Daphne Bramham: Families’ pleas for specialized addictions care for daughters goes unheeded

Analysis: The unspeakable despair faced by these kids, their families and others like them is that when they are ready for treatment, they can’t get it

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The families of two 17-year-old girls are desperately trying to get them into residential addictions treatment. And, for now, the girls are willing.

The best advice counsellors have given is that they need trauma-informed care in a facility where there are no boys.

The reason is simple: Many — maybe even most — female addicts have been sexually abused, trafficked and exploited by drug dealers, other addicts and other men.

The unspeakable despair faced by these kids, their families and others like them is that when they are ready for treatment, they can’t get it. It either doesn’t exist or there are seemingly insurmountable barriers.

There is only one government-funded youth treatment facility that provides gender-specific care. But these girls don’t qualify. Not only is it in Victoria, the four beds are reserved for girls aged 16 to 24 who are either pregnant or have children.

But there are five beds in a gender-specific, trauma-informed treatment program run by a non-profit society that doesn’t get government funding. The Westminster Housing Society has a generous bursary program, but still the families can’t afford it.


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Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson.
Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson. Photo by Adrian Wyld /THE CANADIAN PRESS

They’ve begged Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson and her ministry for financial help. Westminster House executive director Susan Hogarth has also asked for the $3,000 each that the families need to cover their daughters’ costs.

So far, no help has arrived.

(Because of privacy concerns for these two under-aged girls, their names, their families’ names and identifying details have deliberately left out.)

Malcolmson was not made available for an interview. But the ministry’s emailed response to specific questions emailed two days earlier about gender-specific residential treatment for girls mostly outlined programs for women.

Last year, British Columbia announced $36 million for 123 new residential treatment beds spread across the province, doubling the current number. The regional health authorities are currently making plans and the ministry says that includes “consideration for gender as well as other identity factors and considerations to help build a more seamless system of substance use services for young people and their families.”

The statement went on to say: “These new investments have started to expand services, including those specific to women and girls, and we know there is more work to be done.”

The ministry didn’t respond to the question of whether it would make special funding available for these two particular girls.

Meantime, the clock is ticking for the two girls. As every addict, parent and expert will tell you, the window of opportunity to treatment can close quickly as the imperative to use reasserts itself. And missing that window can have fatal consequences.


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In the first four months of 2021, 176 British Columbians have already died from overdoses, a 43-per-cent-increase over 2020. That’s nearly six people every day.

Among them were eight kids including a 12-year-old girl from Saanich. Even though she’d overdosed three times before, her mother told The Canadian Press that the family was told that she needed to be 14 to qualify for residential treatment.

The minister subsequently said that age requirements can be waived. She said age shouldn’t be a barrier to treatment. Nor should money.

For these particular girls, it is money that stands between them and timely intervention.

The three-month program costs $9,000 — $300 a day. Westminster House Society has a bursary program that covers two-thirds of the cost. One third comes from private donors and the society matches that with money from its annual operating budget of just over $2 million.

But that still leaves a third — $3,000. And that’s beyond reach for these families and many others. In Metro Vancouver in particular, but all across British Columbia, families are already struggling with high housing costs. On top of that, there’s COVID-19 which has resulted in lost wages and lost jobs.

To be fair, the government has done a lot. In 2016, the B.C. child and youth representative for child and youth reported that there were only 24 youth residential care beds in the province. If all of the promised beds materialize, there will have been a 10-fold increase by 2023.


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But that’s two years from now and 2021 is on track to be the worst year ever for overdose fatalities. Deadly fentanyl and carfentanil are laced into almost every illicit drug sold here. Between January to April, 140 women and girls have already died. Unless something changes, British Columbia is on pace to record 420 female overdose deaths this year, the most ever and nearly 100 more than last year.

With eight youth deaths already, if nothing changes we’re on track for 24 this year — one shy of the record in 2017.

There are an estimated 68,000 B.C. kids aged 15 to 24 at risk of becoming addicts. Most are likely casual users, but hundreds and maybe even thousands potentially need help if they’re to live long and productive lives.

Only last week, Child and Youth Representative Jennifer Charlesworth emphasized the crucial need for early interventions in a report titled Skye’s Legacy about a girl who overdosed and died on her 17th birthday.

“They (youth) need to get into treatment for free,” she said. “We need a publicly funded, free robust array of voluntary care and treatment. … We’re not there yet.”

No. We certainly aren’t.


Twitter: @bramham_daphne


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