K'JIPUKTUK, HALIFAX - This Sunday morning about forty people gathered at the Quest Regional Rehabilitation Centre, an institution for people with special needs located in Lower Sackville.
They were there to show their support for Nichele Benn, a resident of Quest, as she and her mother set out for the Lower Sackville RCMP detachment where Nichele was to be photographed, measured and fingerprinted.
Nichele is a 25 year old woman who has intellectual and physical disabilities including cerebral palsy, epilepsy and an organic brain disorder. As a result of her disabilities Nichele at times cannot control her aggression and physically attacks caregivers at the Quest facility.
This time Nichele is charged with assault and assault with a weapon after she allegedly bit and threw a shoe and a foam letter at staff who were transporting her to her room.
Nichele's mother, Brenda Hardiman, is devastated.
"It is horrible, Nichele was very nervous and upset," Hardiman told sympathisers and press when she left the Lower Sackville police detachment. "We're talking about somebody with special needs, who should be treated as such and not treated as a criminal."
Cindy Carruthers, a coordinator with People First Nova Scotia, agrees with Hardiman.
"Nichele Benn and others like her have special needs, whether it is an intellectual disability, a mental health issue, autism, or a brain injury," Carruthers told the Halifax Media Co-op.
"Some people with those conditions have aggressive behaviours that they can't control. It is a health issue that we need to support. In this instance, and many like it, they are arresting and charging people with special needs because of their health issues."
This is not the first time that charges have been filed against Nichele because of her at times violent behaviour.
A web site created by Nichele's supporters states that over the last five years Nichele has experienced approximately seventeen police interventions, seven incarcerations, and several assault charges and convictions. She has been arrested, handcuffed and jailed on numerous occasions.
Carruthers wishes that Quest would find better ways to deal with Nichele's violent episodes."
"Community Services has policies in place that allow for much more effective supports such as a time-out room," says Carruthers. "As long as the staff is trained properly time-out rooms are a much better response , de-escalating the situation instead of being thrown in jail."
People First Nova Scotia is calling on Premier Stephen McNeil to meet with Hardiman and others in similar situations to hear first hand how criminalizing people with special needs is both ineffective and devastating for all involved. Ultimately the departments of Community Services, Health and Justice need to solve this together, says Carruthers.
The spectre of Ashley Smith, the teenager who died by self-inflicted strangulation while she was in custody in Ontario, was much on everybody's mind. Smith, diagnosed with various psychological disorders, spent eleven months in jail before she died.
"Ashley Smith was sent to jail because she threw crabapples at a postal worker," said Hardiman. "Nichele would be sent to jail because of assaulting the people that look after her. Her behaviours will not change if she is incarcerated, and if she assaults somebody while in jail her time will be extended, just as Ashley Smith. And that's a huge concern."
In an email dated January 2nd Elizabeth MacDonald, a spokesperson for Community Services writes that the decision to call police is not something covered in a departmental policy. "Individual care-giving service providers develop their own protocols which meet their operational and care-planning needs and to ensure the safety of residents and staff," MacDonald writes.
Before she left Nichele's mother had a final thought for her supporters.
"It's important that we stick together," said Hardiman. "A lot of people are here because they are worried that it could happen to their families, and they are right, it could happen to any family. People need to remember that."
Other rallies took place simultaneously in Windsor, Yarmouth, Truro and New Minas. Nichele Benn's hearing at provincial court in Dartmouth is scheduled for January 15th.
Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert
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