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B.C. announces new steps to help at-risk youth in Downtown Eastside

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, representative for Children and Youth in British Columbia, speaks to media during a press conference in this file photo from 2010. A report by Ms. Turpel-Lafond, released this past May, slammed the province’s children and family ministry for failing to protect an aboriginal girl who was in government care before she died of a drug overdose at the age of 19.

Deddeda Stemler/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's children and family ministry has set up a rapid response team to help vulnerable youth in the Downtown Eastside and is reviewing "secure-care" models to determine whether the province should adopt a system that would allow young people at risk from drug addiction, mental-health issues or other problems to be involuntarily committed for treatment.

Those changes are among short- and longer-term steps the government announced Monday in response to a report by the province's child watchdog, released this past May, that slammed the ministry for failing to protect an aboriginal girl who was in government care before she died of a drug overdose at the age of 19.

Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux said the release of her government's response – late in the afternoon on the day of the federal election – reflected the time required to gather input from numerous parties and complete a thorough report. "We've actually been trying to get this out for some weeks," Ms. Cadieux said during a conference call Tuesday, adding that she realized reporters were busy with federal election coverage the day before, when her ministry issued a news release.

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"The work of the ministry doesn't stop with a federal election. We're here in the House this week and I wanted the opportunity for this information to be out before we sat through this week, so questions could be asked and dealt with fully."

B.C's Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, said she was encouraged by the government's response, especially its commitment to consider secure-care options.

"This is the first time that government has come on side to say, 'Yes, we are going to have to look at the model,'" Ms. Turpel-Lafond said in an interview. "Kids that have this degree of needs can't be in hotels … they can't be homeless on the street, or sadly it's a one-way street to a very desperate place."

Secure-care models exist in seven other provinces, Ms. Turpel-Lafond said.

In her report last year, Paige's Story, she detailed how a young girl named Paige wound up living in single-room-occupancy hotels in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside after repeated contact with the ministry, including 30 child-protection reports during her lifetime.

Since then, the ministry has also come under fire for the deaths of two other young people who died while in its care. And two recent reports, one by Ms. Turpel-Lafond and the other by the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, have said B.C.'s child welfare system is stretched thin and needs more funds and staff.

The new rapid response teams won't involve any new money or staff, but will instead involve reorganizing resources to ensure help is available to children who need it, Ms. Cadieux said.

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In Paige's case, "There wasn't a lack of services necessarily and there wasn't a lack of desire to assist," she said.

"What there was, was a system that definitely did not talk to itself together the way it should. We need to knit that system together better to ensure that nobody falls through the cracks."

The government's response to the Paige report also included a review of all children and youth in care or receiving services who live or frequent the Downtown Eastside.

The ministry is currently in contact with at least 10 "super high-risk" children, including some who are using intravenous drugs or being sexually exploited, as well as up to another 40 or 50 who live in or around the Downtown Eastside and are at risk of falling into the high-risk category.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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