PHOTO: Submitted by Sarah Pollner, Tyler Cave Productions, Photo illustration by Arya Djenar/CBC
Olivia Mahaney was like many Canadian teens. She had a passion for animals, loved music and hanging out with her friends.
Every Valentine’s Day, Olivia and her mom, Sarah Pollner, would make popcorn and watch movies. It was one of their favourite things to do together.
She and her best friend would take selfies — striking poses, wearing dramatic makeup and making faces at the camera. They shared the same purple backpacks, walking arm in arm down the sidewalk.
But there was another side to the teenager whose friends and family called Liv. Her best friend says she was addicted to heroin and methamphetamine.
On Nov. 17, 2021, Liv died alone, in the doorway of a historic, red brick building on Wharf Street in downtown Victoria. It’s believed the 17-year-old died after smoking heroin that was likely laced with fentanyl.
Pollner, 44, is now living a year of firsts. No daughter to watch movies with on Valentine’s. No birthday celebration. No Family Day. And now she won’t see her daughter graduate from high school.
It’s left Pollner concerned for other parents struggling with similar circumstances.
More than ever, it’s widely considered drugs are easier to access and are more toxic. And in B.C., when it can be easier for kids to get high than it is for parents to get them help, it has parents like Pollner asking: Why do the laws render her virtually helpless when it comes to taking care of her own child?
Various laws limit parents’ ability to intervene with helping keep their child safe. If, for example, a child doesn’t want to go to detox or other treatment facilities, that’s their choice. They also have the right to privacy — but that can exclude parents from knowing about their child’s medical condition.
“It started with not having a right to make her stay home … it started with the laws not allowing me to parent my child,” said Pollner.
From a young age, her mother said, Liv struggled with ADHD and anxiety, and acted out in school. But in time, Pollner found a school for Liv that was the right fit, and programs and medication that helped.
By the time Liv was 15, Pollner noticed her daughter began heavily drinking alcohol, which she believes led to drugs. She encouraged Liv to see a psychiatrist, then a youth counsellor. But Pollner said Liv denied needing help, and said she had her friends to talk to.
Liv was spending a lot of time with her best friend, Mika, who was a year older than she was. We’re not using Mika’s last name to protect her privacy.
They hung out downtown, often at a place known as the Whale Wall, a meeting spot next to a park and just around the corner from where Liv died.
“It’s friends, it’s drugs, it’s like, just being around people,” said Mika, who considered herself Liv’s protector. “The one time I let her go … she died.”
In the months prior to Liv’s death, Pollner said, there was a drastic change in her only child’s attitude and behaviour. Pollner had tried setting curfews and turned to local agencies for assistance. Nothing helped.
Pollner was left to rely on Liv’s friends, as well as texts from her daughter, to at least know Liv was safe.
By September 2021, Liv left home and was living in shelters or with friends.
“I felt so helpless as a parent,” said Pollner. “To watch your kid dying and knowing what’s coming and not to be able to do anything is the most gut-wrenching feeling in the world.”
Mika said she was addicted to meth at the time, and Liv was as well.“She was [also] addicted to heroin,” said Mika. She knew their drug use was risky, but spent little time thinking of any of the consequences that might be more severe.
“I couldn’t imagine her dead, ever.”
Over the years, Dr. Tom Warshawski has seen many teenagers like Mika and Liv.
A pediatrician in Kelowna, B.C., he tries to offer parents what little reassurance he can.
The lure and pleasure from drugs is so powerful, he said, “the changes that the drugs have induced are so strong, that there’s almost nothing anyone can do. You’ve still got to try.”
In 2021, the city of Victoria — after Vancouver and Surrey — had the third-highest overdose deaths in the province from illicit drug use, according to a B.C. Coroners Service report.
Five youth, all under 19, died in Victoria from the toxic drug supply. All were girls and one of them was 12 years old. Three were Indigenous, including Liv. In total last year, 29 children and youth under 19 died in B.C. That’s up from 18 in 2020.
In Victoria, Mia Golden, a youth and family counsellor, and Gord Magee, a plain clothes police constable, knew four of the five girls who died. They had also seen Liv during their street patrols.
Golden, with more than 20 years of experience, works for Pacific Centre Family Services, a non-profit counselling agency. She co-ordinates the mobile youth services team, a joint program with the Victoria police department.
Their caseload consists of about 200 at-risk children and youth who are often living on the street, using drugs and in need of support. They know the challenges parents face when finding help for their children.
“We’re going from one fire to the next,” said Golden. “And we’re barely keeping above water because there is just two of us [on the team], and we’re dealing with many, many drug dealers, many predators.”
Their work targets kids at risk of exploitation and recruitment by gangs.
As they search for a 17-year-old who is living under a bridge with one of her drug dealers, the pull of drugs is painfully clear for Golden and Magee. They say their hands are tied in their struggle to help teens like her.
In B.C., Golden said, teens have to volunteer to be returned home.
“There’s nothing that we can do in the way the systems are at the present time to be able to compel her to do anything if she doesn’t want to,” Magee said.
When a teen is hanging out with a drug dealer, one of the few tools in their toolbox is to have their child protection team apply to a judge to intervene. If a protection intervention order is granted and served to the dealer, he can be arrested if he is seen again with the teen.
Magee describes a recent file in which someone was “essentially preying upon a youth and they had breached, I think it was on the third time. This particular person got a condition not to be on Vancouver Island. So it does carry some weight.”
For some youth, it can become a case where they find themselves getting into trouble on the streets and charged with a crime. Police officers like Magee say that can be a good thing: it can get them off the streets and away from drugs.
But like many parents, Pollner didn’t want her daughter to have a criminal record.
The office of Jennifer Charlesworth, a government-appointed watchdog for B.C.’s children and youth, released a report in 2018 called Time to Listen, which focuses on children and youths’ experience of substance use.
“To be honest, even with an arrest, even with a child being brought into the criminal justice system, there’s very little available for that young person,” said Charlesworth. “So that doesn’t make any sense. We should never criminalize somebody who’s using because it’s a health issue.”
Pollner grew increasingly desperate, turning to various provincial agencies for support, including the Ministry of Child and Family Development.
She said a counsellor at the ministry tried to be helpful and told her Liv’s case was brought up in a “high-risk meeting” but “at the end of the day, all they can ever do is send you resources.”
In an email statement from the ministry, they acknowledge that there are problems in providing services to young people in need.
“Families in B.C. have struggled to get their children the mental health and substance use care they need when they need it. Our government is working to change that,” the statement said.
Pollner hopes they take action soon.
“I needed someone to make my daughter go home or there’d be consequences,” said Pollner. “I needed someone to just let me put her in detox, at least to give her a chance.”
But without Liv’s consent, that was almost impossible without an arrest and charges.
For years, parents in B.C. have been fighting for better policies to help their children who are struggling with addictions. In 2018, Rachel Staples and Brock Eurchuk lost their fight to keep their 16-year-old son, Elliot Eurchuk, alive.
Elliot was popular, a solid student and an athlete. He loved jujitsu and played soccer, rugby and other sports in high school in Oak Bay, just outside Victoria. But after multiple injuries and surgeries, he became addicted to powerful opiates prescribed as painkillers. When the prescriptions ran out, his parents said he turned to the dark web and the street for his supply.
With legislation on his side, Elliot was able to keep his addiction from his parents. They say he told his doctors not to share his medical information with them.
Two months before he died, Elliot was hospitalized with a blood infection related to drug use. On his 10th day in hospital, he got a day pass to go to a movie. While the details of that day aren’t clear, he returned to hospital, overdosed and nearly died. His father tried to get answers.
“I have no idea what’s happening with my son. He’s not sharing with me what led to this overdose. Nobody has told me anything about his blood chemistry,” Eurchuk said. “What chemicals were in there? What’s he using? Where’s he getting these things?”
B.C. legislation, including the Infants Act, allows children the right to refuse treatment even when they are heavily addicted to dangerous drugs.
The Infants Act was historically designed to allow teenage girls to access contraception. It’s based on the concept that a youth or teenager, if they’re making a sound decision in their best interests, should be able to access medical care without a parent’s knowledge.
“It’s been flipped around to, I’m going to say twisted, so that a youth can refuse care,” said Warshawski, who was an expert witness at a coroner’s inquest into Elliot’s death.
Eurchuck tried to have the hospital hold his son until they had a plan in place. “He was discharged 36 hours later, giving us a binder of pamphlets of different resources in town. All of which had waiting lists.”
In the meantime, knowing her son would not willingly go into treatment, Staples investigated options for sending Elliot to a longer-term residential treatment facility in the U.S., where youth under 18 can be admitted involuntarily, without a court order.
“I would have chosen that for Elliot. I would give anything to have at least tried,” Staples said.
But Staples was told by a hospital social worker that if Elliot was taken across the border against his will, it would be considered kidnapping.
Two months later, Elliot was dead.
In a 2018 letter to the B.C. Coroner’s office, the Eurchuck family requested an inquiry into Elliot’s death. In it, they said legislation and policies — among other issues — extinguished “parental authority to exercise critical decisions for a drug addicted child.”
“We’ve got a crisis on our hands. We need to act now, or we’re going to lose more Elliots,” Staples said.
She and Eurchuck want to see change with B.C.’s legislation to allow more options for parents who are trying to help their drug-addicted child, including secure care.
British Columbia is one of three provinces (along with P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador) that does not have legislative provisions for the use of secure care or treatment for youth, except in mental health or criminal justice legislation.
Since 2000, there have been efforts to pass bills in B.C., but none has been successful because of heated public debate and no consensus.
Hospital physicians “want the clear ability and guidelines to be able to hold these youth, give them time for some cognitive clearing, offer them treatment … or harm reduction to keep kids alive,” said Warshawski, who spearheaded a group of health professionals to examine secure care options for children and youth who are heavy substance users.
In June 2020, B.C.’s NDP government introduced Bill 22, an amendment to the Mental Health Act that would allow for involuntary care for patients under 19 for up to seven days following an overdose.
But not everyone agrees with that approach, including B.C.’s chief coroner, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs.
In a January 2021 report from B.C.’s Representative for Children & Youth, involuntary stabilization or care was described as potentially traumatizing and punitive.
Furthermore, without “a robust suite of voluntary substance use services and supports” available afterwards, the report stated this option would be ineffective.
Angie Hamilton, executive director and co-founder of Families for Addiction Recovery, a national advocacy group, wrote in an email that there are restrictions placed on youth for many things including alcohol, cigarettes, tattoos, pot, sex, even tanning salons, and “no one questions these restrictions on the basis of human rights, autonomy or self-determination.”
So why do we question this for kids who are heavy substance users? “We are allowing those with addiction to play Russian roulette with their lives because we have prioritized their right to refuse treatment (autonomy) over their right to life and security of the person,” Hamilton wrote.
The bill died when the house dissolved for the election in 2020. The government is interviewing stakeholders to try and figure out a way forward.
When he was about 15, Nathan, whose last name is not being used to protect his privacy, was admitted into a three-week treatment program in North Vancouver. While he was there, he said he received the support and structure that he needed to get back on his feet. But once he left the program, he no longer had access to the same kinds of services.
“You don’t have access to the psychiatrist that you saw … there’s really no aftercare support. So I wasn’t surprised that a couple of days after that, I went back to what I was doing.”
B.C’.s Ministry of Children and Family Development acknowledges the long wait times for counselling.
In an email, the ministry said between April 2020 to December 2021, on average, young people waited more than two months for clinical service.
“It’s very hard, especially with youth,” Nathan said, “because sometimes you only have a window of like a week or so where they’re actually willing to go [for treatment]. Sometimes the wait times are like six to eight months to get into bed, which I think is ridiculous.”
Eventually, Nathan went to a long-term care facility, where he stayed for nine months. Care at the facility in New Westminster, B.C., costs a minimum of $300 per day. While the facility didn’t help some of his friends, he said it saved his life. Since then, he has been mentoring other youth dealing with addiction.
B.C.’s child advocate says more is needed for youth under the age of 19.
In March 2020, Charlesworth’s office concluded the system of services and harm reduction options for kids with substance use issues was ‘woefully inadequate.’
The Fifth Estate requested an interview with Sheila Malcolmson, B.C.’s minister of mental health and addictions, but her office declined.
By email, they provided some statistics. As of September 2021, there were 67 residential treatment beds and 28 detox beds in the province for youth ages 12 to 24.
Pollner has never visited the makeshift memorial where Liv died.
“It hurts me. It’s a reminder of how everything failed and how she could just die there … and no one noticed her.”
This past Valentine’s Day, she wrote a letter to Liv.
“I miss you. Love you. I’ll never be the same but I will live for you, fight for you, I’ll try my hardest, baby,” she posted on social media. “You were the light of my life. I’ll keep memories of you in my heart always.””
If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:
Wellness Together Canada www.wellnesstogether.ca
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (phone), live chat counselling on www.kidshelpphone.ca
For adults: 1-866-585-0445 (phone counselling available 24/7)
For youth: 1-888-668-6810 (phone counselling available 24/7)
Substance use treatment centres for First Nations and Inuit communities
Resources from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction
For parents and kids in B.C.:
Foundry BC app
An emergency alarm app for drug users who are using alone to help prevent overdoses.