Wellness court finds a home

Yukon's community wellness court has a new headquarters. Until a few weeks ago, the various rehabilitative programs associated with the court were scattered around Whitehorse.

Yukon’s community wellness court has a new headquarters.

Until a few weeks ago, the various rehabilitative programs associated with the court were scattered around Whitehorse. Now they’re all under one roof, at 4141 Fourth Avenue, near the corner of Jarvis Street.

Step inside and you’ll find a common room, with sofas, a television set, board games and an air hockey table. The hope is that this centre, which is open every day from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., will become a place where clients not only receive help, but also stop by for a coffee.

Many persistent reoffenders remain stuck in the court system because, once released, they fall back on their old network of friends. That, in turn, leads to old habits of drug and substance abuse.

And that often leads to a downward spiral that ends with them back at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

Hence the need for an environment that’s supportive of healthy living, occupied by clients struggling with the same problems. Besides finding counselling and camaraderie, clients will also be able to find help at the centre with writing a resume or applying for social housing.

But it remains an open question whether convicts out on parole will want to spend their free time, in essence, hanging out with their parole officer.

“It’s an experiment,” said Tricia Ratel, director of corrections. “And it’ll be evaluated.”

The 18-month pilot project was launched “with no new money,” said Ratel. “Everything you see was scrounged and borrowed.” Inmates from Whitehorse Correctional Centre helped with painting the walls and other renovation tasks.

Chief Judge Karen Ruddy has presided over the wellness court since its inception in 2007.

There’s no data on how successful the court is at lowering recidivism rates. But Ruddy has seen clients turn their lives around.

She mentions a young single mother who has managed to stay sober and hold a steady job for three and a half years. “She’s doing wonderfully well,” said Ruddy.

Between 12 and 15 clients are typically in the wellness court at any time. Participants must be deemed suitable by Ruddy.

Eligible clients struggle with drug and alcohol addictions, mental health problems or cognitive disabilities such as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

Many clients have been charged with domestic violence. Drug-related offences and property crimes are also common. Convicts are not eligible if they’ve been charged with serious, violent crimes such as manslaughter, murder or aggravated assault.

Clients must also plead guilty and accept responsibility for their crimes. They usually spend a year and a half taking a variety of counselling programs before being sentenced. The usual outcome is community service, rather than a jail term.

“Ultimately, the goal is a better quality of life for our participants,” said Ruddy.

The office is next door to the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Society of the Yukon. And it’s just down the block from the courthouse. That proximity will help prevent clients from “getting lost” on their way between hearings and counselling, said Ruddy.

Justice Minister Marian Horne touted the wellness court as one way the government is tackling the thicket of social woes connected to substance abuse. “We’re hitting the nail on the head,” she said.

Contact John Thompson at