Mother pushes for change after teenage daughter's overdose death

Brenda Doherty says her 15-year-old daughter was released from hospital and died of an overdose after Doherty secured a medical form that requested the girl be held involuntarily by health officials to keep her safe.

'My hands were tied every single place I turned,' says Brenda Doherty

Steffanie Georgina-Anne Lawrence, 15, died of a fentanyl overdose in January. Now, Liberal MLA Jane Thornthwaite, opposition critic for Mental Health and Addictions, is re-introducing a private-member's bill that could allow parents to have children held against their will to deal with issues of mental health, substance abuse, or sexual exploitation. (Brenda Doherty)

Brenda Doherty says she did everything she could to try to save her 15-year-old daughter's life, but gaps in the system designed to help youth struggling with addiction contributed to her death. 

Squamish teenager Steffanie Georgina-Anne Lawrence died of a fentanyl overdose Jan. 22, two days after she was released from Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver. 

According to Doherty, three days before Steffanie's death, the family's doctor had signed a Mental Health Act Form 4 that requested Steffanie be involuntarily held for her own safety if admitted to hospital.

'I was panicking'

Doherty turned to several experts for help over the course of six months, including a psychiatrist, a youth counsellor, a psychologist and the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

Steffanie was temporarily placed in a safe house in North Vancouver by the Ministry of Children, but was not enrolled in school in the district.

Safe house residents are required to leave the house during school hours, and Doherty said her daughter used drugs because she had nothing to do all day. 

The Ministry of Children said in a statement they cannot speak about specific cases, but when a youth is suffering from substance abuse and refuses to return home, the priority is to find them safe housing and support programs. It is up to the individual youth to participate in those programs.

"She was not in her right mind, she was not making good decisions, she was in grave danger and I was panicking," said Doherty.

"I felt so good when we got that Form 4 signed. I felt so relieved. I thought maybe this is it, maybe we can get some help."

Released within an hour

But Doherty says that help never came.

Steffanie was taken to Lions Gate Hospital by police on Jan. 20 and her mother says she was released within an hour, despite having the Form 4 already on file.

"I didn't even have time to get there," said Doherty, who was at home in Squamish. "They even gave her the bus pass at the hospital to get back down to Vancouver."

Vancouver Coastal Health Authority is responsible for Lions Gate Hospital and will not comment on specific cases.

According to a statement from VCH, when a youth comes to the emergency room with mental health and substance use concerns, a physician can determine if they can be admitted involuntarily under the Mental Health Act.  

They cannot force treatment if the patient is competent and refuses help.

Doherty was told by hospital staff that the reasons her physician provided on the Form 4 were not enough to hold Steffanie against her will.

Safe Care Act back on the table

Doherty wants to see the system change — which could happen with a private member's bill reintroduced by Jane Thornthwaite, Liberal MLA for North Vancouver-Seymour and opposition critic for the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions.

The Safe Care Act was first introduced before the last provincial election but was shelved when the government changed.

The act would give parents and case workers the power to have children dealing with issues of mental health, substance abuse and sexual exploitation held involuntarily for up to 30 days for assessment and to create a care plan, Thornthwaite said in a statement.

According to the ministry, safe care legislation has never been passed into law due to concerns about infringing on young people's rights.

For Doherty, it's about a parent's right to protect their child.

"If their children are making decisions that are putting their life in danger, I believe that parents should be able to step in," Doherty said.

"My hands were tied every single place I turned."