System fails Aboriginal youth with huge waits, confusion, says B.C's child advocate

A report by B.C.'s child advocate slams the province's system for helping aboriginal youth for failing those in the most need with long wait times, confusion and misdirected resources.

Youth need help fast and 'instead they get a brick wall' says Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond in new report

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s watchdog for children is slamming the delivery of services to aboriginal youth who most need it. (CBC)

A report by B.C.'s child advocate slams the province's system for failing those in the most need with confusion, long wait times, and misdirected resources.

The report — A Tragedy in Waiting: How B.C.'s mental health system failed one First Nations Youth — released today, starts by introducing a 16-year-old who is real but has a fictional name: Chester.

The young man described as "sweet and easy to like" took his own life near his suburban B.C. high school.

Changes since 'Chester's' death

The Ministry of Children and Family Development responded to the report saying the minister has "no qualms" with the child watchdog's call for more action.

"Any time a child dies is a tragedy ... I agree with her," wrote Minister Stephanie Cadieux in a statement.

She went on to say changes made since "Chester's" death may have saved him.

"We have taken action to ensure that young people like Chester know that help is available ...There are no wait times for any youth who is deemed by a mental health professional to be at risk of suicide. Unfortunately in Chester's case, that's where the system - as it existed in 2013 - failed. He was not flagged as suicidal, nobody involved in his case had a clear picture of the state of his mental health, and he was simply — and tragically — underserved."

"We have taken action to ensure that young people like Chester know that help is available," said Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux in a written statement. (CBC)

The child advocate's report describes how the system failed him, and many others like him, noting that few improvements have been made to service delivery for young people who are most in need, despite many alarm bells.

"He simply did not receive the services that could have made a difference," said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth.

"Suicide prevention and intervention shows remarkable success when proper supports are present. But expecting children and youth and their families to wait 200-plus days for those supports is tantamount to the system abandoning children in crisis, even contributing to the isolation that envelopes young lives in need," wrote Turpel-Lafond in the executive summary of the report.

Turpel-Lafond has written a number of damning reports during her tenure urging changes to child welfare agencies in the province.

Report shows cracks in system

In this 62-page report the focus is on the breakdown of services for First Nations families in need, saying "they formed the rule rather than the exception."

"This known cohort of children and youth who require support and seek a therapeutic system that understands and supports them ... instead, they get a brick wall," she writes..

Particularly appalling to the child watchdog was the amount of time it took to even get in to a lineup to get help.

The report described how the "lengthy wait times remain the norm" with average wait time for services at the Aboriginal Child and Youth Mental Health (ACYMH) office where "Chester" would have been served was 270 days in March of 2016.

The report also notes other chronic issue within the system including:

  • Long wait times.
  • Understaffing.
  • Underfunding.
  • Administrative confusion.
  • Fragmented, chaotic system.
  • Haphazard performance standards.

In a written statement the ministry outlined how the system has changed since "Chester's" death.

  • B.C. now has 78 walk-in mental health intake clinics.
  • Online services have helped 8,900 children, youth and families.
  • More tele-mental health services are being added, most recently in Cranbrook B.C.

"This is how the system looks today. However, even with these improvements, it's still not enough. We've heard from individuals and families that we can still do better in making the mental health system easier to navigate — and we're listening," said Cadieux.

Critics slam B.C. record

Critics slammed the government's efforts to improve services, asking how many damning reports about the deaths of vulnerable children it will take before there is change.

"It's like a game of snakes and ladders, families move up a ladder, only to be sent tumbling back down to square one," said NDP spokesperson for children and families Melanie Mark.