Frances Carnerie

PhD Candidate
Frances Carnerie photo
Dissertation Title
An Ethnographic Examination of the Toronto Community Youth Court: The Rehabilitation Ideal and Justice-Involved Youth with Mental Health and Substance Abuse Issues

Early in my career as an Emergency Nurse, I encountered young people who had harmed themselves and others, as a result of their mental health and substance misuse issues. This was of particular concern to me given the issues I encountered in my birth family. I left Emerg after so often seeing the consequences of these issues, went on to obtain my Nurse Practitioner diploma at McMaster University, then my Master of Health Sciences Degree at McMaster. After a summer of working as an Outpost Nurse in northern Labrador, where again, the traumas associated with mental health and substance misuse issues were obvious and troubling, I became an Assistant Professor of Nursing at Memorial University. I soon wished to return to school, this time as a law student, and attended Dalhousie University to obtain my Bachelor of Laws degree. Upon completion, I returned to Ontario to article with the Ministry of Attorney General, and later joined the Ministry of the Environment Legal Services Branch [MOE], where I worked for 28 years. During that time, I obtained my Master of Laws degree from YorkU. My thesis concerned the right of nurses to refuse unsafe work. I became a volunteer at Sunnybrook Hospital, where I was one of the co-founding members of the Family Navigation Project – a service aimed at helping young people with mental health and substance misuse issues navigate the mental health care system, to obtain appropriate care. Shortly after, I left the MOE to begin my doctoral studies.


Background: When young persons experience mental health or substance abuse issues and come into conflict with the youth criminal justice system, they are at a crossroads where the justice system meets the mental health care system. The Youth Criminal Justice Act [YCJA] aspires to promote the rehabilitation of young persons who commit offences, while holding them accountable. Nonetheless, the YCJA is silent as to how the foundational concept of rehabilitation is to be interpreted or evaluated. How, then, are institutional and community actors in the youth criminal justice and mental health care systems to protect the public through rehabilitation of justice-involved youth? Relatedly, how is it determined whether rehabilitation is successful? Without answers to these questions the effectiveness of court programs in achieving the legislative intent of the YCJA remains largely unknown.

In practice, rehabilitating young persons with mental health and substance abuse issues is implemented through a constellation of services and programs designed to address their criminogenic and social needs with the aim of assisting them to achieve a more productive, satisfying lifestyle. Officials in the youth justice system are tasked with ensuring the accountability of young persons through meaningful consequences as well as effective rehabilitation, but are confronted with practical difficulties such as limited or ineffective services. Further, although children’s mental health services in Ontario are widely ranging, delivery of the services is increasingly fragmented – a phenomenon bearing implications for the importance of coordinating services to support young offenders with complex needs across both governmental and non-governmental sectors.

Setting: The Toronto Community Youth Court [CYC] is the setting for this research study. The CYC is a problem-oriented court established for young persons who have been charged with a criminal offence, but who have a significant mental health or substance abuse problem. The court’s goals are “to improve access to community treatment services, reduce case-processing time, improve general well-being, reduce the likelihood of reoffence, and increase community safety.” Focussing on justice-involved youth who experience mental health and substance abuse issues is in keeping with recent evidence that a disproportionately high percentage of youth in conflict with the justice system have mental health and substance abuse disorders when compared to the non-offending population.

The CYC was developed for young persons who intend to resolve, not contest, their charges. This occurs either by way of mental health diversion or pleading guilty. In the former case, the young person must consent to participate in the mental health diversion and with the Crown’s consent, work with the youth court mental health worker (YCMHW) to develop a diversion or treatment plan.

Methodology: The methodology is ethnographic given its particular suitability for facilitating multi-sited research into legal spaces through which people create meaning. The pursuit of the rehabilitation ideal sweeps in fluid notions of legal, social, and cultural relevance. This methodology embodies studying participants in terms of what they actually do (as opposed to what they may say they do) and produces a holistic means of examining behaviours within a larger framework of people’s lives and their universe, and how law may feature in different ways for different individuals. I deployed the Participant-Observation Method in my ethnographic fieldwork to gather my data.

Current Status: I have finished my data collection. For a year and a half, I observed the bi-monthly sittings of the CYC, then conducted open-ended interviews of one to two hours, with participants in the court and community-based organizations that provide services to young persons before the court. I have coded the data corpus and am about to assign themes to the data that will guide my final analyses.


Master of Laws - Osgoode Hall Law School, 1991

Call to the Ontario Bar - 1989

Bachelor of Laws - Dalhousie Law School, 1987

Master of Health Sciences - McMaster University, 1983

Nurse Practitioner Diploma - McMaster University, 1980

Diploma Nurse - Georgian College, 1974

Teaching Experience

Seneca College: Sept. 2022 to current: Professor, Paralegal Program

Osgoode Hall Law School: TA, legal research and writing

Law Society of Upper Canada: Bar Admission 1993-2000

Memorial University of Newfoundland: Jan. 1983-Aug.1984: Assistant Professor of Nursing

Humber College: 1980-1982: Lecturer in Emergency Nursing

Professional Experience

Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General: seconded to Ministry of the Environment: Oct. 1990 - July 2015 (Deputy Legal Director 2004-2015); seconded to Law Commission of Ontario (MAG Counsel-in-Residence 2015-2018).

Law Offices of Brian Grosman: associate counsel (1989-1990)

Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, Crown Law Office, Civil: articling student (1987-1988)

Memorial University of Newfoundland: Assistant Professor of Nursing (Jan. 1983-Aug. 1984)

Hamilton Cancer Clinic: Director of Clinical Research (Sept 1980-Sept 1981)

  • Inducted into the Bertha Wilson Honour Society: Dalhousie Law Alumni Association, October 2021
  • JSD Tory Research and Writing Award, April 2021
  • Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General: Crown Law Office – Civil 1988: Articling Student Achievement Award presented by the Honourable Ian Scott
  • Dalhousie Public Legal Education Society: 1984 to 1987 – Chairperson: We developed a junior high school program that was given weekly in Halifax schools and received grants of $20,000 from the federal Ministry of Justice and $59,435 from the National Film Board to produce a video, Trouble With The Law, for national distribution. The project received the Public Legal Education Award from the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society in April 1986
  • Presented at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences: June 4, 2021: “Judging Justice-Involved Young Persons in Canada Through 200 years of Policy and Practice Modernization”