System failed mentally ill teen

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published on July 18, 2011.

Hours before committing suicide in his cell at the Syl Apps Youth Centre, Gleb Alfyorov piteously asked the judge presiding over his case: “If I have mental issues, why am I in jail?”

That’s what Ontarians need to know as a coroner’s inquest probes the death of the tormented 17-year-old, who hanged himself while waiting for a court-ordered mental health assessment.

For more than a month Star reporter Diana Zlomislic was frustrated by government lawyers in her attempts to obtain documents on the case. Last week, after making a special application to the judge, she got them. What they showed was a litany of preventable errors. Directives were ignored. Funds were not approved in time. Judges, lawyers and psychiatrists all failed the young man.

It was clear when Alfyorov landed in court at 15 that he was a very sick kid.

But instead of being treated, he was locked up, shuttled between jails, never properly assessed and let down by a succession of officials.

The judge who ordered a 30-day psychiatric assessment of the Pickering youth told him: “I want you to be with a team of specialists — nurses and doctors who can meet with you and talk with you about things.” But instead of sending him to the Whitby Mental Health Centre, where such assessments are done, she sent him to the Syl Apps Youth Centre in Oakville, a combined jail and secure treatment facility that is not set up to do assessments.

The duty counsel who recommended Alfyorov be sent to the centre did not realize the privately run facility even had a jail.

No one at the youth centre read the note explaining why he was there. When a police cruiser delivered him, the staff strip-searched him, interviewed him and put him a jail cell where he had virtually no contact with any of the facility’s medical or psychiatric staff.

The clinical director of the Syl Apps Centre was travelling across Ontario at the time, giving speeches on youth suicide. He did not believe Alfyorov to be at risk of suicide.

Within 10 days, the province agreed to pay $3,500 for the assessment, but the Syl Apps centre complained after a month that it still did not have the fund. Alfyorov pleaded with the judge not to send him back for another month, but she told him she could not deal with the matter that day.

There was no tomorrow for Alfyorov. That night, guards forgot to remove his sneakers from his cell. He used the laces to hang himself from a grill protecting a ceiling smoke detector.

If this were an isolated tragedy, it would be reasonable to hope the inquest into his death would prevent other young people with mental illness from suffering the same fate. But an eerily similar inquest is being conducted into the death of Ashley Smith, a 19-year-old with a history of mental illness, who strangled herself in a Kitchener prison a year earlier. And both investigations come at a time when mental health providers are pleading with all three provincial party leaders to address the urgent need to get children and youth into treatment. According to Children’s Mental Health Ontario, three out of four young people don’t get the help they need.

Egregious errors by provincial authorities were partly responsible for Alfyorov’s untimely death. But so was Ontario’s grossly inadequate mental health system.

< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/article/1025775–system-failed-mentally-ill-teen >

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