The provincial government says it has “no update” on a promised centre of excellence for youth mental health in Moncton, 14 years after the province was urged to build such a network.
The Higgs government announced in December 2019 that it would move the planned $14.4 million centre, which was supposed to be a key part of a hub of expertise around youth mental health, to Moncton from a facility that was about 90 per cent complete in Campbellton.
The Campbellton facility was to be repurposed to expand access to residential addiction treatment, the government said at the time.
But more than two and a half years after several experts applauded the decision to move the youth mental health centre to a more central location, a site in Moncton still hasn’t been chosen.
“No decision has been made on that yet,” Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Jill Green told CBC when asked about site selection in June.
That comes as recent reports from the province’s child and youth advocate warn that social workers are seeing youth with more complex mental health issues and are struggling to find places that can provide adequate care.
“Regions find that children coming into care are presenting with much more complexity in terms of trauma-related behaviours and diagnoses and it is harder and harder to place these children in typical foster homes,” the advocate wrote in a May 2022 report on the state of the province’s child welfare system.
‘A frustrating journey’
In 2008, then-Ombud and Child and Youth Advocate Bernard Richard’s Connecting the Dots report called for a centre of excellence for youth with highly complex needs.
“This centre of excellence could be located in a New Brunswick community and mandated to recruit and retain expert services in child and adolescent psychiatry, developmental psychology, audiology, speech pathology and other support services in matters of child welfare,” that report says.
Three years later, Richard co-authored a task force report looking at where the facility should be located and what services it should provide. It concluded it should be run at arm’s length from the government, with a goal of coordinating services for “children and youth with the most complex needs in the province.”
“In the three years since the Connecting the Dots report was released, the thinking about the Centre of Excellence and its operations and mandate has evolved significantly, but the need has not at all abated; in fact, it has become more urgent,” the 2011 report says.
“We tried to make the case that the need was there,” Richard told CBC News this week.
“Nobody’s ever told me otherwise.”
If you told him in 2008 that the centre of excellence still hadn’t come to fruition, more than a decade and several governments later, Richard said he would have been “extremely disappointed.”
“I suppose I’ve been around government long enough to know that things often don’t happen overnight,” he said.
“But it has been a frustrating journey for me as an observant of the slowness of the process.”
2024 timeline ‘out of sync with the urgent demands’
Richard said he’s more concerned than ever about the lack of a network of expertise on youth mental health, given the toll COVID-19 has had on children and youth who have been struggling with remote learning and isolation.
The province’s child and youth advocate’s office has echoed those concerns, and called on the government to “expedite the development and opening of this facility” in a report on youth mental health and youth suicide prevention released last summer.
The report said the government had committed to open the new facility by 2024.
“Given all that we have heard, the Advocate believes that this timeline is not timely and out of sync with the urgent demands of the present situation and it will be difficult to endure patiently for four more years for an acute care facility for the most vulnerable youth in our province,” the advocate’s report says.
Two years ago, the government said it was reviewing the mandate and bed requirements of the centre.
It’s not clear if that review was ever completed, and if so, what that review found, but the government’s 2021-2025 Addiction and Mental Health Action Plan lists the project as a “provincial treatment centre for youth” rather than a “centre of excellence.”
No one from the Department of Health was made available for an interview about its plans for the centre and the delay in choosing a site in Moncton.
“The department continues to work on this project and has no update at this time,” Department of Health spokesperson Michaela Power wrote in an emailed statement.
“The department will share information when available.”