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Calling the cops

Police interventions at large institutions surging

by Robert Devet

Worried parents Brenda Hardiman and Victor Murphy. This Monday Murphy's daughter, Amanda Murphy, will be sentenced in Antigonish for allegedly pushing and striking an employee of the institution where she lives. The response to a Freedom of Information request suggests that such police interventions are becoming more frequent.  Photo Robert Devet
Worried parents Brenda Hardiman and Victor Murphy. This Monday Murphy's daughter, Amanda Murphy, will be sentenced in Antigonish for allegedly pushing and striking an employee of the institution where she lives. The response to a Freedom of Information request suggests that such police interventions are becoming more frequent. Photo Robert Devet

(K'JIPUKTUK) HALIFAX – Charlie Lemon still experiences flashbacks from the days he was institutionalized in the Kings Regional Rehabilitation Centre.

After an argument with a staff member, Lemon was locked up in a tiny windowless room with a cold floor, his clothes removed. “They gave me a needle and they had me all doped up,” Lemon tells the Halifax Media Co-op.

This happened in the seventies. Lemon now lives independently and became a founding member and past president of the Nova Scotia chapter of People First, a self-advocacy group for people who have been labelled with an intellectual disability.

But many people, Lemon amongst them, are not so sure that much has changed in Nova Scotia's large institutions. They are particularly concerned about police interventions and subsequent criminal charges.

Increasingly staff at Nova Scotia's Adult Residential Centres and Regional Rehabilitation Centres call police when they can't handle difficult behaviour by any of the approximately 600 people in their care.

Responding to a Freedom of Information request, Community Services tells the Halifax Media Co-op that in 2013 police intervened 39 times to deal with disturbances at Nova Scotia's eight larger facilities.

In the first six months of 2014 alone that number already reached 30.

Community Services does not think there necessarily is a trend.

“We would caution against drawing a conclusion on this data – it doesn’t reflect an adequate period of time to show a trend,” Community Services spokesperson Lori Errington writes. “For example, one resident at a facility can drive numbers up for a period of time.”

Trend or not, Jean Coleman doesn't like the numbers.

“It certainly isn't decreasing,” says Coleman. “My question always is, what leads up to these incidents and why do they escalate?”

Coleman is the executive director of the Nova Scotia Association for Community Living (NSACL), an organization that opposes institutionalizing people who are labelled with intellectual disabilities.

“I don't think that there is enough training on how to deal with difficult behaviours,” says Coleman. “This is just my gut feeling, but I think that if someone acts out, often if you just leave them alone, if they're not harming anyone, the situation settles down again.”

“I have talked to residential service providers who have a hands-off policy, and I think that's why they do well. As long as the person is safe and nobody is in harm's way they just let it go until it stops.”

To illustrate her point Coleman points to the differences between the various institutions that our Freedom of Information request reveals.

One facility never once called the police during the 18 months in question. But Quest in Lower Sackville, with a population in just the mid-twenties, asked police to intervene seven times.

“I don't think Quest for instance has a hands-off policy, I believe they call police far too often,” says Coleman.

But there are additional reasons why police interventions occur, people close to these issues believe.

“These places are simply too large,” says Cindy Carruthers, a coordinator with People First Nova Scotia. “People with complex behavioural needs require one-on-one care sometimes. Not all the time, but sometimes. And these large institutions simply can't provide that kind of care.”

For staff to call the police is one thing, but sometimes staff also press charges. Just ask Brenda Hardiman, mother of Nichelle Benn and co-founder of Advocating Parents Nova Scotiaan organization that helps parents of children with special needs navigate the system.

Nichele Benn has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and an organic brain disorder. At times she cannot control her aggression and attacks caregivers at the Quest facility in Lower Sackville where she resides.

Police have charged Benn with assault multiple times, always at the insistence of staff who often follow employers' protocols.

Parents and advocates argue that people labelled with intellectual disabilities should not be criminalized. They often point to Ashley Smith, the teenager with behavioural issues who died by self-inflicted strangulation while incarcerated in Ontario, to make their case

And they worry how many Nichele's are out there. How many people labelled with intellectual disabilities are winding their way through the criminal justice system? How many are locked up in jail, they wonder.

That's a statistic Community Services does not track.

We do know about at least two others who recently shared Nichele's fate. Amanda Murphy, resident of a small options home in Antigonish, faces several assault charges, and Richard Rector, another Quest resident was convicted earlier, also for assaulting staff.

“That really makes me sick, every time I think of others like Nichele that may be facing criminal charges but who maybe don't have anybody to support them,” says Hardiman, who argues that Community Services should track those numbers.

Hardiman believes that police are called more frequently than these numbers indicate. She points out police interventions also occur at so-called small option homes, facilities that house three or four residents. These numbers were not part of the Freedom of Information request.

And she suspects Community Services is not always told by the institutions.

“There were definitely more than five police interventions in the last six months at Quest, and the 2013 numbers are off as well,” she notes about the Lower Sackville facility where here daughter lives. “They can't be recording every incident.”

In an email to the Halifax Media Co-op, Lori Errington, spokesperson for Community Services, insists that all serious incidents are reported.

For Coleman, the police interventions and criminal prosecution are part of a larger problem.

Coleman draws parallels with premier Stephen McNeil's recent apology to former residents of the Home for Coloured Children who faced years of abuse.

“They should learn from this that people should not be institutionalized, because harm comes, there is abuse,” says Coleman.

“Yet these individuals could speak up for themselves. Our folks don't always have that opportunity, maybe because they don't communicate through language. I think abuse is going on still, but there is no voice. That horrifies me, and it makes me very sad.”


See also: Code of Silence at Community Services

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert







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