Late last month, a man in his 30s with a long history of addiction doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire in the garage of a Surrey recovery house.
Two other residents went to hospital and were treated for smoke inhalation as a result of the two-alarm fire.
The B.C. Coroners Service is investigating. So is the Surrey fire department.
Self-immolation is tragedy enough. But what makes it worse is that the man’s death is directly attributable to years of appalling neglect. For two decades, B.C. failed to regulate residential addiction treatment facilities or ensure that they met even the most basic standards.
The man, who has not been officially identified, died in a government-registered treatment home where he was supposed to be monitored, supervised and helped to attain long-term recovery.
What intensifies the tragedy is that his was the third death in a year in a house run by Step by Step Recovery Society. One of the society’s five directors, Debbie Johnson, owns the house at 138A Street that was badly damaged in the fire.
Between November 2018 and March 2019, there were 65 separate breaches of the Assisted Living Registry’s regulations at the five Surrey houses that the society was operating.
Those infractions — the most recent of which were investigated in March — range from inadequate food to unqualified staff to unsafe facilities to failure to ensure residents are not a danger to themselves or others.
At the house on 138A Street where the most recent death occurred, there were 11 substantiated complaints. Only one was dealt with, according to the most recent report posted on the Assisted Living Registry’s website.
The pest control people did get rid of the mice.
But, according to the report, no action had been taken to address verified complaints about safety, about untrained, unqualified staff, and about the lack of any psychosocial supports aimed at helping people attain long-term recovery.
The society voluntarily closed two of its houses earlier this year.
But of the three still on the registry, all have substantiated complaints that haven’t been dealt with. In March, nothing had been done at the houses on 78A Avenue and 97A Avenue that were deemed unsafe for the needs of residents. Verified complaints posted in February about safety and the quality and training of staff remained outstanding.
The question that screams for an answer is: Why wasn’t Step by Step shut down earlier?
The legislation didn’t allow it. The Assisted Living Registry had no power to take immediate action to suspend or attach conditions to a registration.
Instead, all that the registry staff could do was try to work with the operator to get them to conform.
There are dozens of other niggling questions. If this were a well-staffed facility, someone might have realized that the man was struggling before he went to the garage. If it were a well-run, supportive house, it’s unlikely he would have had access to gasoline.
With better rules and oversight, those other two deaths at Step by Step might not have occurred either, and maybe other deaths could have been avoided over the past two decades.
Two decades. That’s how long B.C. went without any regulation of residential treatment centres.
That finally changed on Dec. 1 — 21 years after a previous NDP government brought in regulations only to have them scrapped in 2001 by the B.C. Liberal government that described them as too onerous.
The Liberals did promise new and improved rules in 2016 after a Surrey mom was killed outside a hockey arena by a resident of one of the unregulated facilities. But those rules were never enacted.
In 2017, a coroners’ jury recommended regulations following a 20-year-old man’s overdose death in a Powell River treatment centre. Those regulations were finally released in August 2019 and operators — including Step by Step — were given three months to get ready for the changes.
In the last four days, the registrar has cancelled all five of Step by Step’s registrations. A letter has gone to the operator. And, according to the emailed response from an addictions ministry spokesperson, the operator is “expected to begin an orderly transition of current residents to other registered supportive recovery homes.”
The email also said that Surrey’s bylaw department will work with the operator to place the remaining residents to ensure that no one is left homeless as a result of the closures.
It’s a glimmer of good news. But it all happened four days too late for the unnamed man, for 21-year-old Zachary Plett, whose family will grimly mark the first anniversary of his death at Step by Step last Dec. 15. And it comes nearly 13 months after Step by Step staff took two full days to discover the body of a 35-year-old who overdosed in the house on Christmas Eve.
“Why they had to wait to get these regulations in place is beyond me,” Zachary’s mother Maggie Plett said Thursday. “They should have been done sooner.
“It’s just a terrible, terrible tragedy.”
Recovery house regulations timeline:
1998: The NDP government brings in the first regulations under the Community Care Facilities Act.
2001: The B.C. Liberal government scrapped those regulations as part of its deregulation drive, declaring the requirements too onerous.
2014: A Surrey mother is murdered outside a hockey arena by a man living at one of the unregistered houses. At the time, Surrey alone had as many as 250 flophouses purporting to offer supportive housing for recovering addicts.
2016: In the spring’s Throne Speech, B.C. Liberals promise regulations, enforcement and a public registry.
In December, Surrey council voted to require all recovery houses to have business licenses, capping the number at 55 and requiring all of them to be listed on the B.C. government’s Assisted Living Registry.
The amendments to the Community Care and Assisted Living Act were never enacted or enforced.
2018: The B.C. coroners’ review of an overdose death in a Sechelt recovery house recommended that by September 2019 there needed to be better regulations for public and private residential addiction treatment facilities, as well as heightened enforcement.
The government agreed and set up a committee to develop standards to “help ensure quality and consistency and enhance understanding of the services across the province.”
April 2019: The deadline set by the coroner for a progress report came and went, but in a letter from the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions in May, it promised to have a final report ready for September.
August 2019: Addictions Minister Judy Darcy announces that the 2016 regulations will finally be enacted along with some additional requirements on Dec. 1. To prepare for the changes, the government offered $4,000 in grants to operators licensed by the health authorities or registered by the ALR to offset staff training costs as well as an increase in per-diem rates for residents after more than a decade of having been stuck at $35.90.