WARNING: Parts of this story may be disturbing for some readers.
A Williams Lake woman is looking for answers and changes to how the health care system and RCMP deal with mental health patients after the death of a family member.
Aleesha Wood’s brother James died of unknown causes after fleeing from an order to apprehend him under the Mental Health Act.
She has been struggling to find out what went wrong in her brother’s case – a young man who just years earlier could have been any kid next door. He played hockey and guitar, and enjoyed time with his family and friends.
Despite a challenging upbringing, Aleesha said she and her brother were close. They stayed in touch even after he had started to withdraw from friends in his late teens and she left home to work.
James’ demeanor changed not long after settling in West Kelowna with their mom during his final years of high school.
In August of 2021, James went missing. He had been dropped off after being released from a stay in psychiatric care with a note with his mother’s number on it. He had no identification and no cell phone.
“He was so vulnerable and he was clearly not able to make proper decisions,” she said.
James did not make it home and was missing for three days. When he returned, James told them he had suffered abuse.
They took him to the hospital where a rape kit was completed, but James was too afraid of his assailant to release the findings to the RCMP. He rapidly declined and Aleesha advocated to get him a diagnosis for his mental illness.
James then fled his West Kelowna home for a second and final time, leaving on foot on Nov. 8, 2021, after he learned during a Zoom call he was going to be taken into custody under the Mental Health Act.
Dressed only in his pajamas, the temperatures that night dropped below zero. RCMP issued a missing persons press release to the public on Nov. 9.
Two months later , his remains were found in the Smith Creek Road area by volunteer searchers on snowshoes.
“He was an amazing soul. When we were kids he was popular and loved for being so down to earth. It wasn’t fair, he deserved better all around, ” Aleesha wrote to the Tribune.
Aleesha has been communicating with the RCMP and the Development Disabilities Mental Health Services (DDMHS) workers involved in James’ care as well as the coroner in an effort to prevent other families from experiencing the same tragic loss.
“Root cause analysis is something I have experience with in my industry … all accidents are preventable,” wrote Aleesha, who works at Gibraltar Mine northeast of Williams Lake. “There is always a preventative measure that can alter an outcome that results in injury or death.”
However, Aleesha said she has not been getting many answers to her queries to DDMHS or the RCMP.
One change she wants to see is the creation of an alert system for missing vulnerable adults similar to the Amber Alert system for children, which sends out notices to media outlets and wireless devices in the area when a child is believed to be abducted.
When James went missing, his sister said he had been in a state of ‘agitated catatonia.’ He was unable to care for himself.
West Kelowna RCMP did not respond to specific questions about the process used in this case.
Silver Alert Canada is an alert system proposed for highly vulnerable missing persons including those with cognitive issues, such as seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s, and volunteers have been using it.
Michael Coyle, founder of Silver Alert Canada, said the software scans police websites for reports of missing vulnerable people, but missed James’s case because it did not pick up any key words which would have alerted them to his cognitive difficulties.
The organization is now working to help police clearly identify vulnerable missing persons to be picked up by the software. An alert system would then send out information through media and social media in the local area.
Alberta and Manitoba have begun legislative changes to enable the implementation of a Silver Alert alert system.
MLA Lorne Doerkson said he will take her petition to Victoria for discussion. Aleesha said she will continue to try to fight for answers so other families do not have to go similar tragic experiences.
“It’s daunting, but I’m not going to give up.”
Aleesha will be outside Save on Foods in Williams Lake on April 5 from 12 to 5 p.m. to gather signatures in person.
She has also organized a public vigil at Stuart Park in Kelowna for James’ birthday on April 16 at 6 p.m.
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