really understands


Not even the delinquents who do it can say why they break up other People’s houses, their own schools and private businesses. Yet senseless destruction of property now costs a million dollars a year in just one city


WHEN THE MANAGER of the Harold Spence Printing Company in downtown Toronto arrived at work one morning last April, he hardly recognized the place. “It looked like it had been through the blitz.” he recalls. The walls and floors were splashed with thick red, yellow and blue printer’s ink. broken furniture was strewn across the office, delicate photographic equipment had been cruelly smashed, and even the heavy printing presses had been badly damaged. It took two days before the plant could be restored to something like working order and when all the damage was added up. it totaled over two thousand dollars.

It wasn't a blitz that had wrecked the Spence offices that morning — it was a fifteenyear-old boy on a spree. Police suspected, probably correctly, that more boys were involved but arrested only one — his clothes were still covered with ink—and charged him with malicious damage. In juvenile court the boy explained that he had gone into the building with the vague notion of stealing a lens for his camera. But when the judge asked why he had splashed ink and destroyed equipment, he only shrugged his shoulders.


There was nothing unique about the case to the police or the juvenile court judge. To them — and to police and judges across the country —juvenile vandalism has become an alarmingly familiar problem. While it isn't the most common juvenile crime (Toronto police laid 551 charges of malicious damage last year compared to 2,178 charges of minor theft, although vandalism did lead both juvenile car theft and burglary), it runs up a larger bill for damages than all other juvenile crime. But what most concerns officials is the senseless element in these crimes without reason. For the helpless shrug of the kid who w'recked the printing plant w-as perhaps the most typical thing about his escapade.

In one day last spring. Easter Sunday. Toronto police arrested a total of fourteen young boys on charges of malicious damage and

arson. They nabbed five of the boys, all under thirteen, in an auto body shop in suburban Scarborough where they had done $300 w'orth of damage to the shop's equipment. Three other boys, eleven, twelve, and fifteen, used BB guns to smash the windows in a row of parked cars before police caught them. In the most expensive incident, five boys, twelve to fifteen years old, tossed firecrackers under the shipping platform of a feather and down company in downtown Toronto. Police arrested the five when they arrived to investigate a fire ignited by one of the crackers. After firemen put the flames out, they estimated total damage at $5,000.

Every Canadian city can report its share of these seemingly meaningless crimes. In Vancouver last May, two young teen-agers used a couple of hammers to do $350 worth of destruction to a hardware store. In the same month a sixteen-year-old Oshawa, Ontario, girl broke into her school and as she later admitted in court, “wrecked the joint." In July, three Ottawa boys, nine, eleven and twelve, entered a Simpsons-Sears store at night, threw ink, smashed glassware, and dumped display counters — the damage, according to the store manager, came close to a thousand dollars. And in August three youths, eighteen and nineteen. behaving like violent juveniles, marched through Rondeau Park in Chatham. Ont., when it was crowded with campers. The trio overturned picnic tables, smashed stoves, upset tents and assaulted a fourteen-year-old boy.

The outrage of the campers (police said if they hadn't arrived promptly on the scene “there might have been a lynching”) was an extreme example of the way most victims react to wanton and pointless vandalism. But it is

much easier to count the cost than to say what leads youths to such acts of violence against other people’s property.

While no one authority totals vandalism damages for Metropolitan Toronto, my own estimate based on figures from several sources is that the figure may run to a million dollars a year. Damage to parks in Toronto proper, most of it by juveniles, ran close to $8,400 in 1961, and in adjoining Scarborough the parks commission spent $5,200 repairing damages. But hardest hit of all were the schools.


“In Metro there is damage to schools annually to the tune of $250,000,” reported Toronto Board of Education Trustee Saul Cowan last June. “That's about the cost of a ten-room school we're losing every twelve months.” In Vancouver the figure is $35.000 a year, and in Montreal the situation became so desperate that the school commission installed miniature radar sets in some classrooms to detect vandals in action after the close of school.

And yet in almost every case that comes to court, neither police, social workers nor magistrates can get much out of the young vandals themselves except more hopeless shrugs — to which the kids frequently add, “We just did it for kicks.”

Most people assume that the typical juvenile vandal is an underprivileged child from an urban slum area. Newspaper accounts sometimes bear out this image — the addresses of the boys arrested in Toronto’s outburst of vandalism last Easter pointed chiefly to lowerand lower-middle-class backgrounds. Except

for the five from


continued front page 24

“The middle-class suburban home is worse than useless as a place for teen-agers to live”

Scarborough, all lived in older and poorer sections of the city. But vandalism isn't exclusively a lower-class problem.

Last June several residents of Forest FT i 11 Village, a wealthy Toronto district, woke one morning to find their cars badly mutilated. Windows were smashed, aerials broken, chrome scratched. Victims at first assumed the culprits were from outside the Village — but police later arrested three youths who lived in the same upper-class neighborhood as did their victims.

I he boys appeared in court early in August, surrounded by expensive counsel, and pleaded guilty to eight counts of malicious damage. They had used a hatchet on their neighbors’ cars anti they were sorry. Their lawyers addiesscd the court, the magistrate spoke briefly before passing sentence -it was suspended but no one explained why the boys had gone on the hatchet spree.

Many juvenile workers now believe that the next wave of delinquency is going to come from middle-class children. They regard the suburbs as a time bomb just beginning to explode. Ottawa’s Youth Services Bureau reports that the relatively new Alta Vista section is becoming one of its problem areas. A Toronto juvenile court probation officer says that "the spots where we have the most trouble seem to be shifting outside the city" and thinks part of the reason is that in too many families both parents work to finance the new suburban home.

Victims of boredom and impulse

Recently Professor John S. Coleman, chairman of the department of social relations at Johns Hopkins University. completed a study of adoleseents in ten American schools and the communities where the adolescents lived. He drew this conclusion:

" Í he middle-class suburban home is worse than useless as a place for teen-agers to live. The teen-agers exploit the home but receive little psychological support from it. They flout its discipline but are bound to it by a kind of indentured servitude. Their parents have little need for them and little to offer them."

But whether the vandals are rich or poor, the puzzle of motivation still remains. Why do they do it? Recently I have put the question to a number of people wTiose business it is to look for the answer: juvenile court officials, psychiatrists, schoolteachers, social workers, juvenile probation officers and sociologists. Their answers didn't always agree and some took sharp issue with the theories of others. They did agree that vandalism demonstrates. often with a deeper meaning than more serious forms of iuvenile delinquency, a failure at some level of society to meet the basic needs of our children.

"Every broken window," said one

psychiatrist, “stands for someone’s mistake with a child.” But where the mistake is made and how and why it finally erupts in a shower of broken glass isn't always so clear, even to the experts.

Plain boredom lies behind most juvenile vandalism, says Inspector Ralph Boot of the Metropolitan Toronto Youth Bureau. “These kids have nothing else to do. so they work off their steam by busting things.” Some settlement house workers, like

Norman Millington of Woodgreen Community Centre in Toronto, agree that this is an important factor: “Thousands of young people now spend most of their time hanging aimlessly around restaurants, without attachment to community organizations. drifting into vandalism and other crimes.” Millington says the first answer to vandalism, in fact to all juvenile crime, is to provide more community centres, like Woodgreen.

But kids with all the advantages

can apparently become victims of boredom and impulse. Four years ago Saskatoon homeowners were shocked when eleven homes were entered and wrecked in a single week. China was smashed, upholstery slashed open, pictures riddled with BB shot, eggs hurled at. and then deliberately smeared over walls, for greater effect. These were all uppermiddle-class homes and. as it turned out when the owners of one house returned to catch them in the act. the

vandals were upper-middle-class kids — one just thirteen, the other two fourteen. All three seemed to have good scholastic records and aboveaverage advantages — plenty of recreational outlets, adequate allowances, and loving parents who subjected them to reasonable discipline and saw that thev were home every night by 9.30.

Why then did they cut loose on their senseless binge of destruction? In court the boys claimed they didn't really knowwhy they did it. They said they had just been sitting around in one lad’s recreation room after supper listening to records and decided to do something for kicks. They picked houses at random, knocked and if there was no answer tried the door. If it was unlocked they simply walked in and had a whale of a time throwing flour around living rooms and smearing eggs on walls. All three said they wished they’d been caught the first time but felt chicken if they didn't do it again, even though it was no fun the second time. So they just kept on going until finally they were caught. One of the fourteen-yearolds. who caused damage totaling a thousand dollars between six-thirty and eight-thirty, rushed home to watch the evening TV news and exclaim in alarm to his horrified mother. “Gee — those vandals are striking close to home.”

Parents: the underlying cause

Public feeling ran high in Saskatoon over the youngsters' depredations. but juvenile probation officer I. R. Jones refused to be shocked by the incident and fought tenaciously for the youngsters. He told the court there was an important distinction between a delinquent act and a delinquent boy. He said ninety-eight percent of normal children commit delinquent acts which, if they were caught, would land them in court and brand them as delinquents. He described the current scries of delinquent acts as a mischievous prank, totally unpremeditated and completed within a week. He insisted that none of the offenders were delinquent boys, whom he described as being continuously unhappy and in trouble at home and in school.

Jones’ view of the case impressed the court which put the three youngsters on a year's probation, with private punishment promised by the parents, who also offered to make good the damages done. And although many Saskatoon citizens were irate at Jones and unhappy at the court's leniency, the probation officer has subsequently been proven right. After three years none of the boys have been in further trouble, and although ostracized by their pals for a while are now fully accepted again by the community and are doing well in school.

Jones says that acts of juvenile vandalism will always arise from sheer youthful high spirits. But he feels that good schools, recreation programs and lack of family pressure for achievement beyond ability can help curb the impulse to destroy property. The underlying cause of all juvenile delinquency, he thinks, is an unsatisfactory relationship between the child and his parent. The child

must feel he belongs and is secure in the love of his parents. The home may be rich or poor and it may even be a broken home, yet the child won't suffer if he knows he is wanted by at least one parent.

Other authorities claim that destructive juvenile acts are deeply rooted in anger and resentment. ‘The world is filled with angry children." says Dr. John Rich, a psychiatrist at the University of Toronto and formerly a member of the staff at Boys Village, a centre for emotionally disturbed boys in Toronto.

In some cases their anger is easy to trace. One of Dr. Rich's young patients, an eleven-year-old hoy with an alcoholic father, wanted a bicycle for his birthday. His mother got him a second-hand bike with her own money, but his father sold it to buy liquor. The hoy broke into a neighbor's house, not to steal money for a new bike, but to break dishes and smash furniture.

Much more often a child's anger is directed, more vaguely, against authority. "Society, more and more, makes less and less sense to children." Dr. John Seeley, professor in sociology at Toronto's new York University. has said. "We confuse them further by a cult of politeness and psychological doubletalk that starts in the kindergarten and goes on through the top reaches of the executive suite. They get lost in a sea of vagueness and later they lash out. not against the teacher, but against society."

The same society encourages children to act out their confusion in a destructive way. The argument that cowboy and gangster programs on television color a child's actions has heen stated so often that parents tend to dismiss it. Officials at Toronto's Juvenile Court don't.

"Television comics, even newspaper stories, create an atmosphere of violence." a juvenile probation officer

says. This makes it easier for a mixed-up boy to take out his feelings in the same violent way he sees the rest of the world performing."

Professor William C. Kvaraceus. of Boston University, has added. "Adult instruments of force and injury are reflected in the playthings that the adolescent's parents put in his hands during his formative early years — toy six-shooters, space missiles. bomb-laden aircraft, tommyguns and bazookas. Day in and day

out. the cultural imprint is placed on force, violence and destruction.” Serious vandalism, oddly enough, is rarely a habitual crime, or even a repeated one. according to Douglas Quirk, clinical psychologist at the Ontario Mental Hospital. Queen St.. Toronto. Quirk says that in most cases vandalism is an isolated event in a box's life, an impulsive release of his resentment at authority. He doesn't know why he did it — a shrug of the shoulders is probably an appropriate

response — but the odds are that he won't do it again.

It is the impulsive quality, says Quirk, that separates most vandalism from other acts of juvenile delinquency. T he boy who breaks a school window is not the boy who holds up a candy store — or. at any rate, the conditions that produce the one act won't normally produce the other. Most serious juvenile crime is based on strong, assertive egocentric motives —the delinquent is emphasizing his

ego at all costs. But vandalism is unpremeditated, and the boy’s own personality is usually entirely submerged.

There may he a second important difference — young stick-up artists usually work alone or in pairs; vandals, almost always, work in gangs. Last Easter's one-day juvenile crime wave in Toronto fits this theory: the fourteen hoys charged with malicious damage were arrested in four groups, the ten hoys charged with other offenses were arrested in six.

Dr. Fritz Redl, an American psychiatrist, describes the gang phenomenon, which isn’t confined to juveniles, as “group psychological intoxication.” A Toronto social worker describes it less elegantly: “When you get a hunch of disturbed kids in a group, they seem to go nuts.” The best place to observe the process in action, she reports, is in a car. “Sometimes I'm terrified to carry more than a couple of really badly off kids in my car at one time. Any more than two and they seem to whip themselves into a state of frenzy.”

What unites the gang is common opposition to authority. They have all suffered knocks from the adult world, a teacher’s reprimand or a cop’s night stick. The gang gives them enough courage, or at least encouragement, to strike hack. Often, it takes only one angry boy to detonate a gang explosion.

The most frequent group attacks arc launched against schools and in the large majority of cases (ovei eighty percent in Toronto, according to the Police Youth Bureau’s figures), against the group’s own school. But psychiatrists reject the idea that the attack is deliberately directed against the school itself. More often, they say, the school stands for all the authority that has frustrated a child; an attack on a school is more symbolic than deliberate. It just happens that the school is in a more vulnerable position than other emblems of authority.

It may still be possible for schools to protect themselves from their students. Inspector Boot thinks the responsibility for continued vandalism in a school should be placed squarely on the shoulders of principal and staff. “In schools where the teachers work to develop a real esprit de corps,” says Boot, “you’ll never find any vandalism. Students can be taught to care about their school and when they do care they won't damage it.”

Ál least one Toronto school principal has made Boot’s idea work. His school is in a lower-middle-class district. and in the year before he arrived morale among students was low and the breakage rate was high. The new principal introduced a new and tougher regime. Then he inaugurated a system of student government that gave the children some responsibility for school activities. The pupils began to act as if they were proud of the place. In the last three months of the school year, not one window was broken.

Juvenile workers aren't hopeful that the problem can he solved as easily everywhere. In fact, they regard a certain amount of vandalism as inevitable. and a London psychiatrist. Dr. W. H. Allchin, writing in a recent issue of the English magazine. Twentieth Century, even manages to make vandalism a hopeful sign. Behavior

like stealing or destruction, he suggests, at least means the child is still actively engaged with his environment and is trying to find a solution to his problem.

Some juvenile courts believe they get good results by imposing financial responsibility for vandalism on the vandals themselves. C. A. Lane, supervisor of juvenile probation in Toronto, is a firm advocate of this system and can list cases where it has worked. “If we can give a boy a sense of responsibility for his own actions early enough in his life,” Mr. Lane says, “we won't likely see him back in this court.” Whether or not it would have the same effect on the vandals, Toronto Board of Education Trustee Saul Cowan wants to make parents liable for the damage their children cause to schools. It's the only way he can see to cut down the board's whopping annual vandalism bill.

"If the law makes parents responsible for their youngsters' acts,” he argues, “they might take more care and sec the children aren't up to mischief.”

But financial responsibility isn't going to cure the most disturbed children among juvenile offenders. In their case, vandalism is as serious a warning of deep mental distress as any other act of delinquency and indicates a need for intensive medical treatment. And this brings the vandalism problem full circle, back to the society that creates the problem. Psychiatrists in every city in Canada emphasize the frightening lack of facilities in our country, facilities to keep kids out of trouble and facilities for the enlightened treatment of juvenile offenders. They place the issue squarely up to the public — either provide the money for new facilities for prevention, study and treatment or continue to pay the price in property and lives for increased juvenile vandalism. ★