Rights group opposes government Secure Care legislation

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The B.C. Civil Liberties Association today criticized provincial government “Secure Care” legislation that would permit lengthy detention of youths who are at risk.

“We do not oppose 72 hour detention of children—those under 16—who are in immediate danger of harming themselves,” said BCCLA Policy Director Murray Mollard. “This would allow Ministry staff to protect the child in the short term and to put together a package of services to help them deal with their problem behaviours on a voluntary basis. But we would support this only if adequate services were available, which they are not.”

In the BCCLA’s view, children under 16 have a diminished capacity for making decisions that could have life-long and tragic consequences. Thus, the Association does not oppose the idea of short detention periods to break the cycle of self-destructive behaviours and put together a voluntary treatment plan.

What the government proposes goes far beyond what the civil liberties group could accept, and far beyond what the government’s own Secure Care Working Group recommended. Under this legislation, even 17 and 18 year olds who have problems with drugs or prostitution could be locked up: initially up to 30 days, then potentially for further 30 day periods. It would also apply to youths living at home who are involved in self-destructive behaviours, not just those on the street.

The BCCLA recommended that the legislation only allow detention for a minimum period necessary to complete plans of care, and no more than seven days, rather than 30 days. “We are very worried that 30 days will become the rule rather than the exception,” said Mollard.

Youth street workers have complained for years about the chronic and severe shortage of services for youth: detox, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, safe houses, counseling and appropriate education. Many of the kids who are drug addicted or involved in prostitution want these services, but either they’re not available at all or the kids are turned off by the long waiting lists or long distances they must travel. The window of opportunity for reaching these youth is often exceedingly brief. Without this continuum of care, and given that experts believe that successful treatment occurs only where it is accessed voluntarily, the secure care provision will become a default mechanism for dealing with troubled youth.

Just as important are services that are critical for children and youth before they reach the point of significantly harmful behaviour. A continuum of services, with a full range of assistance, must be available to minimize even the use of a 72 hour emergency detention, let alone a revolving 30 day detention regime. The BCCLA has consistently heard that such a continuum simply does not exist.

The BCCLA is also concerned that the possibility of rolling 30 day detention periods will drive youth at risk from the very services they need, and would otherwise seek out.

Mollard said, “Before embarking on any detentions, the government should make sure that adequate services are in place for youths to access on a volunteer basis. Only then would it be acceptable to consider even short term detention, let alone long term detention, of youths who refuse to seek or accept available services.”