British Columbia's Children's Minister has rejected a proposal, spurred by the death of a 15-year-old in a court-ordered drug-treatment program, to routinely put troubled youth into care against their will in extreme situations involving mental illness and substance abuse.
Secure care for children at risk was among the recommendations in a report released Thursday by the province's children's watchdog into the death of Nick Lang. The Métis teen died in 2015 while attending a treatment program on Vancouver Island.
"It's widely understood that voluntary services are the most effective means of addressing addiction," said Stephanie Cadieux, the Minister of Children and Family Development, after the report's release. "We can't force youth to attend treatment or confine them against their will unless, of course, there are certain circumstances under the Mental Health Act or after conflict with the law."
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the province's Representative for Children and Youth, raises the idea of secure custody – a short-term, involuntary placement in a residential setting – in the report, titled The Last Resort: One Family's Tragic Struggle to Find Help for Their Son.
Nick Lang had been plagued by substance abuse for three years by the time he was ordered by a judge into a full-time treatment program on Vancouver Island. His drug use had escalated from marijuana to methamphetamine, but his family faced multiple barriers to find him treatment. Ms. Turpel-Lafond's report notes that publicly funded options had long wait lists, while private facilities were too expensive. His father also wanted Métis-specific services but was unable to find them.
At the same time, the teen was reluctant to undergo treatment.
Eventually, he was ordered into an intensive supervision program as part of his sentence for putting a machete to his mother's throat in April, 2015, during a dispute over his cellphone.
But less than a week into the program, he was found hanging by a piece of string in the care home where he was staying at the time. The report notes it was not clear whether his death was a suicide or if he died accidentally while attempting to asphyxiate himself "as a means to experience euphoria."
Ms. Turpel-Lafond suggests that secure care could have given Nick a better chance.
"Secure care allows for a period of time when a young person and those trying to support the young person can recover from what can be overwhelming dynamics of an immediate crisis," she writes.
She notes that holding young people in secure care to stabilize and assess them when they are at risk of harming themselves or others is not legal in British Columbia – except under certain provisions of the Mental Health Act or when a youth has committed a crime.
However, she points out that seven other provinces – Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick – have provisions for the involuntary commitment of children.
The option, she suggests, should exist within an integrated network of services.
Ms. Cadieux said a cross-ministry group is working to figure out how to address gaps in the system and to ensure families have access to services. In the meantime, she said, there are 203 beds in British Columbia for children with substance-abuse issues.
She said a secure-care approach would require specialized legislation. And she expects it may raise specific concerns from First Nations communities given the "large numbers" of indigenous youth in care.
Nick's father, Peter Lang, said he was pleased with the report and hoped to improve the system.
"I am so happy that his full story is being told. I hope it has an impact," he said from Chilliwack. "At this point, we know we can't bring Nick back, so my goal is to try and make changes to the system and to raise awareness for youth, mental-health and addiction issues so kids don't have to be criminalized to get help."
Editor's note: A previous version of this story said Nick Lang died by suicide. In fact, while he was found hanging by a string, the coroner has not determined whether it was a suicide.