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Child and Youth Advocate Bernard Richard said the provincial government could save significant money if it properly invests in a new at-risk youth treatment centre. ((CBC))

The New Brunswick government could save millions of dollars annually by creating a specialized centre that would deal with at-risk youth, according to Child and Youth Advocate Bernard Richard.

Social Development Minister Kelly Lamrock announced on Friday that Richard and Shirley Smallwood, a parent of a child with special needs, have agreed to lead a consultation process that will develop a specialized youth centre proposal.

Similar projects have been discussed for more than a decade, Richard said, but nothing has ever been done.

He hopes the provincial government will finally create such a centre. And Richard said the investment could also help save money into the future.

"It is not only good for kids and the family but you will eventually save money because they will no longer be coming back," Richard said.

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Ashley Smith, who died of asphyxiation in her cell in a federal prison near Kitchener, Ont., in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Smith's family)

Youth going to the centre could have a variety of special needs, from autism to bipolar disorder.

Richard said he's noticed a growing number of these youth in recent years that need more assistance.

Richard used the example of Ashley Smith, the Moncton teenager who died in an Ontario women's prison in 2007.

The child and youth advocate wrote a detailed report on Smith's treatment in New Brunswick. In it, he said she could have benefited from a specialized youth centre instead of being put in a youth detention centre and then into the jail system.

Richard and Smallwood will have until the fall to consult on the proposal. They'll then submit a report to the provincial government for action.

The intent, Richard said, is to have funding in next year's budget for the project.

"This new facility will build additional capacity in New Brunswick for specialized treatment and residential services for young people and children who have complex needs," Social Development Minister Lamrock said in a statement.

"We will be consulting with key stakeholders, particularly parents, to get their input regarding services to be provided, development criteria, location, and governance structure."

Significant gap

Child and Youth advocate Richard said each day his staff runs into problems where youth are not getting the treatment they need and it leads to further problems.

"There is no question we have these cases over and over again where the choice is sending a youth of 15 or 16 to [the New Brunswick Youth Centre in] Miramcihi or the Restigouche Psychiatric Hospital and these are not appropriate for some of these youths," Richard said.

"There is a huge gap."

Other youth have been sent at a huge financial cost to Maine-based Spurwink Services, a specialized centre.

When the New Brunswick centre gets established, he said, it will be important to take in severely troubled youth but also be able to house young people who are ready to transition back into the community.

Location questions

Among the questions that Richard and Smallwood will need to address is the location of the centre.

Richard has raised serious questions in recent years over the continued presence of adults in the Miramichi Youth Centre. The adult offenders have been sent to the youth centre because there is no room in the province's jails.

The provincial government is in the process of building new jails in Shediac and Dalhousie, which should relieve the stress on the youth facility.

Richard said only 30 of the 100 spots at the Miramichi facility are used for youth detention and that could raise an opportunity to combine the resources.

"Is it a facility that can be converted into a combination custodial place as well a treatment centre?" Richard said.

"I don't know but I think they [the provincial government] are concerned that might be controversial."