"Without strict enforcement and penalties, even the best rules, regulations and legislation are left begging to be broken.
Of course, none of that adage applies to British Columbia’s addiction recovery houses.
Regulations are lax. Penalties are virtually non-existent. Enforcement is spotty at best, often requiring a complaint or a death before it attracts an inspector’s attention.
It’s no excuse that these recovery houses were completely unregulated until 20 years ago, which led to a profusion of flophouses masquerading as places where recovery is supported and encouraged.
Two decades provides more than enough time for change.
Surrey has been at the epicentre of this regulatory disaster with more per capita than any other municipality in British Columbia. The province’s failures have forced the city to creatively use its limited powers under the Local Government Act to try to restore order.
It started by strictly enforcing garbage, noise, fire and safety bylaws. It required them to have business licences, restricting the number of licenses issued to 55 and reducing the number of houses by nearly half.
Since last year, Surrey has also required every recovery house operator to sign a “housing agreement” that’s enshrined in a bylaw that requires council approval.
The agreement reiterates provisions of the provincial Community Care and Assisted Living Act and the Assisted Living Regulations.
But its stated goal is that houses be “regulated and supervised so as to ensure the protection, convenience and safety of other residents of the supportive recovery home and users of neighbouring properties, streets and public places.”
Among its requirements is that residents sign agreements with operators that — among other things — they will not “possess, hold, store, trade, barter, sell, buy or use any alcohol or any controlled substance” within the premises; be involved in criminal activities; and, they must be “considerate of other residents, visitors, staff … and of neighbouring premises.”
It’s imperfect and it hasn’t solved all the problems. But it’s better than relying solely on B.C. Assisted Living Registry (ALR) for enforcement, especially in the midst of a seemingly unending epidemic of overdose deaths.
In the last six years, more than 10,000 British Columbians have died mainly due to fentanyl-tainted illicit drugs. They’ve died in their own homes, in hotel rooms run by non-profit organizations that are supported by tax dollars and, 148 have died in recovery houses.
Corbin Fehr was one of them. The 25-year-old died April 27 of a fentanyl overdose at Freedom House in Surrey.
Following Fehr’s death, an ALR inspector found non-compliance with some of the most basic and crucial rules.
There was no evidence that Fehr or others were screened to ensure they met the criteria for assisted living. There was no opioid overdose plan.
Health and safety checks were not being done at scheduled times.
The weekend curfew was 1 a.m. even for those like Fehr who had only recently arrived at the home. And, residents were not required to sign in and out.
There was no evidence that the operator did the required drug screening even if residents were suspected of still using.
Fehr might still have died had Freedom House’s operator, James Doyle, strictly adhered to those rules. Even Hellena Fehr acknowledges that her son made the fatal choice that night after having checked in 26 days earlier because of Freedom House’s promise of “psychosocial supports” for addicts.
But, strict adherence might also have saved his life.
Had regular bed checks been required, someone might have found Fehr’s room empty. If he wasn’t in his bed, someone might have waited and checked him for drugs when he returned.
If no drugs were found, someone might have monitored him to ensure that he hadn’t already taken a potentially fatal dose and been ready with Naloxone.
Instead, Fehr is believed to have gone out around midnight with his roommate and brought the drugs back to the house. According to the coroner, he was likely already dead before his roommate raised an alarm. By then, the four doses of Naloxone administered were too late.
A young man died, but it’s good enough for the provincial regulator that the operator submitted new written policies and procedures within three days of an inspector’s non-compliance report.
The critical inspector’s report — provided to Hellena Fehr, who filed a complaint following her son’s death — notes that Doyle will be subject to “continued monitoring for ongoing compliance.”
It’s a hollow threat. There are only seven inspectors in the province, responsible for keeping an eye on an estimated 1,100 supportive recovery houses along with hundreds of assisted living homes for the elderly and disabled.
Even so, the inspectors can only set timelines for corrections, monitor, suspend admissions and attach conditions to an operator’s registration with the final step being suspension or cancellation of the registration.
Freedom House remains on the B.C. Assisted Living Registry, which hasn’t been updated to reflect that there was a substantiated complaint of non-compliance and the ongoing monitoring.
Meantime, Surrey has also been investigating.
Should its inspectors discover that Freedom House has breached its housing agreement, the bylaw allows the city to terminate the agreement with 60 days’ notice for non-compliance.
Even if none are found, Freedom House (like all operators) still has to renew its business license each year and have it renewed every five years.
Nothing will bring Corbin Fehr or others like him back.
But Surrey is at least doing what it can to meet Hellena Fehr’s hope that no other mothers have to suffer as she is."