VICTORIA - The lack of timely mental health services contributed to the suicide of a 16-year-old boy who wasn't eating, had threatened to kill himself and was left to roam in and out of school, British Columbia's representative for children and youth says.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said Thursday the First Nations teen, described by teachers as sweet and easy to like, left school one morning in May 2013, walked into a nearby forest in an undisclosed urban community and took his own life.
She blamed "a stunning lack of leadership" in the Children's Ministry for a crisis involving excessive wait times for mentally ill aboriginal youth, saying nothing has changed since the death of the teen dubbed Chester, to protect his identity.
Aboriginal youth exhibiting mental health issues still wait an average of 270 days for service in the area where Chester lived, Turpel-Lafond said Thursday after releasing a scathing report that criticized the "balkanized" and "grotesquely understaffed and underfunded" Children's Ministry.
"We have a lot of good talk in British Columbia, we just don't have any action to back up the talk," she said.
Children's Minister Stephanie Cadieux issued a contradictory statement minutes after the report came out.
"There are no wait times for any youth who is deemed by a mental-health professional to be at risk of suicide," Cadieux said, adding the ministry now has 78 walk-in mental-health intake clinics throughout B.C., where children and youth can be assessed and connected to services.
Turpel-Lafond refuted that statement, saying wait times remain excessive since Chester and his family were "pushed away."
"First of all, there are not 78 walk-in mental-health clinics," she said. "There are seven aboriginal youth and mental health teams in British Columbia," she said.
"The minister is, with respect, entitled to her views. I'm responsible to truth-test that and in truth testing it we have extensive wait lists and the aboriginal children are left out in the cold more often than not."
She said Chester transferred to a public school from a tribal system in September 2012 without any documentation and soon became moody, started hearing footsteps and voices and wandered the halls at school.
School administrators felt helpless and frustrated as Chester's odd behaviour escalated while they tried to connect him to professionals, Turpel-Lafond said, adding he was finally suspended and his family was told he could only return with a doctor's note.
Chester's mother in particular became "rightfully angry" and ashamed during her attempts to navigate a system that failed to help her son while three experienced social workers in an aboriginal agency were replaced by inexperienced staff, she said.
About 20 per cent of the 62,000 aboriginal children in B.C.'s public schools are designated as having a major behavioural issues, suggesting they may suffer from a mental illness, Turpel-Lafond said.
In 2016, following several high-profile suicides among aboriginal youth in B.C., an all-party select standing committee released a report saying children and youth experiencing mental health issues should wait no longer than 30 days for an assessment, followed by treatment within another 30 days.
Turpel-Lafond said Thursday that suicidal youth should be seen much sooner.
She said a lack of proper assessment and treatment for Chester was partly a result of miscommunication and little follow-up between service providers who falsely believed he was already getting the support he needed.
Turpel-Lafond said employees at an aboriginal agency were unable to properly help the teen because they were getting records in order before a ministry audit and review.
The representative made five recommendations, including a partnership between the federal and provincial governments in creating a lead agency to ensure mentally ill aboriginal youth can be assessed and treated within two months.
— By Camille Bains in Vancouver