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  • Writer's pictureJane

Interview with Gillian Cosgrove, Journalist & Advocate for Rights of Children in Youth Protection

Gillian Cosgrove was so kind to share her thoughts with me today on Montreal & area’s youth protection system. We spoke for almost two hours, but could’ve gone on for several more, as this topic has many facets and is an emotional one for us both.

Youth protection in Quebec is a complicated monster. Created out of care and a sense of responsibility for children, it evolved into something that instead caused pain and suffering for many. In 1974, Gillian Cosgrove had recently started work at The Montreal Gazette when she was assigned to look into reports of violence, self-harm, and abuse at Maison Notre Dame de Laval, a youth detention centre for girls. Her undercover work revealed systemic abuse that had been present in Quebec facilities for many years and remains present. The Montreal Gazette and Gillian Cosgrove received a Governor General’s Michener Award for her work on the topic. [Above: Gillian Cosgrove's article "Anguish in Girls Centre Verified", The Montreal Gazette Jan. 3, 1975]

Recently, women who had been wards at Maison Notre Dame de Laval and/or Marian Hall in the 70s contacted Gillian, and the fight for justice and systemic change was re-kindled. See CBC’s The Fifth Estate “The Forgotten: The Children of Marion Hall Speak” segment below. A class action lawsuit was filed in the name of those who’ve suffered under Quebec's youth protection services

As some of the adult characters in my current book project were themselves wards of the court as children, I wanted to know whether Gillian thought things had changed over the years and whether her exposé for The Montreal Gazette had produced change. It was disappointing to hear that the government had not taken much action and abusive tactics (such as solitary confinement and physical assault) continue.

[Gillian Cosgrove, pictured on right]

It was hard to hear this because Quebec has a long history of abuse in the name of child protection. There have been several scandals over the years that should’ve brought about huge change. From orphans being relabelled as insane asylum patients, abused and experimented on in the 50s (thanks to Premier Duplessis and the Catholic Church); to the sexual, physical, and mental abuse that went on at Weredal House (Boys Home of Montreal) in the 50s and 60s; to girls in the 70s being held in isolation for days in Maison Notre Dame de Laval, often bound to a mattress with handcuffs and rope and let to lie in their urine and feces for hours; to a boy in the late 90s, also in a detention centre, who needed medical help because he’d been put in isolation (with just a bare mattress on the floor) and had become unresponsive – he was found naked in foetal position, sucking his thumb; to the recent death of a seven year old girl in Granby at the hands of her abusive parents, under the eye of youth protection services who knew she was in an abusive home and did little to protect her. All these cases are well documented, yet the systemic abuse continues.

Former Psychiatrist and Director of Youth Services at the Allan Memorial Hospital, Dr. John Unwin, was interviewed by The Montreal Gazette in 1975 about the use of restraint and solitary confinement, just as Gillian Cosgrove’s Marian Hall story broke. His take on it was that it was “barbaric.” He was quoted by the Gazette as saying, “using handcuffs to restrain them is completely out of the question … it cannot be justified, there are more modern, more reassuring techniques to restrain young people.” He continued, “Any restraining that is necessary should be done in a special setting with medical supervision. It could be a case of a temper tantrum, a panic attack, or an acute psychotic condition.” And he went on, “If they are just put in solitary confinement, they will get the impression the only way to handle things is through violence, they will think they have to be violent to protect themselves against potential violence.” ("Solitary Method 'Barbaric Destructive', Experts Warning", by Angela Ferrante, The Montreal Gazette Jan. 3, 1975)

Gillian points out that the abuse in youth detention centres in Quebec breaks The Charter of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). The below screenshot is of Article 19 of The Convention on the Rights of the Child:

Article 19 (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child)

I chose to write a book based on the experiences my friends and I had while in the system because I’m appalled at how the ‘protection’ of youth has been handled in Quebec. Whether it has to do with inadequate funding, poorly trained staff, or burnt-out social workers and childcare workers, the government has been aware of the systemic abuse in youth protection for at least 60 years. There has been plenty of time to make the improvements needed. While government officials sit on their thumbs and rotate, kids are aging-out of the system and onto the streets full of anxiety, fear, and anger. And some aren’t making it out at all.

In my experience, workers in the system were a mixed bag. There were some that had chosen to be there because they were on a mission to help young people who were at risk. Many workers put a lot of effort into connecting with and helping the kids under their care. There were others, however, who did not connect well with the kids at all and, for whatever reason, didn't seem like they enjoyed their jobs. Under these workers, kids were treated like delinquents and lost causes. Then there was the system itself, with its tolerance for abuse, its inability to help kids emotionally, and unwillingness to help kids with resources, knowledge, and preparation for independence upon aging-out of the system. At risk kids should not have to face a mixed bag when they enter a place of help. They should know that when they are 'saved' from whatever domestic situation they were born into, they will be provided the help they need to thrive. Isn't that the point of 'saving' them?

Thank you, Gillian, for helping in the fight for justice for at risk youth and for change in the system.

The Fifth Estate - interview with Gillian Cosgrove on Maison Notre Dame de Laval abuses

Video by: Ousama Farag/The Fifth Estate | Reporting by Michelle Gagnon

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