This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 28, 2000
Young Offers Act Reform
This week, when Joe Wamback addresses the Commons committee reviewing proposed changes to the Young Offenders Act, he will tell the politicians about the horrific assault that almost killed his son last summer. He will explain how Jonathan, then 15, was lured to a park across the street from his home in an upscale development near the town of Newmarket, 50 km north of Toronto. He will recount how the boy was chased, cornered and brutally kicked in the head over and over again. He will describe the emergency surgery that Jonathan very nearly did not survive, and how he and his wife, Lozanne, stayed with him around the clock while he lay in a three-month-long coma.
Wamback is profoundly grateful that Jonathan is now making progress - his son's intellect and memory are intact, although severe damage to the motor control centres of his brain means he must relearn how to walk and talk. But Joe Wamback speaks with passion and carefully controlled anger about what he views as the dangerous shortcomings of the proposed Youth Criminal Justice Act, Ottawa's attempt to toughen up the 15-year-old young offenders law. Under the new act, for instance, certain violent crimes will only be transferred to adult court if they involve second offences. "Why should parents give up their innocent children to a violent offender for a second or a third chance?" Wamback says. "The justice minister has had two years to prepare this and she has made an absolute travesty of it."
A design and construction consultant who gave up his own business after Jonathan was attacked, Wamback is a newly minted activist. Before Jonathan's devastating injuries, he says, "We didn't know anything about the justice system and we didn't want to." But when Wamback, who now works as a construction manager, learned how Jonathan's alleged assailants would be treated, he was stunned. Three youths who live in the same neighbourhood, aged 16 and 17 at the time of the attack, were originally charged with attempted murder. Those charges were subsequently downgraded to aggravated assault. Because of their ages, the youths cannot be named under the Young Offenders Act and the maximum penalty they face, if the case is not transferred to adult court (legal experts say such a move is unlikely), is two years. Technically, Wamback himself is in violation of the act for publicizing the name of an underage victim - his son.
As he sat in a hospital corridor, wondering whether Jonathan would live or die, Wamback began drawing up a petition calling for anyone charged with a violent crime to be tried in adult court. Initially, he gathered as many names as he could from friends and colleagues and sent the petition to the federal government. But the family's campaign to change the law suddenly took off after they posted the document on the Jonathan Wamback Support Web site.
Months later, responses to the petition are still pouring in. Over a four-hour period on Valentine's Day evening, what Wamback referred to as a "slow time," the family received over 600 e-mails from across the country, pushing the total to more than 636,000. The usual rate of responses - many from teenagers who say they are frightened of their peers - is about 300 per hour. Both parents say such responses have been crucial to keeping their spirits up. "I don't think we would have been able to get by without the support," recalls Lozanne, who gave up her fitness-training business after Jonathan was assaulted.
There is a downside to the attention. Joe Wamback speaks of how "transparent" their lives have become since they began their campaign, and acknowledges that it is not something he particularly enjoys. But it has helped them link up with other families struggling with similar tragedies. The petition also refers to Clayton McGloan, a 17-year-old Calgarian who died from multiple stab wounds after he was attacked on Halloween, 1998, and Dmitri (Matti) Baranovski, 15, who was kicked to death in a Toronto park last November. "When I heard about Matti, it went right through me," Wamback recalls. In both cases, those charged were under 18 at the time of the offence.
As far as Joe Wamback is concerned, the Young Offenders Act is at least partly to blame for these, and other similar crimes. "A 19-year-old who steals $500 out of your house will spend more time in jail than a 17-year-old who murders your son," he says. "Is there something wrong with what we are telling people today?"
The Wambacks can't predict how the Commons committee and Justice Minister Anne McLellan will respond to their pleas. They know that, whatever is decided, it will be too late to affect the outcome of Jonathan's case. Their primary focus now, and perhaps for the rest of their lives, will be helping their only child (Joe Wamback has two children from a previous marriage). While Jonathan can make himself understood and is even taking a few steps at a time, he still needs lots of daily assistance. He has trouble swallowing and has to be fed, and a bath means a laborious climb to the second floor, assisted by his father.
A few telling details in the family's spacious, pristine home speak of his ongoing battle with disability. A wheelchair is parked discreetly in a side hallway and there are special bars in the bathroom to help him lower and raise himself. A hospital bed sits in the middle of the family room on the main floor, and Joe and Lozanne drag a mattress into the room every evening so they can be with Jonathan if he suffers a seizure or other problems during the night. Jonathan travels almost daily to a rehabilitation centre in Toronto for physiotherapy - which he says is his favourite activity "because I get to walk" - as well as occupational therapy, which he dislikes "because it hurts." He also uses his mother's fitness equipment to do exercises like curls that help loosen his joints and build muscle tone.
In some ways, Jonathan is lucky. The damage to his brain has not distorted his outgoing, sunny personality. As he sits on a couch, playing a computer game with a friend, the high spirits of a typical teenager are still very much in evidence. But when Joe Wamback proudly flips through a book of his son's meticulous pencil drawings, or talks about the seven-handicap golf game he played by the time he was 14, it is also clear that there is no adequate way to measure what has been taken from Jonathan and his family.
Maclean's February 28, 2000