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‘I feel a sense of injustice’: family questions if more could have been done to prevent OD death at Penticton shelter

It was Sept. 17 when Rob McCaffery’s former partner locked herself in a washroom at a Penticton homeless shelter and overdosed on what would be a lethal combination of fentanyl and methamphetamine.

“Her bunkmate approached one of the staff members asking them to check up on her,” McCaffery told Global News on Tuesday.

When staff found 49-year-old Liz McCaffery unconscious at the Compass House facility on Main St., they administered two doses of Nalaxone and called BC Ambulance.

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“She was resuscitated when she left the shelter and she was admitted to ICU,” he said.

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But the mother of two died in hospital five days later.

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That’s when McCaffery said the family was contacted by a staff whistleblower alleging they had logged concerns about unlocked and unmonitored washrooms at the shelter after finding discarded needles.

“They were aware that clients were able to use needles in the washrooms and they identified it as a concern that the staff may not be aware that someone was in the washroom, as was the case with my ex,” he said.

“They logged it in their communications book and this was at least a week prior to my ex staying there.”

McCaffery said Liz wouldn’t have wanted to use the safe injection site within the facility.

“There’s a stigma attached to drug use and people are embarrassed about being drug addicts; they don’t want an audience,” he said.

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Coroner Meghan Shaw said in her report that she considered making recommendations when reviewing the circumstances of Liz McCaffery’s death, but noted that as a result of an internal review conducted by the shelter, changes were implemented which addressed the issues considered.

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“The shelter in which Ms. McCaffery was found has seven bathrooms total, four of which are out of the line of sight of staff,” said the coroner’s report, dated Oct. 21.

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“At the time of her injury, these bathrooms were not locked and not monitored. After an interview review, the decision was made to lock the four bathrooms that staff could not see and keep a log when someone enters.”

The report noted that staff are required to check on an individual using the washrooms after 10 minutes and the changes “are currently in place.”

Rob McCaffery is questioning why management failed to make the washroom policy changes before his ex-wife’s fentanyl overdose death.

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He said while he separated from his ex-wife several years ago, they have two children together and Liz indicated she wanted to get help for her addiction.

“She had gone to Penticton mental health, she was in the psych ward the week before, begging for help, is what she told us, but they discharged her with no action taken,” he said.

“I feel a sense of injustice. This is a person that wanted to get help and she basically was denied that opportunity because the manager failed to follow up on his staff’s recommendations,” he said.

The shelter is operated by the Penticton and District Society for Community Living.

Recovering addict concerned about relapse due to alleged drug abuse at Penticton shelter
Recovering addict concerned about relapse due to alleged drug abuse at Penticton shelter

CEO Tony Laing declined to comment and referred Global News to BC Housing, the B.C. government’s crown corporation that oversees subsidized housing projects in the province.

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BC Housing said it can’t comment on specific cases due to privacy concerns.

It did confirm that washrooms and showers are now locked and guests are required to ask staff for entry, as a result of the incident.

“BC Housing will continue to work with the society to review policies around washroom use, as well as the management of the Overdose Prevention Site, to ensure the safety of shelter guests,” it said in an emailed statement.

Meanwhile, Rob McCaffery commended the efforts of front-line staff for trying to reverse the effects of the opioid overdose.

“I know they did everything possible to revive her. There’s an emotional cost to them, too. It’s not just an addict dying, the staff that found her must be suffering some trauma,” he said.

Liz McCaffery’s family continues to cope with the grief of losing her, while living with the gut-wrenching question if more could have been done to save her life.

According to the BC Coroners Service, Penticton has reported 12 illicit drug toxicity deaths through the first eight months of 2019, which is an average of 1.5 deaths per month.

The number of OD deaths is comparable to 2018, when 16 people died of a suspected drug overdose in Penticton, and in 2017, when 14 deaths occurred.

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Thirteen people have overdosed and one person has died by overdose at Compass House since September.