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Five crushing years after her daughter’s death, Squamish mom still fighting for secure care

Brenda Doherty’s 15-year-old daughter Steffanie Georgina-Anne Lawrence died from a fentanyl overdose in 2018; current government supports voluntary care instead.

It has been five years, but Brenda Doherty still can’t sleep at night.

The Squamish mom lost her 15-year-old daughter Steffanie Georgina-Anne Lawrence to a fentanyl overdose on Jan. 22, 2018.  

Doherty said she wakes up multiple times a night until she gives up and gets up at around 3 a.m.

“It’s been completely life-crushing for my whole family. And everybody’s trying to ‘chin up’ and move along. So, I try not to bring it up too much and bring everybody down. But in me, five years feels like it’s been six months,” she said. “The sadness doesn’t go away. The smiles aren’t real — you put a smile on because that’s what people expect.”

Since her daughter’s death, Doherty has called for changes that would allow — under certain strict criteria — teens like her daughter, who was struggling with mental health and addiction issues at the time — to be held in secure care against their will until clear of drugs and able to think clearly.

“You can’t get through to them by talking to them if every day they’re on drugs,”  Doherty said.

It becomes self-neglect when the child is not acting in their best interest, she added.

Former official opposition critic for mental health and addictions Jane Thornthwaite, of the BC United party, (then British Columbia Liberal Party) introduced a Safe Care Act in 2018.

Under the act, a parent or guardian would, if all conditions were met, be able to make an application for an apprehension order through the courts.

“If the Safe Care Act was in place prior to Jan. 22, my daughter might still be alive,” Doherty told Global News just weeks after Lawrence’s death. “If I was able to put her in a drug and rehab centre, I would have done that. But everywhere I turned, I was told I couldn’t do that.”

Lawrence’s father launched a petition calling on the then government to support the act that garnered more than 14,000 signatures.

But the act never became law and withered on the vine.

Thus, Doherty is calling on the current NDP government to revisit the idea.

What is the current government doing?

Premier David Eby told The Squamish Chief the way the current government looks at the question of secure or involuntary care is by asking if it is going to have the intended consequences.

“I’ve pushed on this with public health and with other officials …  and the concern that they have, and the information that they have, is that if we implement a system like that in the province, that it reduces the possibility, and the willingness of people to go to a health care environment when they or their friends overdose,” he said, adding that the existence of involuntary care would discourage youth from calling 911 or asking for help, leading to them dying.

“So that is the sole and continuing concern that prevents us from putting a system like that into place. If we could address that concern, there was a way to do it. I’m open to it,” he said.

“But that is the one that really prevents us from moving forward on that.”

Jennifer Whiteside, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, told The Squamish Chief the ministry’s focus is on voluntary treatment.

“We cannot have kids leave the hospital with no support or connections,” she said.  

“We know how important it is for young people to have access to a voluntary system of care. That’s why our government is building an integrated, culturally safe, and trauma-informed continuum of substance use care for youth.  We inherited a broken system in 2017 and have been working hard to build it from the ground up ever since.”

Whiteside pointed to increases in the recent budget to increase crisis supports, emergency room hospital-based care, and discharge planning, to treatment and recovery for young people.

 “On top of this, we are working closely with Indigenous partners to co-develop a plan to support youth following an overdose. We’ve also invested in organizations, like Dan’s Legacy, so that they can provide vital connections to counselling and support for young people dealing with mental health and addictions issues,” Whiteside added.

“While we do this important work, we will continue to build up a voluntary system of care for youth in all regions of the province.”

MLA Sturdy to champion another look

BC United MLA for West Vancouver-Sea to Sky, Jordan Sturdy, told The Squamish Chief after Doherty brought the issue to him again recently, he and his party are revisiting the original act.

They need to make some important tweaks first, but he is hoping to introduce a revised version to the Legislature in the fall session.

“We want to make sure that it reflects the current reality, especially around Indigenous Peoples,” he said, adding that it has to align with Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act and fit within the party’s other policies.

Doherty said she understands the hesitation of many to take rights away from someone, including a child.

She stresses there could be strict criteria that would have to be met to allow the youth to be kept against their will.

“Not just, ‘Oh, you know what, I think my kid’s getting in trouble. I’m going to go, and I’m going to take all the rights away.’ I don’t think it should work that way. I think that there should be stipulations set out. Do they meet all these criteria?”

She said that involuntary care would be a very last resort for parents who had tried everything else.

She also acknowledges this solution would cost money to implement, but her rebuttal is the current system is costing thousands of lives — a high-cost society is paying.

Sturdy concurred:  “Yes, there’s risk, but there’s also the risk of not doing it.”

There were 206 deaths from unregulated drugs in April in B.C. That is a 17% increase over 2022 and up 4% over March 2023.

This represents 6.9 people per day in the province dying from an overdose.

This article is part of an in-depth, provincewide journalistic effort by Glacier Media to examine the scope, costs and toll of the opioid and toxic drug crisis in British Columbia – a public health emergency that has taken at least 11,807 lives since 2016. If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call 911. If you need help with substance abuse, call the B.C. government's alcohol and drug information and referral service at 1-800-663-1441. It's available 24 hours a day.