Legislation proposes detaining children
Law would allow confinement in special facility to prevent youth from being sexually exploited

Jeff Rud and Lindsay Kines Times Colonist Thursday, May 20, 2004

Christy Clark: Proposed law strikes a balance between rights of authorities, parents, children

The provincial government is eyeing legislation that would allow police to detain a child against his or her will for up to 30 days to prevent that child from being sexually exploited.

The proposed legislation is aimed at helping kids who find themselves caught in prostitution or as victims of other sexually exploitive situations of a commercial nature.

It would allow for their detention in unique facilities that would offer counselling and treatment for things such as addictions but also be secure enough to hold the child "involuntarily" when he or she is "unable or unwilling to access help through voluntary measures.''

The proposed legislation, which will be explored through extensive consultation during the next three months, follows on the heels of the Secure Care Act, which was passed by the previous NDP government but never proclaimed. It called for an incarceration period of up to 100 days and allowed for detention of children who had fallen into other dangerous situations, rather than just sexual exploitation.

Minister of Children and Family Development Christy Clark said Wednesday her government's plan was to narrow the focus with its bill, allowing only apprehension of children who are being sexually exploited and limiting the incarceration period to 30 days.

Clark said the idea is to strike a balance between the rights of parents and authorities to intervene and the rights of the children themselves. She said it would be similar in scope to Alberta's legislation which allowed 332 apprehensions during its first year of use.

"It's been a challenge to try to find that balance,'' Clark said in an interview.

Detention would only be used when "less intrusive" approaches have failed or won't work. Children would be apprehended by court order or, in the case where they were in immediate danger, by police or the "safe care director.'' Children would appear before a judge within 24 hours for a detainment review hearing.

During the incarceration period, professionals would work with children and their families to create a plan to help end the exploitation so the child is safe after leaving the facility.

The ministry has come up with "Safe Care for British Columbia's Children: A Discussion Paper" as a basis for consultation with families, communities, service providers and others interested in offering input on the process.

That input is designed to determine what the maximum age limit should be for children covered by the act. It will also help determine what constitutes commercial sexual exploitation and what criteria would be used to detain a child for more than five days.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association is withholding judgment until it has time to study the proposed legislation, but, in general, said the government appears to be moving in the right direction.

In particular, executive director Murray Mollard said he was glad to see the maximum length of time a youth may be detained shortened from 100 to 30 days. The association opposed the "extraordinary powers" contained in the previous Secure Care Act, fearing it could have resulted in civil liberties violations.

Mollard acknowledged that incarcerating children against their will is a difficult issue, but the association recognizes there are circumstances where that might be necessary to protect youth from abuse and sexual exploitation.

Diane Sowden, executive director of Children of the Street Society, says the law is desperately needed.

But she worries the new legislation has been "watered down" because it only refers to sexually exploited youth. "A lot of the kids that we've been in touch with through the society -- the drug addiction is what happens first."

She also has concerns about the 30-day time limit in the legislation. "If someone is really entrenched and has drug addiction issues and multiple other issues, 30 days is not a lot of time to get that person connected."

Sowden has been fighting for ways to get children off the street ever since her own 13-year-old daughter ended up on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in 1993. "I didn't know that I was asking for 'safe care or secure care,' " she says. "What I was asking for was the ability to hold my daughter."

More than a decade later, her daughter is still there, addicted to drugs and working in the sex trade at 23.

"My daughter has said that this is the only thing that would have helped her when she was 13, because she could not make that decision on her own. She says she would have been very angry if anyone did this. But, looking back, she says it would have been the right thing to do."

The B.C. government has pledged $20 million toward implementing the legislation and the support structure required. Most of that money would go toward setting up specialized facilities with staff. Those facilities would likely be centred in Vancouver and Victoria where the problem is most acute, Clark said, but government would also like to set up access to beds for those from smaller centres.

"It won't be a prison, but it won't be just a regular old detox, either,'' Clark said.

Clark proposes to introduce the legislation in the spring session of 2005.

jrud@island.net

© Copyright 2004 Times Colonist (Victoria)