Youth representative blames B.C. government for aboriginal teen's death
VANCOUVER -- The family of an aboriginal teenager who died of an overdose in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside wept after hearing the horrific details of how the system failed her.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, British Columbia's representative for children and youth, delivered a scathing report Thursday that accused the province and front-line workers of chronic indifference to First Nations children.
The 19-year-old woman, only identified as Paige, died next to a communal washroom in a city park in April 2013. Her short life was filled with violence, neglect, open drug use and police encounters -- and yet government workers failed to intervene, Turpel-Lafond said.
"Was this because she was a young aboriginal girl? Was her fate seen as unavoidable by those who worked with her?" she asked at a news conference.
"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."
The report states the Ministry of Children and Family Development inexplicably allowed Paige to remain in the care of her mother, despite being the subject of 30 child protection reports in her lifetime.
Her life was chaotic from the start, as she was exposed to her mother's drug use and moved more than 50 times to different homeless shelters, safe houses and single-room occupancy hotels, the report details.
Paige's aunt, Frances Robson, and her husband Lorne both shook with tears after Turpel-Lafond finished delivering the report.
"It was just hard seeing her picture up there," said Robson in an interview. "When you see her there and you see that she's actually gone, that was the hardest part."
The ministry rejected the couple's repeated requests for custody of Paige because they asked for help paying for a two-bedroom apartment and groceries, Robson said.
Yet social workers constantly called them at all hours of the night to ask them to pick her up from the hospital or the police station, she recalled. They had to borrow money to pay for gas or a taxi, bring her home and remind her to eat before she disappeared again, Robson said.
"We didn't know everything that was going on in her life unless we were there. Finding out some of the things that we did find out (in the report), it really hit hard that Paige had gone through all this."
The teen suffered from a syndrome that left her legally blind without her glasses and caused heart problems, the report stated. She developed her own substance abuse problems and wound up unconscious and incoherent in the emergency room or in detox centres at least 17 times.
Turpel-Lafond said the investigation is among the most troubling her office has ever conducted, but it is sadly not unique. She estimates there are about 100 to 150 aboriginal youth similar to Paige in the Downtown Eastside.
Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux said in a statement that she was horrified by the report and that her ministry will work with other service providers to learn from what happened.
She said the ministry will form a "rapid-response team model" for youth on the Downtown Eastside so that kids can be helped as soon as possible before they become entrenched in the neighbourhood.
But she offered few details of the teams, telling reporters they were simply a starter concept that will begin with getting together ministries, police and the City of Vancouver.