Desperate measures: Families of drug-addicted teens running out of options

Sean and Tamara O'Leary broke the law to save their 16-year-old daughter, who recently relapsed and was on the hunt for more drugs. That's when the Ottawa couple realized just how helpless they were to save her.

Parents of 16-year-old feeling powerless to keep daughter away from potentially lethal opioids

Sean O'Leary says he broke the law by locking his drug-addicted daughter in their house, but he says he had no other choice. 0:32

In a desperate bid to save their drug-addicted teenage daughter's life, Sean and Tamara O'Leary finally resorted to breaking the law.

For the past two weeks, 16-year-old Paige O'Leary's on-again, off-again battle with opioids has been on, full tilt.

"I've been through [the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario], the Royal Ottawa, the Queensway-Carleton, and not one of the hospitals offered any additional services, and no services to our family — [they] just basically left us in the wind to deal with this ourselves," Sean O'Leary said.

On June 17, suspecting their daughter was heading out to score more drugs, the couple locked her inside their rural west Ottawa home. Paige found a hidden cellphone and called 911.

It's against the law to force a child 16 or older to stay home, or do almost anything else, against their will.

"The police arrived," said Sean O'Leary. "I said to the cops, 'All she wants is for you guys to drive her to Kanata.'" That's where Paige knew she could get drugs, O'Leary said.

The officers spoke with the girl alone, and decided to drive her to a Tim Hortons.

"So in the end she got her free Uber ride she wanted in the first place, and there was dad sitting back at home going, what the heck happened?" said a frustrated O'Leary.

Teen life interrupted

Paige O'Leary is petite, wears braces and is in many respects a typical suburban teenager. But for the last three years, her typical teenage life has been interrupted by persistent, overpowering cravings for dangerous drugs.

Sean O'Leary, whose 16-year-old daughter is addicted to opioids, says there are too many gaps in the health care system when it comes getting teens off drugs. (CBC)

When she doesn't get them, her father said, she becomes someone else. She throws things. Her mother has bruises on her arms to remind her of Paige's latest outburst.

Dealing with that has led her father to spearhead a campaign to help other parents help their addicted kids. Earlier this year, O'Leary founded We the Parents to raise awareness and seek solutions.

Through that network of parents, O'Leary said, he has compiled a list of 117 kids in the Kanata area alone who are in the same situation as his daughter.

Many have sought and received professional help for their addiction, but O'Leary said since the summer party and festival season got underway, some of the teens have strayed from recovery programs.

Since mid-June, O'Leary hasn't had much time for We the Parents: he's been too busy trying to keep his own daughter alive.

Friend's overdose sparked relapse

Paige O'Leary said her latest relapse began when a friend overdosed and wound up in hospital. She began venturing away from the family home to buy Xanax, a tranquillizer, and cocaine.

"I was just trying to forget about everything that happened, and it went downhill very quickly for me," said Paige.

I was just trying to forget about everything that happened, and it went downhill very quickly for me.- Paige O'Leary

She's well aware of the risks involved in buying counterfeit drugs off the street.

"There quite possibly could be fentanyl in it because there's fentanyl in basically everything right now," she said.

Her most recent relapse brought trips to emergency rooms and the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. Her parents pleaded with her to accept a crisis bed at a hospital if one was offered.

Then two Saturdays ago, she called her dad for help. Sean O'Leary brought his daughter home, took away her phone and forbade her from leaving the house.

"We basically detoxed her without her permission," said O'Leary.

Paige O'Leary, 16, has spent the last three years battling her drug addiction. (CBC)

'There's nothing we can do'

But that's against the law, so the officers who answered the 911 call did what the teenager asked and drove her to a coffee shop.

"If they're over 16, there's nothing we can do to make that youth stay. They have that freedom to go at any point in time if they wish," said Const. Cory McAree, an Ottawa police officer who works with youth. "Obviously we want to check the mental health of the youth and make sure they know they're going to be OK. [But] they know their rights."

This wasn't the first time Paige called police to try to escape her parents.

She also called them previously, and they ended up calling in paramedics because the teen was seriously intoxicated. They transported her to the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), but she was released before her parents were able to get there.

Sean O'Leary then got a call from OC Transpo security, telling him his daughter had tried to board a bus, but was refused because she was still too intoxicated. 

I have no understanding how a kid that high could be released from  CHEO's  emergency department, yet be too intoxicated to get on a city bus.- Sean O'Leary

CHEO officials told CBC they can't comment on a patient's situation without special permission. That permission must come from the 16-year-old patient, who can also refuse to be admitted, provided staff at the hospital don't deem her a risk to herself or others.

"I have no understanding how a kid that high could be released from CHEO's emergency department, yet be too intoxicated to get on a city bus," said Sean O'Leary.

The children's hospital has no detox beds. In fact, there are no youth detox beds anywhere in Ottawa.

Right now, Paige O'Leary is back home with her family, drug-free for five days and counting.

Sean O'Leary said when she's clean, he feels like he has his daughter back.

The O'Learys, like so many other parents, are hoping this time their child decides to stay.

Const. Cory McAree is an Ottawa police officer who works with young people. (CBC)

About the Author

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. She's also the host of the new CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On. You can reach her at