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Brenda Doherty spent months trying to get help for her 15-year-old daughter after learning the girl was experimenting with drugs.

Her daughter, Steffanie Lawrence, died of an accidental overdose in 2018, a day and a half after she was discharged from hospital. At the time, Doherty believed that if her daughter had been held against her will, she might still be alive.

Six years later, Doherty still believes that. But in that intervening time, legislation to give parents and guardians the ability to apply to a judge to have minors struggling with mental health and addiction challenges held against their will for a limited amount of time has failed twice. An even earlier iteration of the legislation was shelved in 2001.

Other provinces have some form of secure-care legislation, but in British Columbia it has failed to make progress.

Doherty, of North Vancouver, told The Squamish Chief such legislation could have given her a chance to help her daughter.

“If it was in place, we would have had another option to try,” she told the newspaper. “I don’t think as a parent, you should ever be out of options to help save your kid’s life.”

Last week, Doherty threw her support behind a private members’ bill introduced by Liberal MLA Jordan Sturdy, who told the legislature the measures contained in his proposed Safe Care Act represent a “last-resort tool that can provide options to desperate parents while also respecting the rights and well-being of their children.”

The bill has vanishingly little chance of becoming law, as Mike Hager writes today.

In general, private members’ bills very rarely become law. But in this case, Sturdy’s bill 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.

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.

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.

Experts in child welfare are deeply divided on the subject.

In 2016, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, then B.C.’s representative of Children and Youth, recommended secure custody, saying such a provision allowing short-term, involuntary placement in a residential setting, could give teens such as Nick Lang a better chance. Lang, 15, had been plagued with substance-use issues for three years and his family had encountered multiple barriers to getting him treatment before he died.

Four years later, a different children’s representative, Jennifer Charlesworth, came to the opposite conclusion. She argued the prospect of being detained after an overdose would deter teens from asking for help.

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.

But 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.

Charles said 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.

Charles said critics see such measures 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.”

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief Mark Iype. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.

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