Burnaby school board chair takes Fraser Health to task over youth addiction service change

Burnaby’s school board chair took the Fraser Health Authority to task this week for poor communication around changes to an outreach service for local youth struggling with addiction and mental health issues.

Clients of Fraser Health’s Burnaby-based Youth Substance Use Outreach Services program found out earlier this month the program was being cut and the funding moved to Odyssey I, a youth outreach service in North Burnaby, and another external contractor in Coquitlam.

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The change will mean the loss of a long-time youth addiction outreach worker, Marilyn Benning, who has been a “lifesaver” for youth in Burnaby and New Westminster for about 20 years, according to clients and their families.

The move outraged them and took school officials off-guard.

Fraser Health told the NOW the decision was made after the health authority got feedback from the Burnaby Child and Youth Mental Health Services Local Action Committee and the school districts saying the duplication of youth addiction outreach services at Burnaby Youth Substance Use Outreach Services, Odyssey and SHARE Family and Community Services in the Tri-Cities was confusing.

After the NOW published a story about the change, however, Burnaby school board chair Gary Wong took issue with the purported level of communication the health authority had with the district on the decision.

“It was implied that we, as a school district, were aware of and consulted with regarding these changes. We, in fact, were not,” he said in a board chair report at a public meeting Tuesday.

After the meeting, Wong told the NOW there had been discussions in 2017 about challenges around referring youth to Fraser Health-funded addiction outreach services, but the health authority had not followed-up on those discussions.

“There was the consultation, and we talked about some of the challenges but not what their solution to the situation was,” he said.

Now that the decision has been made, Wong said the district is willing to take Fraser Health at its word that the changes won’t adversely affect vulnerable youth.

“Hopefully it does work out, and, certainly, if it doesn’t, they’re going to hear from us,” Wong said.

Fraser Health clarified its process Wednesday.

“We received feedback from the Burnaby Child and Youth Mental Health Services Local Action Team that having more than one organization providing the same service made it confusing when referring youth to substance-use supports and services,” spokesperson Tasleem Juma said in an emailed statement. “Burnaby schools are represented on this team and participated in providing this feedback, which further supported findings of our own review of the service.”
Moving forward, Fraser Health will coordinate meetings with Odyssey I and counsellors in every school in both Burnaby and New Westminster, according to Juma.

“We want to reassure all of our stakeholders – youth, parents, schools and more – that there will be no reduction to their outreach substance use services as a result of this change,” she said.

The change in service was scheduled to be in place by the end of this month, but Fraser Health has extended the transition period until the end of February.

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