British Columbia's coroner plans to review the deaths of young people who "age out" of government care, after several high-profile cases in which teens died shortly after they were cut off from financial help and other support because they turned 19.
The BC Coroners Service is preparing to hold a death review panel, which examines the issues associated with types of death and makes recommendations to prevent them. Previous panels have looked at intimate partner violence, domestic violence, motorcycle crashes and avalanches.
Experts say aging out of government care puts young people at risk of poverty, homelessness and other problems - dangers that have received increased attention in recent years after several investigations from the province's children's watchdog.
They included Paige's Story: Abuse, Indifference and a Young Life Discarded. That 2015 report described a disorganized system that didn't do enough to help Paige, who died in Vancouver in April, 2013, of a drug overdose less than a year after aging out of care.
A 2017 report on Alex Gervais - an 18-year-old youth who jumped to his death from an Abbotsford hotel window in 2015 - found he was worried about aging out of care and described his final weeks in care as a "nightmarish combination of heavy substance use coupled with Alex's own overwhelming sense of abandonment."
In recent years, the government has increased some support programs for youth aging out of care. In 2016, for example, it extended the Adult Youth Agreement Program - which provides support to youth who are finishing high school, taking postsecondary courses or in treatment programs - from two to four years and raised the age limit to 26, up from 24. It also set up an online information hub and education support programs.
The fall review is also expected to include the case of Amber Nelson, 20, who died in Vancouver on Feb. 3, 2016. According to a Jan. 27, 2017, coroner's report, Ms. Nelson died of an "unintentional illicit-drug overdose," with toxicology tests showing she had used fentanyl and other drugs.
The coroner's report said Ms. Nelson had been in government care up until May, 2014, and recommended the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) "consider conducting a comprehensive review of the services provided to Amber Nelson with a view to improving services and outcomes for children in the province of B.C."
Asked about that coroner's recommendation, a ministry spokesperson said Ms. Nelson's death - which occurred nearly two years after she had been in government care - did not meet ministry guidelines for launching a review, but that the ministry would take part in the planned review panel.
"MCFD only conducts case reviews of children or youth who died within 12 months of having been in care or receiving ministry services; or of 19-yearolds who had been in ministry care within a year of their death," an MCFD spokesperson said in an e-mail.
"The Coroner is convening a child death review panel on youth transitions for Fall 2017 ... MCFD is a member of this panel," the spokesperson added.
Ms. Nelson's case is expected to be reviewed as part of that panel, the spokesperson said.
The coroner's office strikes death review panels to examine deaths that are related in some way - through an accident, for example, as by taking place under similar circumstances - and to develop recommendations to reduce the likelihood of similar deaths in the future.
The time period to be covered by the panel has not yet been finalized.
B.C.'s independent child watchdog said he hoped the ministry would review the circumstances leading up to Ms. Nelson aging out of care, adding that the current opioid crisis has compounded risks faced by some vulnerable youth.
"Unfortunately, this is what aging out looks like for many youth in the system," said Bernard Richard, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth, referring to the coroner's report on Ms. Nelson.
"They are ill-prepared to face the world out there without any kinds of support and unfortunately, it's something we see all too often," he said.
Mr. Richard, who wrote the report on Alex Gervais, said he had recently attended a roundtable event in the Downtown Eastside at which one worker who had planned to attend was absent because her son, aged 23, had overdosed the night before.
The young man recovered, but the incident gave Mr. Richard a real-time window into the challenges of obtaining appropriate care and treatment for people who use illicit drugs.
"They were scrambling," Mr. Richard said, referring to the worker and her colleagues.
"For me, it was a learning opportunity - you could sense the panic that any parent would feel, even though it was being transmitted to me through a third person.
"They were trying to find treatment options, there were no beds available - all that could be offered was a wait-list.
"Clearly, there were all kinds of difficulties being faced in finding treatment options, and they were [even] looking outside the Lower Mainland," he added.