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For the third time in six years, British Columbia legislators are considering a bill that would allow parents or guardians of teens caught up in the sex trade or battling severe drug addictions to force them into health care facilities for short periods of time.

But, like the bill’s two predecessors, the proposed legislation is expected to fail, leaving B.C. as an outlier among provinces, most of which already provide parents such a mechanism.

Jordan Sturdy, an MLA with the Opposition BC United party, who represents the riding of West Vancouver-Sea to Sky, introduced the legislation as a private members’ bill last week.

The bill would allow a parent or guardian to seek a court order to have their child between the ages of 12 and 19 detained and brought to a secure care facility, if the teen “is or is likely to be commercially sexually exploited, or … is suffering from severe drug misuse or addiction.” Teens detained this way would have to be released within a maximum of four days, unless a court decides at a hearing after their detention to keep them in custody for up to 15 days. This period could later be extended by as much as another 30 days, according to a draft of the bill shared with The Globe and Mail.

“This is a last-resort tool that can provide options to desperate parents while also respecting the rights and well-being of their children,” Mr. Sturdy told the legislature.

Private members’ bills very rarely become law. Mr. Sturdy told reporters his proposal is an update to a 2018 bill from one of his BC United colleagues that failed to win support from the NDP government. The NDP abandoned its own push for similar legislation in 2020 after resistance from Indigenous groups and advocates for youth and mental health.

Proponents of such a measure say short, involuntary stints in care settings allow teens to break their patterns of drug use and recover enough to be offered options that might improve their health. But critics say there is no evidence that apprehending drug-addicted teens works in the long run, and that doing so could make them more distrustful and less willing to seek help. The BC Centre on Substance Use, for example, has refused to endorse involuntary care for teens.

Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick all have provisions for the involuntary commitment of children. In most of these jurisdictions, getting such an order involves mandatory court appearances. There are also appeal mechanisms and other safeguards.

In B.C., a young person can be held only if they have committed a crime, or if a doctor determines they can be detained under provisions of the provincial Mental Health Act that authorize involuntary detention for people at risk of harming themselves or others.

Grant Charles, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Social Work, said he saw many teens benefit from being forced into care for short periods of stabilization when he worked years ago in the mental-health care sector in Calgary.

“I never met a young person that wanted to go into secure care, but I met a heck of a lot of them that were really happy that the adults in their lives had taken control of the situation,” he said.

Dr. Charles said the two available mechanisms for detaining children in B.C. – the Mental Health Act and the Youth Criminal Justice Act – are drastic interventions that either pathologize or criminalize teens, with lasting effects on their well-being. Short periods in residential or special youth mental-health facilities could offer teens and their families brief respites so they can be connected with voluntary treatment of various kinds, he said.

“[Critics] focus on the individual rights of kids, and they ignore family and community rights, which of course come into play in all of this,” Dr. Charles said. “And then they see it as an infringement somehow on the right of young people to harm themselves and potentially die, but don’t recognize the right of a young person to live and thrive. And it also ignores our collective responsibility to young people to keep them safe.”

Former provincial health officer Perry Kendall, who declared a provincial public-health emergency in 2016 over the exploding number of people dying after using illicit drugs, said he and other medical experts haven’t found any reliable evidence that involuntary treatment has worked on teens in other provinces or states.

Dr. Kendall, who co-wrote a 2018 op-ed in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that argued against involuntary care, said it is conceivable that there are kids who might benefit from being detained. But, he said, there has been no impartial analysis of outcomes for young people who are treated this way.

Since B.C.’s toxic drug crisis was declared a public-health emergency, at least 182 minors have fatally overdosed in the province, with 27 dying last year, according to data from the BC Coroners Service.

One of the most vocal critics of the NDP’s failed 2020 bill was the provincial Representative of Children and Youth, Jennifer Charlesworth, who said the prospect of being detained after an overdose would deter teens from asking for help. She added that it would disproportionately hurt young Indigenous people in foster care, who she said may be using drugs to cope with the government removing them from their families.

Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, was not available for an interview. Her office said in a statement that the government heard in 2020 how traumatic it can be for young people – especially Indigenous teens – to be held against their will.

Instead, her statement added, the NDP is focused on funding voluntary care for children in crisis, including investments in emergency room care and treatment supports for teens after they are discharged from hospitals.

The statement also highlighted last week’s announcement that the province would be adding 10 new Foundry centres to the pool of 25 other such facilities across B.C. Foundry centres aim to intervene in the lives of troubled teens early, with free services such as counselling and physical and sexual health care.

Tom Warshawski, a consultant pediatrician and medical lead for the eight-bed Youth Recovery House, which offers voluntary drug treatment in Kelowna, said these centres do good preventative work.

But, he said, involuntary treatment orders are needed for homeless and heavily addicted young people. He likened the drug crisis to heart disease: preventative treatment, such as a prescription for statins, can be helpful, but sometimes emergency measures are necessary.

“You don’t say, ‘Well, we’re not gonna need a bypass, because we’re focused on prevention. You’ve got to do both,” he said.

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