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Grieving mom says son who died in Surrey recovery house ‘would’ve been better off homeless’

Zach Plett, 21, was found dead in a recovery-house bed on Dec. 15, 2018
Zach Plett with his (from left) older sister Callie, mom Maggie and younger sister Cassie, taken at his grandfather’s 95th birthday party, just over a year before Zach died. (Contributed photo)

A grieving South Surrey mom is demanding answers about regulation and oversight of recovery houses, following the overdose death last December of her son at a North Surrey facility.

Maggie Plett said she couldn’t believe the conditions she witnessed when she went to pick up her son Zach’s belongings hours after learning he’d died.

“I went over to the house to collect his things. I’m glad I did, but it was brutal,” Plett told Peace Arch News.

“I wouldn’t let a dead animal rot in that place. There was mould on his bed sheets. I’ve never seen anything like this. The roommate was already wearing a pair of his shoes.”

Plett said 21-year-old Zach was found face-down on his bed at around 4 p.m. on Dec. 15, and, judging by the time of death pinpointed by the coroner – between 9 a.m. and noon – had been dead for hours before anyone noticed.

She wants to know why, in a facility that’s purporting to be helping people recover from addiction, no one thought to check on Zach; where he was, or if he was OK. And if they did, why no one recognized that he needed help.

“My son would’ve been better off homeless,” Plett said. “At least he would’ve been on the street, somebody would’ve found him.”

Troubled recovery homes – both regulated and unregulated – are not a new issue in Surrey. Five years ago, city officials shut down more than 100 unregulated operations in a seven-month period, and continued to investigate dozens more.

While the overall situation has reportedly “significantly” improved, and efforts of a committee formed two years ago to tackle problem properties continue, staying on top of it remains an ongoing challenge.

“In about the past year – a little over a year – we’ve had 87 investigations that were initiated against alleged unregistered recovery or rooming houses,” City of Surrey bylaw services manager Kim Marosevich said last week.

Of those, 26 were not deemed to be operating as a recovery or rooming house; and 28 that were found to be violating city rules voluntarily ceased operating at the direction of bylaw officers, Marosevich said.

“That leaves us with 33 open files, where we are continuing to work with the property owner or agent to figure out how to bring the property into compliance.”

The city currently has five open investigations involving licensed recovery homes.

Surrey RCMP Cpl. Bob Keay, a member of the aforementioned committee, also acknowledged that problems continue.

“I understand that there are some families that have had some tragedy because of these rooming houses,” Keay said.

“Obviously, we’re always looking to try to find ways to rectify this concern.”

Marosevich said the city has “a fairly well-established relationship” with its 55 regulated operators. She acknowledged that conditions described by Plett have been noted by bylaw officers “both in places that are operating as alleged recovery homes and places that are simply operating as rooming houses.”

Gifted student with a contagious laugh

Zach Plett grew up in Ladner with his two sisters, Callie and Cassie. Callie was two years older; Cassie, two years younger.

As a kid, Zach was smart, kind, athletic and popular. He played rep hockey and high-level baseball, and did well in school.

For reasons his mom still doesn’t understand – but said may have been related to mental-health struggles (yet another aspect of Zach’s life where his family feels existing resources failed him) – Zach started getting into drugs at age 15.

“He was really smart, straight-A student, gifted – especially in mathematics,” she said.

“I don’t know what happened.”

Tributes in the months after Zach died describe his kindness and patience, his contagious laughter and the closeness he had with his mother.

Callie gave PAN a copy of what she shared with friends and family who attended a service held last January in Zach’s honour. It opens with the attribute she loved most about her brother: his laugh.

It “never faltered,” no matter how dark things got for him, she wrote.

“It was always a glimpse into who Zach really was.”

Callie described Zach as loyal and protective of those he cared about; someone who valued family above all else.

“But, I’m not going to sugar coat things,” she continued.

“For the past seven years or so, Zach struggled every single day. He constantly battled a darkness that many of us couldn’t even imagine, and I think the fact that he survived and accomplished so much in his twenty-one years is an incredible feat.”

She described the overdose crisis – which last year killed 1,514 people in B.C., 212 of those in Surrey (including Zach and at least three of his friends) – as “an epidemic.”

READ MORE: B.C. opioid overdoses still killing four people a day, health officials say

READ MORE: ‘My friends aren’t going to sell me stuff to hurt me’: South Surrey overdose victim

BC Coroners’ Service officials estimate eight deaths have occurred in registered private treatment or unregistered facilities since 2015.

In the first three months of this year, Surrey logged 33 illicit-drug overdose deaths.

According to data compiled through toxicology reports, fentanyl was detected in 85 per cent of the 2018 deaths, up from 82 per cent in 2017.

Zach, too, died from a fentanyl overdose, and it was learning that detail last month that prompted his mom to go public with his story. The coroner told Plett that the amount of the opioid in Zach’s system wouldn’t have killed someone who was using it on a regular basis, as Zach once did.

“My son hadn’t used fentanyl in six months,” Plett said.

‘Don’t worry about it, mom’

Zach had only been back in Surrey – a decision Plett said she had not supported due to the prevalence of fentanyl and other opioids in the city – for about a week when he died. Prior to his return, he’d been in Gimli, Man., where he attended what his mom describes as an “awesome” rehabilitation centre, making gains in his battle to get a handle on his addiction.

But after that program – and a brief relapse, followed by another month in the treatment centre – “he missed home, he wanted to come home,” she said.

Due to his addiction and the “really rocky road” it had put the family on for so many years, Zach knew he couldn’t stay with his mom at her townhome, and the two agreed he would go to a recovery house.

Plett said she got the name and phone number for a facility in Surrey from someone she thought she could trust. He told her to e-transfer $950 to the society, and that Zach would be helped to get on social assistance, which would cover fees for his stay going forward.

Later that evening, Plett said Zach called her to say he’d been taken to a different home – a six-bedroom house in North Surrey, packed with 18 men who shared two bathrooms, only one of which was functioning properly. He also described black mould, Plett said.

There was some structure, at least – residents had a schedule to follow, around chores, breakfast, when to wake up.

Zach asked his mom to bring him a clean blanket and pillow, which she did. That brief visit was the last time Plett saw her son.

The next day, he called to tell her he was being kicked out for “causing problems,” which Plett learned was due to Zach’s disclosures to her regarding conditions at the house.

“They told Zach you’re not to talk about this house outside these walls,” she said.

Dropped off at another facility, a few blocks west of Queen Elizabeth Secondary, Zach told his mom the conditions were no better, save for the fact he was allowed to keep his phone.

“I said, ‘What’s it like? Any better?’ He said, ‘It’s the same. Don’t worry about it, mom.’

“He was dead two days later.”

The evening before he died, a Friday, Zach called to tell his mom that he and his roommate were going to a recovery meeting. Plett’s confident he went, as she found signed paperwork amongst his belongings that confirmed his attendance. How long he and the roommate were there, if they went anywhere before returning to the recovery home and exactly what they did before Zach crawled into bed – one woman at the house reported the pair were using until around 5 a.m. Dec. 15 – remain among Plett’s unanswered questions.

The dinnertime call was the last time Plett spoke to her son. Around the same time the following day, her phone rang again, only this time, it was a police officer on the other end of the line.

“They told me they needed to speak to me, so I knew,” Plett said, holding Zach’s pillow in her lap.

‘My son should never have died there’

To this day, Plett doesn’t know who received the $950 she transferred, or what it paid for.

Why no one had checked on Zach and how it is that the recovery house where he died could be operating with the conditions she witnessed and no apparent enforcement, for Plett, is beyond comprehension.

“I want to know why those places are funded by government,” she said.

The home where Zach died is on the province’s Assisted Living Registry, which is required of publicly subsidized and private-pay residences that meet the definition of such residences under the Community Care and Assisted Living Act. According to the province’s website, the mandate of the registrar is “to protect the health and safety of assisted living residents.”

According to the ALR, there are currently three ‘substantiated complaints’ against the site where Zach died.

The two most recent files, updated May 8, cite non-compliance with regard to staff skills and safe site management; residents’ access to information about the residence, supports and services prior to entering; and psychosocial supports that assist in long-term recovery.

The third file, dating back to November, cites non-compliance in providing a “safe, secure and sanitary environment” for residents; safely prepared and nutritious meals; and more.

Marosevich confirmed the City of Surrey has seven investigations on file against the same house. The last active file was in October of last year, and there are no open investigations at this time, she said.

Marosevich said she couldn’t elaborate on details of the complaints, but emphasized that the city primarily deals with issues surrounding external concerns, such as unsightly property and noise.

“Having a complaint isn’t necessarily validation of an issue, or that there’s been enforcement action taken,” she added.

Complaints regarding operations or programming should be directed to the province, she said, however, any made to the city would “certainly generate a file” that could result in a parallel investigation.

Marosevich said it surprised her to learn of the circumstances surrounding Zach’s death occurring in a recovery home that is both ALR-registered and licensed by the city.

“It does. I’m terribly sorry for him and his family,” she said.

As of May 27, the site remained one of the city’s licensed operators, although Marosevich said the list is “definitely in flux right now.”

“There are several that have licences that the province has currently removed the registration,” she said. “We are in the process of open investigations for those.”

One challenge in cancelling any such licence, she noted, is the people who are using the facility. A transition plan is needed “so they don’t end up in a worse situation,” she said.

“There’s still people who need to find places to live,” she said.

Plett’s boyfriend – who asked to not be identified – said it’s unconscionable what Zach and others like him are subjected to, simply for profit.

“These places that are out there, they’re saying they’re there to help. And they’re not,” he said, describing the house where Zach died as “an unbelievable dump,” and the fact that no one had checked on him as “ridiculous.”

“Where’s the check and balance? There seems to be nothing,” he said.

“It’s a great money-making thing,” he added. “There’s always another addict.”

Plett said she plans to take her concerns to her MP, “sooner than later.”

She also continues to wrestle with guilt around her son’s death. May 15 marked the five-month anniversary and “it feels like yesterday,” she said.

“I’m sorry that I made my son go to a place like that. I thought he was exaggerating.

“My son should never have died there.”

Clear guidelines exist

In B.C., recovery houses must be registered with the province through the Assisted Living Registry – which has “very clear guidelines” around health and safety, services to residents and staff conduct – and licensed through their respective municipalities, where jurisdiction revolves around property use.

READ MORE: The rocky road of regulating recovery houses

The Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction provides registered homes with per diem funding of $30.90 per resident.

In 2016, the City of Surrey capped its allowed number of such facilities at 55. The ALR currently shows 50 registered sites in Surrey, a discrepancy Surrey bylaw services manager Kim Marosevich said is explained by the fact the city would require two operations in a duplex, for example, to have separate licences, even if the same operator was running them, while the province would consider the duplex as one operation.

Marosevich described the current incidence of encountering operations that are neither registered nor licensed as “fairly rare.”

At the same time, bylaw officers have “absolutely” seen conditions like those described by Plett.

“Not that long ago, maybe two months ago, we had eight properties in total where, essentially, the property owners had an agent managing the property on their behalf, and the agent put a bunch of people in properties that are slated for demolition,” Marosevich said.

“We had… situations where the hydro was turned off and people were living in these properties, and the property owners were unaware of what was happening because they had hired an agent.

“So, the agent was taking money from these tenants, essentially, and not paying the bills… just collecting the revenues. It ended up taking almost a month to find appropriate housing through social-service connections for 33 people, that were living in squalor.”

Marosevich noted that in the described circumstance, seniors comprised the majority of the affected residents.

“People who are often the most vulnerable people in our communities are the ones that are subject to this victimization.”

Ensuring such residents have a safe place to go is a factor in dealing with problem operations, she said.

South Surrey-White Rock MP Gordie Hogg said recovery houses that exist to simply prey on addicts “need to be exposed.”

Marosevich said it’s challenging to find appropriate housing for people in need of recovery and “shocking” that operators who don’t have their clients’ best interests at heart are receiving funding that could potentially benefit those providing high-level programming and services.

Hogg and Marosevich both emphasized the importance of reporting sketchy operations.

“Business inspectors have to be aware, neighbours have to report,” Hogg said.

Marosevich also cautioned property owners who enlist agents to manage their properties.

“Be aware, be clear, know what is happening on your property,” she said. “Because at the end of the day, you are responsible for it, and we will find you.”

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Tracy Holmes

About the Author: Tracy Holmes

Tracy Holmes has been a reporter with Peace Arch News since 1997.
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