Part one in a two-part series on a Chilliwack family’s response to the death of their 15-year-old
Nick Lang started smoking marijuana in his early teens as many young people do.
Middle class, fun-loving, the blond-haired blue-eyed Lang became captivated by the increasingly pervasive cannabis culture, something that did not go unnoticed by his parents.
But when smoking weed elevated to crystal methamphetamine use, young Nick became harder and harder to control for his father Peter Lang and his mother Linda TenPas.
Then came the day when everything changed in a way that should have – or at least could have – been for the better for the 15-year-old and his family.
Instead it led to Nick’s death in government care.
Peter and Linda are separated, and on March 31, 2015, Linda tried to get her son’s drug use and bad behaviour under control.
“He assaulted his mom while he was at her house,” Peter explains. “She had taken his cellphone from him.”
Peter and Linda had struggled for months to find some sort of help for their son with no success.
Through their employment the two are familiar with the criminal justice system and how adults are treated and get treatment. Peter is the deputy warden at a federal, minimum security, aboriginal-focused prison, the Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village, and Linda is an executive assistant to the warden at Kent Institution.
But getting treatment or social service help for Nick was increasingly futile. Then came the assault by Nick on his mother and a call to police. They quickly realized that, maybe, the only real opportunity for help for Nick was if he pleaded guilty and was taken into government care.
“I had to criminalize my 15-year-old child to get him help,” was how Linda put it when she confronted former Chilliwack MLA John Martin and Chilliwack-Hope MLA Laurie Throness at an election campaign meeting at Chilliwack secondary school on April 25, 2017.
No continuity of care
Peter says after the assault and the guilty plea, as someone who works in corrections, it was confusing to be dealing with the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) rather than the justice system.
Nick was put in his father’s care for a 60-day period but still, Peter couldn’t find the resources needed anywhere in the Fraser Valley to help him get drug treatment.
“He was really regretful for what he did, what he had done to his mom,” Peter says. “He did want to change.”
Originally from Campbell River, Peter looked there and found Nick a foster home through the Headstart program run by the John Howard Society of North Island. In early June 2015, Nick was sent to a family screened by the program in Campbell River.
What happened next, according to Peter was not the family’s fault or even the Headstart program, which he still lauds as positive. No, it was the negligence of the probation officer, according to Peter.
Right before leaving, Nick had relapsed and Peter wanted to drive him to the island but the probation officer said, no, he had to fly. Since following the officer’s directions was a condition of probation, Peter had no choice but to accede. The family in Campbell River was ready to foster, but they were never told by the probation officer of Nick’s history of self-harm.
And Peter and Linda were told not to contact Nick.
“They put him on a plane and told us we weren’t allowed to talk to him for at least five days until he settled in,” Peter says. “We weren’t allowed the phone number.”
They couldn’t call him but of course Nick had their phone number, and Linda said he left her a number of “distressing messages” in those first few days, messages from a troubled son hundreds of kilometres away that she had to ignore.
Then one day as the family he was living with were preparing to go out to dinner, Nick took a shoelace, wrapped it around a rod in a closet and his neck and spun himself around.
And it may sound like a suicide – and it might have been – it was never definitively determined to be so and Peter actually thinks the drug-addled teen did not die at his own hand intentionally.
“I believe he was trying to get a rush,” Peter says, adding that he doesn’t blame the foster family who was not given all the information on Nick they needed to properly foster him.
“We don’t have any hard feeling towards them. They didn’t do anything wrong and they were dealing with the information they had at the time.”
Regrettable government response
Horrified at the death of their son in government care, Peter and Linda reached out to their MLAs and MCFD for answers.
Recent migrants to Chilliwack in 2014 from Hope, the two lived in both the local MLAs ridings and were amazed at the lack of response they received not just locally but from the various ministries involved as well.
“We lived in both ridings,” Peter says. “Never did they reach out. It’s like they were afraid of me. If I was an MLA and this happened under my government, I would contact the family to ask, ‘what can I do?’”
So Peter and Linda launched a lawsuit against the B.C. government.
In recent days, and under the new government in B.C. who Nick’s parents say are making changes, if not fast enough, they decided to drop the lawsuit and redirect their efforts towards making sure what happened to Nick doesn’t happen to another child in care.