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Kelowna program aims to support incarcerated youth with brain injuries, prevent re-offending

United Way BC funds pilot project while organizers hope for future funding to expand
Brain Trust Canada’s team pictured in Kelowna for a promotional video. (Photo: James Alton/James Alton Films).

People with brain injuries are two-and-a-half times more likely to be incarcerated, according to medical researchers. A new program in central Okanagan aims to give support to youth with brain injuries who find themselves in trouble with the criminal justice system, so they can change paths before it has a lasting and permanent impact on their lives.

Brain Trust’s executive director Amanda McFarlane told Black Press Media it is easier for youth with brain injuries to recover and exit the justice system because that system is more forgiving. It is also easier for youth to change old patterns because their brains are developing, she said.

Brain Trust Canada is a charity that provides services for people living with brain injuries, and the new youth program is an extension of its Crime Prevention and Reduction Program. The program’s goal is to help youth navigate legal, educational and social challenges they have.

First, the program will help the youth repair trusted relationships and begin addressing unmet needs. Then, the team will support the youth to break any patterns that lead to their trouble with the law.

Youth in the program will also have an advocate who will show up during police interactions to explain their injury and help them communicate.

So far, one qualified volunteer with lived experience has stepped up in the advocate role, and McFarlane hopes to see the number of members expand if the program can obtain more funding.

McFarlane said most of the young people she works with who have been involved with the criminal justice system need comprehensive support, because brain injuries often overlap with other vulnerabilities, such as trauma and addiction.

“We have these big boxes [prisons] full of people who are just traumatized and I have a problem with that. So that is why I am really passionate about this program. So, I thought, alright, can we prevent a massive amount of people going into this system that we know they will never be able to get out of?”

Often, programs that support people struggling with substance use disorders or mental illness are not equipped to provide the services a person with a brain injury needs, such as speech and language support. Yet, many people with a pre-exiting mental health condition who acquire a brain injury are denied neurological services, she said.

“Nine times out of 10 they will say ‘sorry, you had a pre-existing condition so you actually belong on [the mental health team’s] case load,” McFarlane said.

People with brain injuries are at risk for developing a substance use disorder for a variety of reasons. One key issue is neuropathy causing extreme pain all over the body, McFarlane said. Sometimes, people turn to street narcotics when they leave the hospital after experiencing a brain injury because they were not given adequate support to live with their chronic pain.

Another challenge: unless a doctor records the brain injury as “moderate to severe,” a person with a brain injury will not qualify for any government-funded services, McFarlane said.

Health care access 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 on the verge of developing practical screening tools to identify people with undocumented brain injuries so they can receive the services they need, McFarlane added.

Brain injuries also add on to all inequities in the criminal justice system, such as the over-representation of Indigenous people in prison, McFarlane said.

Community foundations and the south interior branch of United Way BC is 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 led initiatives across the region, according to United Way’s press release.

Its youth-led review committee decided to support this program with the grant, United Way’s southern interior community investment coordinator Naomi Woodland said.

The youth crime prevention group received the funding during the past month, and the program will likely be able to report information about its results within the next six months, Woodland said. With positive results, Woodland hopes the program can expand with more funding.

“I think personally it will probably run as a pilot program and then that will hopefully attract future funding in the next few years. So, hopefully we will be able to support more youth away from the criminal justice system and into more meaningful life situations.”

About the Author: Morgana Adby, Local Journalism Initiative

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