Friday, July 7, 2000

Paul Willcocks
Sun Legislature Bureau

p. A11.

Move to rescue runaways hit with storm of protest

VICTORIA — It was supposed to be the answer to a parent's nightmare, a bill that would save lives by allowing children lost to prostitution or drug addiction to be scooped off the street and locked up for treatment.

But the Secure Care Act, expected to be a winner for the New Democratic Party government, has run into a storm of protest and drawn new attention to the shortage of services for kids who are ready to seek help but face only long waiting lists.

The bill passed Thursday in the last minutes of the session, only 10 days after it was introduced.

But the triumph turned into a major controversy as critics from the children's advocate to the privacy commissioner condemned the legislation and called for amendments before it's implemented.

The act allows a parent, guardian or the newly appointed director of secure care to apply to a secure care board to have a child or youth apprehended and held for up to 30 days. That initial term can be extended by the board for an additional 60 days.

It also allows children and youths to be held for 72 hours without board approval if the director of secure care decides that is necessary.

The problem is real. Parents have recounted harrowing stories of children as young as 12 using heroin or living with pimps and their own powerlessness to force their children to return home or accept any form of treatment.

But the government's bill is under attack for ignoring the rights of children and substituting crisis detention for adequate support for children before they hit rock bottom.

Phil Bryden, a University of B.C. law professor, was on a 1998 task force that supported 72-hour secure care. He said the group rejected the long periods of detention provided for under the act.

"This was precisely what was on the table and precisely what the majority thought was not a good idea," Bryden said.

The task force had concerns about the threat to youths' rights and the effectiveness of forced treatment, he said. "Nobody has ever demonstrated that that's a good treatment program," Bryden said.

Bryden said the bill's reliance on appointed boards creates the risk children will be held against their will without adequate grounds.

"This is an enormously difficult job," Bryden said. If a board releases a child who returns to the street and dies, the tendency will be to order detention for more and more youths, he predicted.

Bryden said the legislation appears to have been hastily put together. Only months ago, Children and Families Minister Gretchen Brewin said the issue was too complicated to deal with this session.

Tim Agg, also a member of the task force, said he has written Brewin with his concerns. Agg is executive director of the Pacific Legal Education Association, a youth services agency that supports children with significant needs.

Letting the state lock children up for long periods of treatment is risky and unproven, he said.

Agg too said the courts, not appointed boards, should be deciding whether children should be locked up. A three-month period of detention is the same as most sentences for young offenders, he noted.

He predicted the legislation is likely to be challenged in the courts because it allows detention without judicial review. An Alberta bill that allows the 72-hour detention of children involved in prostitution is being challenged by two 17-year-old girls, who argue it violates their Charter rights.

Agg shared the concern about how the legislation has been prepared. "It's not at all clear what expertise or advice government has relied on," he said.

Part of that advice came from Diane Sowden, a crusader for secure care since her daughter ran away at 13 and became involved with drugs and prostitution.

Sowden, founder of the Children of the Streets Society, has lobbied the government for secure care and earlier this year organized meetings for Brewin with groups of parents.

She was also the only task force member to call for detention for more than 72 hours, arguing that children should be able to be held for up to 30 days in extraordinary circumstances. But even Sowden said a court order should be required to hold the children for longer than 72 hours.

But Sowden said critics of the legislation are missing the point — that it will save children's lives.

The legislation would have saved her daughter — now 19 and off the street and drugs — from years of suffering, she said.

Detention for 72 hours wouldn't work, she said, particularly for drug-addicted youths. After three days they are still in the grip of their addiction.

For many children, the threat of secure care will be enough to convince them to accept help voluntarily, she said.

Sowden and most of the critics agree on one thing. Secure care isn't going to work without a major increase in resources, both for the children who will be held in care and young people who need help but haven't yet hit bottom.

But Bryden said the process is backward. The task force heard repeatedly that secure care shouldn't be introduced until there are adequate resources for people who are seeking help and can't get it.

"It's a little bit shocking that you have the government about to come up with $10 million for compulsory programs when people are complaining about not being able to get their kids into public programs," he said.

That's a complaint shared by Children's Advocate Joyce Preston and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

Preston said the legislation shouldn't have been passed without a commitment to provide the services needed to keep children from reaching the desperate situations that justify secure care.

John Westwood of the civil liberties group said it's a "disgrace" that the government is planning to scoop up children who are at risk because it has failed to provide them with needed help

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Created: June 7, 2001
Last modified: June 7, 2001
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