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Portrait of Dr. Lorna Turnbull

Research on the impacts of laws makes a difference

More than meets the eye, Robson Hall's Dr. Lorna Turnbull demonstrates how population data research can effect change

June 12, 2020 — 

Robson Hall Law Professor, Dr. Lorna Turnbull, was a lead investigator along with Drs. Marni Brownell and Nathan Nickel on the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy (MCHP) study report “The Overlap Between the Child Welfare and Youth Criminal Justice Systems: Documenting “Cross-Over Kids” in Manitoba,” published this month.

Dr. Turnbull, who Robson Hall shares with the WiSE Centre for Economic Justice, School for Business and Society, Glasgow Caledonian University, Scotland where she is a Visiting Professor, was involved with this and several other studies funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR). She recently explained how a legal scholar can contribute to a health-related study, and how important it is for experts in different fields to collaborate in order to bring about change.

Robson Hall: What aspects of this study were you involved with and how?
Lorna Turnbull: I was part of the whole study from start to finish. It had its genesis in a meeting with Dr. Marni Brownell at the MBA Mid-Winter meeting in 2016 where she was presenting on kids in care and education.  I chatted with her afterwards and told her that she would find similarly negative outcomes in youth criminal justice if she was interested in such a study.  She told me that MCHP had just begun receiving justice data and she thought it would be great to do such a study.  This study became one of five “deliverables” for the province that year, to meet a request from the Healthy Child Committee of Cabinet.  Because it was the first use of the police charging database, and because we had a diverse advisory group we worked with throughout, it took us a long time to do the study, and then its release was delayed by printing schedules and COVID.

RH: What were some of the most surprising results of this study? What did NOT surprise you at all?
LT: I wasn’t surprised at all that the overlap existed.  Indigenous leaders, practitioners in both systems and numerous reports (Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, Justice Kimmelman’s report No quiet place from the Review Committee on Indian and Metis Adoptions and Placements, etc.) had been talking about it for decades. There are academics, like Nicolas Bala who have been writing about “cross-over kids” for some time also.  What did surprise me is the extent of the overlap.  By the time they are 21, just shy of half of the kids in our 1994 birth cohort who had even been in care had been charged with a criminal offense. They had a better chance of ending up in the criminal justice system than of graduating from high school. When we saw those numbers, we all felt ill. Those numbers are horrifying.

RH: Did you use qualitative as well as quantitative research methods?
LT: We had the benefit of the Youth advisory group (young adults who had lived experience in either or both systems) that Cora Morgan of the Family Advocate’s Office of AMC [Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs] brought together for us, and we had our advisory group (Indigenous leaders/elders, folks from each of the authorities, police and crowns, the Children’s Advocate and Sherri Walsh, commission counsel from Phoenix Sinclair) that we met with throughout the project to check in on our reading of the data and results, to suggest things we might be overlooking etc.  Qualitative methods would be great, but were not within the scope of the project.   

RH: What skills can a lawyer bring to a research team like this?
LT: I am not an expert in criminal law, but I am concerned with children and with care, as well as with human rights and equality.  What I brought was the knowledge of the broader legal context within which these stories (because every one of these statistics represents a child, their family and their community) unfold.  I understand human rights, substantive equality and systemic discrimination, and structural violence. I have some knowledge of data analysis (Stats courses from honours Psych degree) but I relied on my research partners for that expertise.  What I do have is the ability to ask questions, and I attribute that to my legal skills.

RH: How will this study be used to effect change in the system and improve conditions for youth involved in the child protection and criminal justice systems? 
LT: I cannot think of a study that calls out for upstream approaches more than this one does.  Anything we can do to keep kids out of the child welfare system and thus out of the youth criminal justice system, and eventually out of the adult criminal system is good first for the child and their family, second for their communities and, ultimately, for all Manitobans.  I do not want to be part of a system that fails to “do the best for all our children” (the title of the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry report) and I do not want to be part of a system that continues to have such disproportionately negative impacts on First Nations and Métis children and their families and communities. We need supports for families, mental health and addiction services for adults and youth, accessible child care, anti-poverty measures (like a basic income and an improved minimum wage), whole of government approaches to supporting families that are struggling (ie. not running around from department to department, but using central points of contact to provide universal services, through schools, for example), a system for continuing to monitor and report on progress (I hope) as called for by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Calls to Action #2 and #36), legal autonomy for First Nations over their children (Bill C-92) and adequate funding for children and families on reserves

RH: What can you say to encourage students to engage in research like this?
LT: An important thing lawyers need is evidence to support any legal arguments they might be preparing to make.  Studies like this, using population-wide data provide evidence of systemic and structural inequalities.  Law students are wise to learn to understand evidence as well as to understand the law.  And we are always looking for students who are interested to participate in our work.

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