Skip to main content

Paige died of an overdose at age 19 in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and a new report from British Columbia's representative for children and youth says the government could have prevented her death.HO-B.C. Representative for Children and Youth/The Canadian Press

An aboriginal teen who died of a drug overdose was left to grow up in violence and neglect with her alcoholic mother in some of Vancouver's most desperate housing – despite 30 child-protection reports dating back nearly to her birth, B.C.'s child watchdog says in a new report.

The story of the teen known only as Paige highlights a pattern of "persistent professional indifference" shown to aboriginal children and youth in British Columbia by agencies that are supposed to protect them, B.C. Child and Youth Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said on Thursday.

"The professional indifference that plagued her life – that prevented her from receiving a minimal standard of child protection, a minimal standard of health care and even a minimal standard of education services – must be the product of a system that has effectively discounted the value of girls like her," Ms. Turpel-Lafond said at a news conference.

The report, the latest in a string of critical reviews by Ms. Turpel-Lafond since she was appointed in 2006, highlights ongoing tension between her office and the province's Ministry of Children and Family Development, which on Thursday pledged to launch a rapid-response team to work with youth in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, where many residents grapple with poverty, homelessness and alcohol and substance abuse.

The review also shined a spotlight on hotel stays for vulnerable children, with Ms. Turpel-Lafond slamming the province for Paige's stints in single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels – often rundown, pest-infested buildings that comprise the housing of last resort in the Downtown Eastside.

In her report, Ms. Turpel-Lafond said Paige lived in SROs "avoided by some workers as too dangerous to visit."

She said Paige moved to the Downtown Eastside with her mother in 2009, when Paige was 16, and moved more than 50 times over the next three years, with stints in hotels, foster homes and youth detox centres.

In response, Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux said the province does not place children in SROs and tries to find more suitable accommodations for children found to be living in the buildings.

"The ministry does not place children in these areas," Ms. Cadieux said in a conference call with reporters after the report was released. "We do not check them into SROs for shelter. We do not leave them in dangerous situations that we are aware of – there are not any no-go zones for ministry staff."

The Minister also rejected Ms. Turpel-Lafond's characterization of "professional indifference" in the system, saying social workers and others are working hard in challenging circumstances.

She conceded, however, that services were fragmented and ultimately failed to protect the girl.

Paige suffered from a syndrome that left her legally blind without her glasses and caused heart problems, the report stated. She developed substance-abuse problems and wound up unconscious and incoherent in hospital emergency rooms or in detox centres at least 17 times. She died at 19 of a drug overdose in a washroom next to Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond estimates there are 100 to 150 aboriginal youth similar to Paige in the Downtown Eastside.

Ms. Cadieux said staff estimate there are "10 to 20 young people at any given time, on the Downtown Eastside, like Paige."

Some of those youth, she added, may not want to be found or to be in touch with the ministry, making it important that police, hospitals and community workers notify the ministry when children are at risk.

The report contains six recommendations, including immediate steps to bolster services to aboriginal children and youth, especially in the Downtown Eastside.

Aboriginal children are overrepresented in B.C.'s child-welfare system, accounting for 53 per cent of about 8,000 children in care despite making up just 8 per cent of the child population.