When Brenda Doherty learned of her teen daughter’s problematic drug use, she spent frantic months trying to get help. A psychiatrist told Ms. Doherty her daughter would be fine. Police said they couldn’t help. A government representative told her to let the girl do what she wanted and just hope that everything would be okay, Ms. Doherty recalled.
A day and a half after her daughter, Steffanie Lawrence, was discharged from a hospital in North Vancouver, she died of an accidental overdose. She was 15.
“I ran myself ragged for three months before she passed away, trying to hunt down any avenue that I possibly could to try and get help," Ms. Doherty said in an interview. “Every single door that we opened closed on us.”
Since her daughter’s death in January, Ms. Doherty has become a vocal supporter of British Columbia’s Safe Care Act, a piece of legislation that, if passed, would allow 12-to-18-year-olds with severe substance misuse issues to be involuntarily committed when less intrusive measures are unavailable or inadequate.
Ms. Doherty believes that if her daughter had been held in hospital against her will, she might still be alive.
“Steff, she thought she was fine. She kept telling me, ‘Mom. I’m fine. You don’t need to worry about me. I’m not going to die,’” she said. “At 14, 15 years old, they don’t know. My opinion is that the parents need to be able to step in when they see that their life is in danger. We need to be able to involuntarily find them secure care.”
A previous incarnation of the legislation called the Secure Care Act was shelved in 2001. In March, 2017, then-Liberal MLA Gordon Hogg introduced the Safe Care Act, and Liberal MLA Jane Thornthwaite reintroduced it this past February.
The last-resort mechanism has been championed by people who feel the drastic step of involuntary apprehension is sometimes needed. A petition created and circulated by Ms. Doherty and her daughter’s father demanding the government pass the Safe Care Act has garnered more than 14,000 signatures.
But while other provinces have some form of secure care legislation, it has failed to make progress in B.C. Critics cite civil liberties violations, as well as weak evidence of its effectiveness.
A commentary co-authored by former provincial health officer Perry Kendall and published last month in CMAJ, the journal of the Canadian Medical Association, described secure care as a flawed approach that could have unintended consequences: mental duress, compromised trust in health and social services – and an increased risk of overdose due to rapid withdrawal and lowered opioid tolerance.
For Indigenous youth, secure care “may represent a continuation of colonial practices and state repression,” the commentary said.
Jennifer Charlesworth, B.C.’s representative for children and youth, has followed the issue for more than 20 years and sat on some of the early working groups that examined it. She has also lost seven young people in her network to overdoses.
Dr. Charlesworth said she completely understands the push for secure care – and the frustration of parents who feel they have no other options. But the outcomes are not compelling, she said.
“What was true for me then is true for me now: There is no compelling evidence to say that secure care achieves the outcomes we desire,” she said. “I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for it, but I’m not in support of it until … we have created a robust array of voluntary services and supports.”
B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy said the province’s priority is improving the voluntary care system so that youths – and adults – can access effective help as soon as they need it.
“We will examine every piece of legislation to see whether evidence shows if it keeps our kids safer, but our focus is on voluntary services,” she said.