05/14/2015 01:30 EDT | Updated 05/14/2016 05:59 EDT

Tragic death of B.C. aboriginal teen Paige blamed on 'brutal and cruel' government approach

The B.C. government's 'brutal and cruel approach' towards a legally blind aboriginal teenage girl led to her tragic overdose death, according to a damning report from B.C.'s representative for children and youth.

Speaking on Thursday morning from the Ray-Cam Cooperative Centre in East Vancouver, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said Paige, whose full name was not released, spent her entire life in harm's way because frontline workers didn't protect her.

"Paige's story is one of the most troubling investigations my office has ever conducted," said Turpel-Lafond.

"It is a startling example of a collective failure to act by multiple organizations and individuals who should have helped Paige and, in fact, had multiple opportunities to do so.

"For this girl, the system and those who work in it failed as a whole in their duty to care for and protect her."

A life of chaos and violence

Turpel-Lafond said Paige's life was chaotic from the very beginning as she was regularly exposed to violence, neglect, open drug use and inappropriate living conditions, growing up in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

"In addition to her other vulnerabilities, Paige was also dealing with serious health concerns as she was diagnosed as a young child with Marfan syndrome, a condition that left her legally blind without her glasses.

"The same illness left her with other unmet health needs, including medication she could not afford and a requirement for ongoing cardiac care."

"That lifestyle had its effects on her education – she changed schools 16 times with sporadic attendance before finally quitting in Grade 10.

From safe houses to detox centres

"After her mother relocated them to the Downtown Eastside in 2009, Paige moved more than 50 times, shuttling between homeless shelters, safe houses, youth detox centres, couch-surfing scenarios, foster homes and a number of Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels."

"Paige ended up in the emergency ward or detox after being found unconscious or incoherent at least 17 times. She was involved in more than 40 police files, mostly for public intoxication or disturbances involving alcohol.

"Yet contact and reporting between health care workers, police and [Ministry of Children and Family Development] about these incidents was spotty – in some cases, they went unreported to MCFD; in others, the ministry failed to respond appropriately."

"In fact, the ministry's approach to Paige was one of waiting for her to ask for help, rather than proactively offering it and acting decisively to ensure her safety and wellbeing.

"The degree of suffering this child experienced is horrific. This is beyond indifference. This is a brutal and cruel approach," said Turpel-Lafond.

No place for children

The representative also called for an end to the practice of housing aboriginal children in the Downtown Eastside. She estimated there were 150 children currently living in questionable circumstances in the neighbourhood she said.

"Young people should not be living in these shelters and detoxes," said Turpel-Lafond.

She also asked the province's Attorney General Suzanne Anton to investigate why Paige's abuse was not reported by those who knew about it, and to purse charges of failure to report against those involved.

"Paige's files are rife with examples of situations in which workers seemed to throw up their hands and declare: 'What can we do?', rather than doing everything that was within their power," Turpel-Lafond said.

"When one considers trends exposed in my prior reports dealing with how the system treats Aboriginal girls, this professional indifference is evidently ingrained and needs to be immediately changed."

'Deep history of intergenerational poverty'

B.C.'s Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux issued a statement in response to the report, saying the government would discuss it.

"I've asked the ministry to institute a rapid-response team model for youth on the Downtown Eastside, so we can catch kids as soon as possible before they become entrenched in the worst areas of the neighbourhood – areas that nobody deems fit for a child or teen to live in.

Cadieux said she was "horrified by the incredible hardships this young woman endured during her life and by the tragic nature of her death."

"There is no tougher challenge for social workers and there are no easy solutions in cases like hers, where we see a deep history of intergenerational poverty, violence and addiction," said Cadieux in the statement.

"The fact remains that despite the dedicated and well-intentioned efforts of ministry staff and repeated involvement throughout this young woman's life by a number of organizations and professionals, the system ultimately failed to keep her from harm.

"The result is unacceptable. There was clearly not enough contact and co-ordination among those who were in touch with her. No one saw the whole picture."