British Columbia

Death of B.C. aboriginal teen Paige under RCMP investigation

RCMP have launched a potentially groundbreaking investigation into care workers who dealt with an aboriginal teenager whose tragic death sparked calls for an overhaul of the social services system.

Child welfare legislation makes it an offence not to report incidents where child needs protection

RCMP are probing the death of Paige, a 19-year-old who died of a drug overdose after a troubled life on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (Representative for Children and Youth)

RCMP have launched a potentially groundbreaking investigation into care workers who dealt with an aboriginal teenager whose tragic death sparked calls for an overhaul of the social services system.

B.C.'s representative for children and youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, says police are investigating allegations detailed in her report on the death of Paige.

The 19-year-old died after a childhood spent in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, exposed to constant violence and neglect.

Paige was taken to hospital or detox at least 17 times after being found unconscious or incoherent; she changed schools 16 times; and she featured in more than 40 police files, mostly for public intoxication.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s representative for children and youth, says she hopes a police investigation into breaches of child welfare legislation might be a "turning point". (CBC)

But despite her contact with health-care workers, police and social workers, many of the incidents went unreported to the Ministry of Children and Families.

B.C.'s Child, Family and Community Services Act makes it an offence not to report a child in need of protection.

"It is important for me to know that the police are taking this section seriously," said Turpel-Lafond.

"I just welcome the fact that there is an investigation. It sends a very strong message out to everyone in the system that this duty is a serious duty."

'This may be a turning point'

Under Section 13 of the child welfare legislation, failure to report a child in need of protection is an offence punishable by a fine of $10,000 or up to six months in jail.

But Turpel-Lafond said there has never been a prosecution under the act.

"This may a turning point," she said.

Paige has several serious health problems, including Marfan syndrome, a condition that left her legally blind without her glasses, in need of medication she could not afford and a requirement for continuing cardiac care.

Turpel-Lafond called her investigation into Paige's life one of the most troubling her office had ever conducted. She called for an end to the practice of housing aboriginal children in the Downtown Eastside.

"Not only did she live in this abject squalor," Turpel-Lafond said. "But my report said that possibly we actually hastened her demise by the very sad state of our social care system."

Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs president Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says native leaders wrote to police after Turpel-Lafond's report demanding to know why charges had not been laid in relation to Paige's death.

Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillips says native leaders aked police why charges hadn't been brought in Paige's death. (CBC)

"I'm really pleased to hear that they have actually initiated an investigation into this tragic matter," he said. 

At the time Turpel-Lafond's report was released, B.C. Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux said she was "horrified" by the allegations, but defended the actions of ministry staff.

Cadieux wasn't available for comment. A ministry spokesperson said they would "cooperate fully" with police agencies.

NDP opposition leader John Horgan says an RCMP investigation into the "mishandling of an individual's life" is a continuing theme with the department.

"I believe certainly we can do better than this," he said. "And that's the expectation of the public."

As a result of the report, Cadieux said government would establish a rapid-response team model for youth on the Downtown Eastside.

The ministry plans to report on its response to Turpel-Lafond's report by the beginning of October.

with files from Farrah Merali

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