A couple in Kamloops had their three youngest children removed by the B.C. government after they gave shelter to their violent, mentally ill adult son, who had been turned away from government care.

"We were backed into a corner," said the children's mother, Leah Flagg. "We had to choose between the well-being of one child or our other children."

Leah and Steve Flagg have four children, aged 11 to 20. Leah said her oldest son, Trevor, has brain damage and has been diagnosed with several types of mental illness. She said he can be paranoid, obsessive and violent.

When he was 13, he beat his mother badly, she said, so the parents placed him in the care of B.C.'s Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD). He had also harmed his younger siblings.

"He does really well when he's on medication and the medication is working. When he's not stabilized, conflict can become a physically aggressive situation in seconds," said Leah.

Nowhere else to go

Trevor was living in a secure youth residence, with 24-hour supervision, when he turned 19. At that point, because he was an adult, the ministry was no longer responsible for him. His parents said they could find no other government agency or community agency to take him in.

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Steve and Leah Flagg feel they were forced to chose between helping their mentally ill son and protecting their other children. ((CBC))

"Although they could see he had a need for help, he was turned down, because somebody else needed it more," said Leah.

"'You don't qualify' is the statement we were getting," said Steve.

When Trevor Flagg was kicked out of an apartment he rented last spring, his parents said they felt they had no choice but to allow him to come home, temporarily, despite knowing he was a threat to their other children.

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"We knew from past experiences, and the way his mind works, that if he was to be on the street, there's a good chance that he could possibly die, or he could hurt somebody else," said Steve.

Steve is a full-time automotive mechanic, and Leah was holding down a job and studying for her university degree at the time.

"It wasn't a decision we took lightly," said Leah. "I quit my job. Steve and I took shifts sleeping to keep the other children safe. It was our way of trying to provide for the needs of all of our children."

After weeks went by, and they still couldn't find a home for Trevor, they said the situation deteriorated. Fights were breaking out between their children, they said, and Trevor was becoming unmanageable.

"It was just drawn out and we were getting worn out," said Steve.

"We were putting out spot fires when we needed a whole fire crew to manage the situation," said Leah.

Getting better: minister

CBC News asked for an interview with the minister responsible for children in care, Mary Polak, but was referred instead to Rich Coleman, minister of Housing and Social Development, who said he thinks the system does a good job in cases like this.

"We're a lot better at it than we were 10 years ago," said Coleman. "We've actually gone to a different form of contract management that is saving us a lot of money that we can actually put back into services for people.

"I think we are actually doing a pretty good job."

The Flaggs said that when they hit a crisis point, they asked the MCFD for respite and counselling. The ministry sent a caregiver to help, but only on weekends, which the parents say wasn't enough.

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B.C.'s minister of Housing and Social Development, Rich Coleman, believes the province does a good job helping troubled teens when they become adults. ((CBC))

Government records show that by then, the Flaggs' younger son was sleeping with a knife, to protect himself from his older brother.

The ministry then decided the younger children needed to be removed.

"The children have been found in need of protection," a ministry report concluded in December 2009. "All children indicated not feeling safe. Trevor has not found a home."

Social workers, along with the RCMP, then came to take all three of the younger children and put them in foster homes.

Other children removed

"It was heartbreaking," said Leah. "We went between just crying and being devastated to being angry and wanting to fight back and feeling like we had no power."

Even after all the severe problems with their oldest son, the Flaggs said it was one of the worst days of their lives.

'We had our parental rights taken away ... when we called for help'- Leah Flagg, children's mother

"We had our parental rights taken away from us," said Leah tearfully. "And that's all we wanted to do was parent our kids. That's all we wanted when we called for help."

"[The older girl] indicated she would not go to a foster home and that she would go stay at a friend's. [The younger boy] fled from the home once he saw the RCMP," reads the government report. "Leah was crying, and [the younger girl] was comforting her mom¦ hugging her and telling her it's OK."

Under order of the ministry, the two younger children were put into separate foster homes. The older girl went to live with an aunt.

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Two of the three Flagg children are now back at home in Kamloops after the ministry removed them in December. ((CBC))

"It's disrupted their school life, it's disrupted their social life," said Leah. "The stigma [of foster care] for our kids alone is infuriating."

Trevor also left home the night his siblings were removed and his mother said he hasn't returned since.

"He was devastated," said Leah. "He told the social workers that night, don't take the kids away, this is the best mom you will ever see, don't take the kids away. I'll leave."

Son now facing charges

Trevor went to stay with a friend, his parents said. He went off his medication and was taking street drugs. He's now in custody, facing charges for robbery and assaulting a police officer.

"We're now going to visit our son at jail," said Leah.

Both Flagg girls have since returned home. The parents are fighting to get their son home from foster care, though. The 14-year old boy had a nervous breakdown because of all the upheaval, his mother said, and is now in counseling.

"We now have children who now want the doors and blinds closed all the time, because they are afraid people are going to be looking in on us to take them away."

Leah said she believes the government is paying $6,000 a month for her son's foster care, which she said infuriates her.

"It just seems to me that that money could have been far better spent to support the family and prevent the trauma," she said. "To prevent the emotional, psychological damage that it's done to us and our children.

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The Ministry of Children and Families in Kamloops removed the younger children from their home, to protect them from their brother. ((CBC))

"It's a crisis-driven system," she added. "You have to be at the point we were at, of devastation, the most worst-case scenario, before you can get help."

The Canadian Mental Health Association said lack of services for troubled teens when they become adults is an all-too-common problem.

"It's well known to anyone who works in the system, and it's unfortunately too well known to parents and their families," said Bev Gutray, executive director of the B.C. branch.

"When somebody turns 19, they move to another system, and sometimes that means no service or very little service."

"They have opportunities to fix it," she added. "What we're waiting for, along with other organizations, is the finalization of a new, 10-year, mental health and addictions plan that the [B.C.]

government has been working on for the last year or more."

Canada-wide problem

"This is absolutely not just a B.C. problem," said Gordon Floyd, executive director of Children's Mental Health Ontario.

This is one of the most underserved areas of mental health care in Canada. These kids fall into a great void. The adult services aren't really designed to deal with young adults."

Leah and Steve Flagg said, after people in the community heard what happened to them, they got several calls from other parents, also in crisis.

"There are all these families like us that are dealing with the same thing," said Leah. "We don't care who is bossing who or who is directing what -- we just need help."

  • UPDATE: An earlier version of this story included a photo of Trevor Flagg.  We have removed the photo out of concern for his safety.