An ‘angry youth worker’ and his fight for at-risk teens
June 21, 2014
Mark Cherrington’s phone rings for the first time well before 4 a.m., the Samsung glowing in the dark as he grabs it off the bedside table. His wife barely notices. In nine years of marriage, she’s grown accustomed to late night phone calls, and she usually turns over and goes back to sleep. The girl calling just needs to talk. If she needed help right then, Cherrington would be up and gone. Instead, he speaks to her until she feels better, then catches a few minutes of sleep before crawling out of bed.
Through his use of Twitter, the Edmonton youth worker has become a social justice celebrity, catching the attention of media, politicians and policy-makers around the world. He’s been profiled in the Walrus and Reader’s Digest, on national TV and radio programs, and internationally by Al Jazeera.
Some people call him an inspiration, a hero. Others question whether he goes too far, whether what he does is safe and ethical, whether his approach is bold or reckless.
When Cherrington was forced to apologize for unfounded allegations he made against Edmonton police earlier this year, Chief Rod Knecht made a point of mentioning the “irresponsible and unaccountable social media commentary,” and Cherrington admitted the language in his tweets was “inflammatory, excessive, and inappropriate.”
“I guess I’m kind of an angry youth worker,” he says. “Like I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
The courthouse hallway is bustling with people, and Mark Cherrington stands in the midst of the flow. He is 49 years old, balding slightly with shaggy, dishevelled hair. He dresses younger than his age: lowslung jeans made to look worn, a shortsleeved plaid shirt over a T-shirt, messenger bag slung over his shoulder and stuffed with papers. It’s not yet 9 a.m. His phone has been ringing almost non-stop.
A teenager emerges from the crowd and walks toward him. Janice looks worried and nervous, and they move into a hallway so they can speak more privately. She’s 19, and studying to work in health care. She’s doing well, but it’s the end of the school year and her student funding has run out but she hasn’t found a job. She has a baby, no food, and her rent is due in two days. Her boyfriend is in jail. She says a government worker told her that morning they won’t help her. She starts to cry.
“OK,” Cherrington says, “Can I get angry and phone the minister’s office and tweet about it?” She nods yes. Cherrington started the @MarkCherrington Twitter account late in 2010, planning to use it to promote a novel he was working on in his spare time. Instead, he wrote his first tweet about a client in a moment of frustration. He had three followers at the time. Two responded.
Realizing the power at his fingertips, Cherrington started tweeting about the things he saw every day and his frustrations with the system. His tweets are blunt and raw. Descriptions of hungry babies, sexually exploited teens, violence. Sometimes there are photos: A wrist lined with slashes; an infant in squalid conditions.
As the reach of his tweets grew, he began using them to ask for things his clients needed, going outside the usual social organizations and charities to get everything from mattresses to skateboards. Cherrington estimates he’s received $30,000 to $40,000 in donations so far.
When he asks for something, Twitter delivers. Twitter bought a computer for a teen to use at school, sent 100 pounds of caribou meat from the north for an Inuit girl, paid for a funeral. Twitter sent a hand-knit sweater and knitting kit from the state of Georgia, after Cherrington tweeted about a pregnant girl who wanted to learn to knit.
Sometimes, after a tweet, welfare benefits are “magically reinstated.” Cherrington says. Policies that seemed carved in stone suddenly bend.
That’s what Cherrington hopes will happen with Janice. He hopes phone calls and tweets, or maybe a combination of both, will lead the Alberta Works office to come through with the money she needs to pay her rent and buy food.
“This is the battle that I’m going to fight today,” he says.
He leaves court and drives Janice home while he starts making calls.
Giselle Rosario met Mark Cherrington in family court Courtroom 444 in 1997. She was a bright and charming woman with an interest in criminal justice policy working for the Elizabeth Fry Society. They became friends, the attraction between them not immediately obvious. “Honestly, if you had told me at that time, ‘Giselle, you are going to marry this man,’ I would have bet you money you were insane,” she laughs. “I would never have believed it in a million years. We are very different in every way you can imagine.”
But when Rosario went to England to study at the London School of Economics and then Oxford, they stayed in touch. She said Cherrington was persistent in courting her. She appreciated that he was caring and sweet, that he made her laugh.
“He really does have a heart of gold,” she says. “He’s this guy who’s really frayed upon the edges. He doesn’t really care too much about how he presents himself and how people think of him, but he is a good person, and at the end of the day, that’s really what matters.”
The couple married in 2005 and had a son, now three years old. (Cherrington also has two older sons from a previous marriage.) Rosario describes them as “yin and yang,” an opposite but matched set, both with a deep interest in social justice though from different perspectives.
She’s now a criminologist, a self-described “policy geek” who evaluates crime prevention programs for the federal government. Cherrington works on the same issues, but at the street level. Their theories often diverge. Rosario doesn’t have a Twitter account, and Cherrington‘s Twitter bio includes the caveat, “Not endorsed by employer or wife.” He jokes he’s her lab experiment.
Cherrington grew up in a traditional, middle class Alberta family, the eldest of four boys in a family headed by a high school principal and a stay-at-home mom. When Cherrington thinks about the roots of his interest in social issues, he recalls a First Nations boy and girl that lived with his family for several years as foster children. He remembers the racism and bullying they faced at school. He says he loved them like they were his own siblings, then one day, they disappeared.
“They just took them away,” he says. “I came home from school and they were gone.” He never saw them again.
In high school, Cherrington argued about the Vietnam War and earned the nickname Commie. He worked as a mechanic and at a funeral home, then at a factory in Australia. Returning to Canada, he went to school to be a correctional officer, and did addictions counselling before moving into youth work.
He started at the Youth Criminal Defence Office as one of the original employees when it opened in 1993 as part of Legal Aid Alberta. His business card says Youth Defence Advocate, but his job varies from day to day, minute to minute. He is, at turns, advocate, chauffeur, counsellor, delivery man, support person, emergency contact, ambulance.
Many of his clients aren’t currently involved with the Youth Criminal Defence Office, coming to him instead by word of mouth, referred by others he has worked with.
“If someone calls and says ‘Hi, I’m 14 and I’m on the streets I need a safe place to live,’ I don’t ask them, ‘Are you currently involved in the youth justice system?'” he says. “I just help them because it’s to everybody’s interest that child stays safe.”
He estimates he’s worked with 15,000 people, sometimes multiple generations of the same family. Cherrington‘s boss, Pat Yuzwenko, says Cherrington was essential in developing the youth worker position at the organization, and “has employed great creativity and flexibility in doing so.”
“One of the saddest ironies about working with youth in conflict with the law is that most of them are themselves victims of crime – often violent crime,” she said in an email interview while travelling overseas. “People do not wake up one day and decide they want to be a criminal. Instead, it is a lifestyle that becomes entrenched due to many factors that are, for the most part, completely out of the young person’s control.”
This philosophy underpins Cherrington‘s work, and it’s why he says the organization gives him the freedom it does.
“I’m just very fortunate that my employer believes in human rights,” he says.
Cherrington leaves his days unscheduled. They are predictably unpredictable, filled with calls and texts on an array of issues and crises. As Cherrington drops off Janice at her apartment in south Edmonton, he flips through a stream of texts from clients wanting his help. “Can you help me get Simulac and size 4 Pampers please?” one asks.
Another asks whether he has any cigarettes, telling him: “I’m deadly hurting for smokes.” Cherrington tells that teen he’ll meet her downtown, and on the way buys a pack of cigarettes he pays for himself. She is a child prostitute trying to get off crystal meth. For Cherrington, delivering cigarettes to her is harm reduction, a way to help ease her craving for drugs, a chance to check in and make sure she’s OK, build trust so she’ll tell him one day if she’s not. They chat through the car window for a moment as he hands over a handful of cigarettes. To him, that clutch of smokes is a lifeline – though admittedly an unconventional one.
“Today we’ll worry about crystal meth and crack and heroin. Tomorrow we’ll worry about tobacco,” he says. “I could say no, and I could never hear from her again.”
After the brief exchange, he stops at the Youth Criminal Defence office on Jasper Avenue. His office walls are dotted with awards and commendations, art made by youth, and notes from people who are inspired by his work. On the corner of his desk are piles of toothbrushes, pregnancy tests and tampons. A basket full of condoms sits beside a medal recognizing his work starting a youth justice committee. The shelves and cupboards are filled with diapers, clothes and baby formula.
Cherrington logs into Twitter and composes a tweet about Janice. Her story in 140 characters. Then he presses send.
Shelley’s voice spills out of the speakerphone in Cherrington‘s SUV.
“Mark, can you come pick me up?” she asks. “It’s serious.”
She tells Cherrington her foot is bleeding and that she may have to go to the hospital. She’s at Londonderry Mall. Cherrington heads north.
He finds her inside the mall. Her foot is fine, though she points out a small blister she says was bleeding earlier. What she really wants is a ride to her social worker’s office off Whyte Avenue. She asks for a Slurpee. Cherrington offers her juice.
Shelley is dirty and hasn’t eaten. She had a fight with her ex because he thought she was working the streets. There is a chemical burn on her tongue from meth. She casually tells Cherrington she’s been coughing up blood.
He tells Shelley that’s a serious symptom, and that she has to go to a doctor. Another client of his had tuberculosis, and Cherrington and other workers all had to be tested. Shelley looks out the window of the car.
Cherrington estimates 85 per cent of his clients are female, a high percentage given that his office’s clients are 75 per cent male. Cherrington says he prefers working with females because they come with multiple challenges including pregnancy and children, and face greater risk of exploitation than males. “A guy can find a couch, a guy can find shelter,” he says. “A girl has a lot of issues and baggage, and to sleep on that couch has a cost.”
Sometimes, Cherrington sees people writing down his licence plate number when young women climb into his SUV. He says he’s used to suspicious looks when he takes a teenager into the sexual health clinic.
“I’m sure they look at me and who I’m walking in with, but I gave up really caring about what other people thought about me years ago,” he says. “I’m an honourable person. I really have nothing to worry about, and I don’t fear what people’s perceptions are. My only fear is the reality of the situation.”
Shelley, who doesn’t have reason to trust many people in her life, says she trusted Cherrington almost immediately.
“I just trusted him because he looks like a dork,” she shrugs.
Cherrington says some men don’t want to work with girls for fear of an allegation being made against them, but he considers that just one of the many risks that go along with his job. He’s had his car stolen. He was hurt once, but he doesn’t want to talk about it. He doesn’t negotiate drug debts anymore, he says. He doesn’t go inside apartments.
“You take precautions,” he says. “(The risks) are sort of always in the back of your mind. But is it going to change what I do and who I help? No.”
Rosario says she didn’t fully understand the extent of Cherrington‘s commitment at first. She questioned why he would leave their home to help someone in the middle of the night, trying to understand why he needed to do it and how it was even part of his job. She says they talked about it a lot for a while, but that Cherrington has helped her to understand it. She says she’s most concerned about the emotional risk her husband faces. She feels it would be better for him to have more separation from their lives and their tragedies.
“If you asked me what’s the biggest risk, it’s the toll,” she says. “The emotional toll that it takes to do the work he does.”
Cherrington says he keeps a list of names in the back of his journals – the ones who overdosed or froze to death, who killed themselves or were murdered. He doesn’t go to funerals anymore. He drove some clients to one recently but couldn’t bring himself to go inside.
“I don’t think I can emotionally handle them,” he says. “There’s just too many.”
Erika is one of Cherrington‘s success stories. Once one of his more troubled kids, she’s now going to school and working. She looks vibrant and healthy, and she’s doing well caring for her son. She wants to be a social worker, to help people who are like she was.
In the afternoon, Cherrington drives Erika to the police station to file a report about a break-in at her apartment.
She describes Cherrington as one of the positive people in her life, and says he helped her make the changes she has made to her life.
“I learned how to have a voice,” she says. “He helped me have different ways to ask for things.”
Cherrington‘s second Twitter account, @myyegstrong, gives youth with access to the account a way to directly ask the public for things they want or need. Cherrington says he tells them not to use their own names, to always meet in public places, and never go alone. Only those over 18 can use their own numbers, the rest have to go through him.
“You have to be careful because there’s always creepers out there, right?” he says.
But Cherrington says Twitter has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for both him and the youth, “the exact polar opposite of everything negative from social media.” He says there’s only been a problem once, when a man from Montreal asked a girl for photographs.
“I think people are good, maybe that’s the answer to why I still have this passion,” Cherrington said. “Deep down, I know that all human beings are good and just want to help. And I just want to help.”
Erika has used the @myyegstrong Twitter account several times, most recently to ask for groceries when she had no food.
“For myself, I feel like I don’t want to take advantage of it, and I only use it when I need to,” she says. “There’s actually a lot of good people in the world, and I wouldn’t want them to be taken advantage of, even though I have been.”
When a married couple contacted Cherrington through Twitter wanting to help someone, he asked if they would be willing to become friends with one of his clients. When they said yes, he introduced them to Erika.
The response to Cherrington and his work has been overwhelmingly positive, but he’s faced criticism, too. He’s been accused of exploiting the youth he’s trying to protect by publicly exposing their lives and sometimes their images, though he obscures their faces. In March, he posted a public apology on his blog after he accused police of not acting on a sexual assault allegation by a young woman who had been arrested. The accusation was unfounded.
“I do not accept your apology, and would expect more professionalism from someone in your position as a youth case worker,” one person commented, in response to the apology. “I feel you should be fired as an example to others that due diligence is a must before bringing very serious allegations against anyone.”
Cherrington‘s boss, Yuzwenko, was among those who posted comments expressing support.
Cherrington admits that in that situation he “maybe should have been less focused on pointing fingers and more focused on getting her help,” but says the situation still won’t stop him from doing what he does. At worst, he says, he’ll just shut down the account.
“I don’t want to have a Twitter account of selfies and half-eaten dinners and movie reviews, that’s not what my Twitter account is about,” he says. “So I learned from that, but on the other hand I’m not backing down from what’s important.”
Cherrington stops work every afternoon in time to pick up his son, the one thing in the day he schedules. They eat dinner together, but he will often go out again in the evening or during the night.
On this afternoon, Cherrington has resolved the crisis Janice faced with a series of phone calls. A couple of people on Twitter responded to his tweet about her, asking what kind of work she’s looking for, and one of them might help her find a job. Janice will be able to pay her rent and feed her baby, and keep going until she starts working.
“It’s not a Walt Disney ending, but it’s certainly a positive development,” he says. “I feel very optimistic that Janice will be all right.”
Since his first call that morning, he’s received about 100 phone calls and texts, and driven 120 kilometres through the city. He’s dealt in person with nine different girls, seven of whom he picked up and drove somewhere. He’s dropped off food cards and delivered an iPad full of rap music to a safe house. He hasn’t eaten or stopped for coffee or a break.
The needs are never-ending. Shelley needs to go to the doctor. One girl needs a pregnancy test, another needs a ride to Maskwacis to pick up a cheque. The demand for formula, diapers, food, and clothes seems insatiable.
Rosario says she wonders if her husband will start to move away from this daily effort at some point, to focus more on finding broader solutions.
“There comes a point in time where you say, ‘Am I just applying Band-Aids?'” she says. “This is just me the social scientist speaking, but in the bigger picture, things have to change at a different level and Mark knows that, too.”
Sometimes, when a call comes in at night, Cherrington says no. He says sometimes he’s too tired, or he knows that his family needs him. He was gone a lot during his first marriage and with his older children, and he says it hurt his family.
“Sometimes I say, ‘I can’t. I just can’t do it,'” he says. In those cases, he may say to call another youth worker at iHuman, or even to go to a 7-Eleven for the night.
“I’ve said no and hung up the phone and there’s been a tragic result in the morning,” he says. “That’s the risk that everyone in this field has … You just have to live with that.”
If no call comes – or if tonight is a night he says no – Cherrington may sit down with a beer, maybe a Blue Jays game if one’s on. As he approaches his 50th birthday, he’s unsure of what his future holds. He says he doesn’t know if he can do this work forever, but he feels ill-suited to do anything else. He’s spent the past 20 years developing a very specific set of skills.
He still works on the book that inspired him to start his Twitter account. It’s called The Cat Box, about seven teenage girls who live together in a group home and have no one but each other. He’s been working on the book for five years, writing and re-writing until he realized that finishing it may not be the point.
“Maybe it’s just more cathartic,” he says, turning his SUV back toward downtown Edmonton in the late afternoon sun. “Maybe I just like changing some of the endings.”
*The names of youths in this story have been changed to protect their identities and comply with the provisions of the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act.