*Warning: This story contains adult language.
Burnaby and New Westminster families are outraged that youth struggling with addictions in the middle of an opioid overdose epidemic are losing an outreach worker who’s forged ties with them for two decades.
For about 20 years, Marilyn Benning has worked as a youth addiction outreach worker in Burnaby and New West.
She’s spent the last 12 years or so at Fraser Health’s Youth Substance Use Outreach Services program, working out of its 7155 Kingsway office, and she has been a lifesaver for marginalized kids battling serious addiction and mental health issues, according to clients and their families.
“She operates like a human being,” Burnaby parent Andrea Klaver told the NOW. “She operates like you would want a parent to treat their kid. She’ll drive you; she’ll meet you; she’ll get you services that you need; she won’t give up on you; she’ll find those nooks and crannies, ‘Oh, maybe we’ll try this or this or this.’ People call her. She was there for the birth of one of her client’s babies in the delivery room. She’s had kids that she’s built up relationships with, where people call her: ‘Oh, Joe is passed out at blah blah blah. What can you do?’ So she’ll get Joe into treatment right away. She does everything.”
Earlier this month, however, Benning’s clients and their families learned her program had been cut and the funding moved to external contractors: Odyssey I run by the Boys and Girls Club in North Burnaby and SHARE Family and Community Services in Coquitlam.
Fraser Health officials say the decision was made because the health authority had gotten feedback from the Burnaby Child and Youth Mental Health Services Local Action Committee and the school districts saying the duplication of outreach services at Burnaby Youth Substance Use Outreach Services, Odyssey and SHARE was confusing.
Fraser Health spokesperson Tasleem Juma said the health authority was “realigning” its resources in Burnaby and New West to “make it easier to access youth substance use support services in the community.”
“By reallocating funding to Odyssey I, parents, teachers and others now have one point of contact to refer youth to outreach substance use services in Burnaby and New Westminster,” she said.
But alternate education teacher Wayne Meadows, who works in the New Westminster school district’s Sigma program, told a school board committee this week he was “still in shock” after learning Benning’s position is being cut.
“It’s an invaluable resource for me personally to help me in my job in dealing with the kids I’m dealing with,” he said.
Meadows came to the New Westminster school board’s Jan. 15 operations policy and planning committee meeting with about 35 other people to urge the district and board to oppose the move.
“Not only are we here, but our families are here and thriving and we’ve got jobs and we’re living our lives and that’s because of these services, and we believe if we cut these services we don’t know what’s going to happen to the youth of our community, our communities,” one former client of Benning’s told the committee.
Fraser Health maintains the services aren’t being cut – the funding is simply being moved to other organizations doing the same work.
“Odyssey I is an experienced services provider, already offering outreach substance use services for youth in Burnaby and New Westminster,” Juma said.
To ease the transition, she said Fraser Health has extended the transition period till the end of February.
“We understand change can be difficult, but we believe this will make it easier for parents, teachers and others to refer youth in need of outreach support,” Juma said.
‘It’s not the same’
Benning won’t be moving on to Odyssey, however, and Klaver said the service Odyssey provides is not the same thing kids have been getting from Benning.
“They will tell you that they’re outreach workers because they leave their building sometimes to go for school appointments,” Klaver said. “That’s not the same as someone that’s out in the community all the time building relationships. You can use the same word for it, but it’s not the same.”
Benning did not respond to a request for an interview from the NOW, but Klaver said the outreach worker was not looking to move on to another job in the health authority.
“She doesn’t want to go anywhere. Fraser Health is yanking her job,” Klaver said.
The Burnaby mother said she is “fucking outraged” at the health authority’s decision and the impact it will have on kids, including her daughter, who struggles with addiction and had known Benning for about a year before “working up enough courage to even meet with her.”
“What will happen to my daughter and all the other kids when Marilyn’s service gets yanked and there’s nothing similar to replace it?” Klaver asked. “I don’t know. Do you think something good’s going to happen?”
Her fears are not unfounded, according to Kirsty Peterson, a longtime employment counsellor who has worked closely with Benning.
Even though an extra youth addiction outreach worker will be funded at Odyssey, a lot of clients have already said they won't be going there, according to Peterson.
“Youth build relationships with the people they work with. That’s sort of the bottom line of youth counselling,” she told the NOW. “The services are important but the relationships that they build and the trust they build is what keeps them engaged.”
Klaver fears the consequences could be dire for her daughter and other struggling youth when Benning leaves.
The Burnaby mom has started a Facebook page, Fraser Health A&D Youth Services cuts, and signed an online petition aimed at Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy (MLA for New Westminster) and Premier John Horgan.
The petition, which had garnered 91 signatures as of Saturday morning, calls on them to re-instate the youth addiction outreach worker positions.
Klaver also has a personal message for the health officials behind the decision to cut Benning's program and for those who could step in to reverse it but don't.
“Those kids that die because of your decision, their blood is on your hands,” she said. “If it’s my kid, you better believe I’m going to be knocking on your door with a picture.”
The NOW reached out to Darcy's office for comment, but a response from the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions said she was "not available."