The Secure Care Act: The devil is in the details

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Who could possibly oppose a law that seeks to protect children who, due to addiction or sexual exploitation, are at a high risk of serious harm to themselves? After all, as the government and its defenders assert, the law will save lives. In the case of the recently passed Secure Care Act, the answer is: many respected individuals and organizations who also care sincerely about our kids.

Like many other individuals and organizations, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association is deeply troubled by the plight of children who are victims of abuse and exploitation. For that reason, the BCCLA supports a short term detention regime, as recommended in 1998 by the government’s own independent task force of experts and child advocates.

However, the BCCLA, the task force, other experts and those who work directly with high risk youth, disagree that the extraordinary powers in the Secure Care Act are necessary to save those lives. Instead, we fear that these powers will result in civil liberties violations and long term detriment to those that need help most.

Furthermore, our support for a limited secure care regime is subject to specific conditions being met, including:

  1. that a full continuum of services be available before detention and forced treatment is possible so that detention does not become the standard way of helping children
  2. that secure care only be used as an emergency provision for completing an assessment and plan of care for children at risk—not for longer term, forced treatment
  3. that secure care only be used for children under the age of 16

Regrettably, the Secure Care Act satisfies none of these conditions:

  • Waiting lists for voluntary detox facilities for youth continue to be measured in months, not days
  • The Act will permit detention and forced treatment for up to 30 days with the option of extended confinement and treatment of up to 90 days, a far cry from the 72 hours recommended by the government task force
  • The Act will allow the government to scoop youth up to age 19 despite the government’s stated intent to focus on youth 16 and under

Particularly troubling is the government’s refusal to tighten the legislative language to ensure that the law doesn’t become, as some parents would like, a way to force long-term treatment on children. Forced long-term treatment is overly coercive and simply will not work. Children, and their pimps, will seek to evade detection and detention. Worse, forced treatment may permanently drive away individuals from ever voluntarily seeking help.

With such extraordinary powers to detain vulnerable people who have committed no crime against society, we expect laws to be finely tuned to ensure only as much power as is necessary is bestowed on government. The Secure Care Act fails to pass that test.

In the tug of war over the proper vision for secure care, the government has broken a specific promise to the BCCLA—written by the Deputy Minister on behalf of Minister Brewin—to amend the law to specify that the detention period is only as long as is “necessary to ensure the child’s safety and complete assessment and planning”. Instead, the amendment is worded to allow a detention period for “assessing and assisting the child”, language that is sufficiently vague to allow for detention for longer term treatment or other objectives.

And whom, you ask, are the other individuals and organizations opposed to the Secure Care Act? The list ranges from individuals such as Joyce Preston, the B.C. Child Advocate and David Loukidelis, the Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C.; to organizations that actually work with street youth including the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society, the Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resources Society and the Pacific Legal Education Association.

How best to assist children at risk is a highly emotional issue. But in crafting good public policy that will actually benefit those it is designed to benefit—high risk children and youth—with minimal impact on fundamental civil liberties, we must not let our emotions overcome good judgement.