EDMONTON Journal Jan 23, 2012
The father who called me on the phone is in despair.
And it’s easy to understand why.
He, his wife, and their 14-year-old daughter moved to Alberta from the United Kingdom in 2009. The couple adopted their daughter when she was seven. They knew her biological mother was an addict with mental health issues. They knew their daughter had been neglected by her birth family, and abused in foster care. Still, they were confident they could help their little girl overcome her childhood traumas.
But within months of arriving in Canada, things started to go terribly wrong. Their daughter started seeing an adult boyfriend, an 18-year-old, whom the father suspected was a meth addict. She started drinking, using drugs, running away. Her family called police. They called child welfare. They consulted psychiatrists and counsellors.
According to court records, the teen was diagnosed with mood disorder, conduct disorder, reactive attachment disorder, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and borderline personality traits — an ominous list, which explained much, but solved little.
On three separate occasions, the girl was apprehended under provincial legislation known as the Protection of Children Abusing Drugs Act. A PChAD order allows minors between 12 and 17 to be held in a secure detox bed for up to five days at a time.
But while children in such custody are offered access to addictions treatment, the law doesn’t compel them to get treated. And although the province amended the act in 2009 to allow children to be held for up to 10 days, the amendment was never proclaimed — largely because the province doesn’t have enough secure beds to offer extended treatment. According to Alberta Health Services, there are 15 such youth detox beds across the province — and last year they served about 700 patients.
For this father’s daughter (because she cannot be identified under the terms of the Child, Youth, and Family Enhancement Act, I’ll call her Jane) repeated stints in this court-ordered detox proved futile.
Eventually, child welfare officials stepped in, and got a series of court orders to hold Jane in “secure services” — a system that provides more extensive and high-security treatment than a conventional group home. (In 2010-11, there were 224 children treated under the protocol.) In court documents, child welfare officials noted that Jane was “associating and residing with” known criminals and drug traffickers, and engaging in “high-risk behaviours.”
“(Jane’s) pattern is to remain manipulative and not engage in the treatment process and then AWOL as soon as she is in an open setting,” reads one court application to renew a secure services order.
According to Jane’s father, the girl was released from her last stint in treatment in August. His daughter, he says, moved back home for a few days, then ran away again. Her family now has only sporadic contact with her. Her father worries that she’s living with an older, adult boyfriend, whom he suspects may be physically abusing her.
Jane’s father has written to the prime minister, to the premier, to Human Services Minister Dave Hancock. He’s had opposition MLAs ask questions on his behalf in the legislature. He’s started a website to bring public attention to his plight.
For him, the issue is straightforward. His daughter is mentally ill and neurologically impaired. She’s 16 and an emancipated minor, but she’s still not a legal adult. Her behaviour puts her at risk. He wants her apprehended, placed in secure care, and compelled to undergo psychiatric treatment.
“Our daughter has mental health issues and there is no distinction between a teen who had gone off the rails for awhile and is likely to come back to reality, and a teen with mental health problems. They are all tarred with the same brush,” her father wrote in his recent letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “Your government’s legislation is leaving vulnerable teens to the hands of sexual deviants, drug dealers and more.”
It’s easy to empathize with this father’s despair and feeling of helplessness.
But sadly, our overtaxed, under-resourced, mental health, child welfare, and justice systems aren’t well equipped to help a teenager like Jane. She isn’t psychotic or delusional or violent or acutely suicidal. Under Alberta’s mental health legislation, it would be difficult for Jane to meet the criteria for involuntary commitment as a formal mental patient. She hasn’t been charged with a serious enough offence to warrant extended criminal incarceration. And while child welfare staff could apply for more secure services orders, based on Jane’s history, and her age, it’s hard to know how effective they would be. Locking her up, in some way, would keep her safe. But that would violate her legal rights — and offer little guarantee that she’d emerge with her problems solved.
Our various “systems” don’t know what to do with older teens who display the typical symptoms of FASD — kids who have poor impulse control, poor decision-making skills, poor judgment, who lack the capacity to learn from their mistakes, kids scarred by abuse in utero. Not even responsible, caring adoptive parents can “love” these children better. Often, it’s not until they end up in the criminal justice system that they get any kind of sustained treatment.
At this point, I’m supposed to offer my solution to this problem. I wish I had one. I could say we need more resources for pediatric mental health services. I could say that we need our health care, child welfare, and court systems to do a better job of working together to serve young people who have both addiction and mental health issues. I could say we should offer families of kids with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, including adoptive and foster parents, more supports to manage the immense responsibility they’ve shouldered. None of those things will bring Jane home safe. But they might help to keep the next Janes off our streets.
Written by Paula Simons