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People with intellectual disabilities continue to face jail time in Nova Scotia

Large institutions, lack of understanding among root causes

by Robert Devet

The Quest Regional Rehabilitation Centre in Lower Sackville, home of Nichele Benn. "In a large institution what are the chances of staff getting to know anybody?" Photo Robert Devet
The Quest Regional Rehabilitation Centre in Lower Sackville, home of Nichele Benn. "In a large institution what are the chances of staff getting to know anybody?" Photo Robert Devet

K'JIPUKTUK, HALIFAX - Nichele Benn's name has been in the news a lot lately. Nichele is an intellectually disabled young woman who lives in an institutionalized setting at the Quest Regional Rehabilitation Centre in Lower Sackville. She has been charged with assault with a weapon after she allegedly threw a shoe and bit a staff member during an argument.

This is not the first run-in with the law for Nichele by a long shot. 17 police interventions, seven incarcerations and several assault charges and convictions have preceded this latest charge.

Last week we also heard about Amanda Murphy. Amanda Murphy is a 34 year old institutionalized woman from Truro. Her father describes her as having the capacity of a five to eight year old. Amanda is set to be sentenced in an Antigonish courthouse for pushing and striking an employee of the institution where she lives.

Advocates for people with developmental disabilities say that the criminal justice system is not the place to deal with people like Nichele and Amanda. After all, they say, Nichele and Amanda are unable to control their aggressive episodes. Charging them with assault simply is not effective, in fact incarceration only makes their situation worse.

Michelle Morgan-Coole is the mother of two teenage daughters who live with differing levels of disability. She is also a Nova Scotia lawyer who blogs about the legal aspects of issues facing people with disabilities and their caregivers.

Morgan-Coole is one of the people who argue that Nichele and Amanda should not be facing criminal charges. She believes that part of the problem is that lawyers, judges and prosecutors often don't understand people who have intellectual disabilities.

"I am a member of the legal system,and I live it," says Morgan-Coole. "Otherwise I would be as ignorant as anybody else. We just don't have the experience and training in these mental health issues."

"It amazes me and it scares me as a parent how much people don't get it. That is really scary, If Nichele were to end up in jail, and I hope to God that doesn't happen, that somebody has some sense, but if she does, yes, I totally see the comparison with Ashley Smith."

Ashley Smith is a teenager who died by self-inflicted strangulation while she was in custody in Ontario. Smith, diagnosed with various developmental disorders, spent her last four years almost entirely in jail.

At one time Nichele was enrolled in Mental Health Court, a fairly new approach designed to support people with mental health issues who have been charged with a criminal offense. Mental Health Court aims to improve the mental health and quality of life of persons with mental disorders caught up in the justice system by assisting them to access treatment.

But Mental Health Court was deemed not to work for Nichele, it wasn't long before Nichele was moved back into the regular criminal justice system.

"They kicked her out because her behaviour continued while she was still in the [Mental Health Court] process," says Morgan-Coole. "So then she was no longer eligible. That makes no sense. These people have mental health issues, you can't say: 'Stop doing that' and expect it to stick."

One thing that is generally not understood is what it is like to be forced to live in an institution and how that contributes to aggressive behaviour.

"One of these times Nichele was charged, it was because she slapped another resident who had repeatedly spit in her face. How would you and I deal with that?" Morgan-Coole asks. "How would you and I do, locked up in an institution?

Both Nichele's mother and Amanda's father believe that if staff had handled the aggressive episodes differently the situation would never have escalated. 

Jean Coleman, the executive director of the Nova Scotia Association of Community Living (NSACL), an advocacy group for people with intellectual disabilities, agrees that warehousing people in institutions is part of the problem.

"I do know that if people are forced to live in a congregated living situation rather than in the community, then that's not a good thing," says Coleman. "If people were properly supported then perhaps there wouldn't be a need to call police. There should be more education around de-escalation techniques and supporting staff to better communicate.

"If people had a choice about where they live, and with whom, then I don't think we would see these extreme behaviours. It is about being able to be where, and with whom, you want. If it is what the individual wants than I think it is going to be a much better outcome."

Coleman believes that it is very difficult to defuse agressive episodes in institutions.

"In a large institution what are the chances of staff getting to know anybody?" Coleman wonders. "I think staff have the training, but when they have eight people in their workload, then trying to make sure that everyone is cared for and fed and have their meds, it doesn't leave time to sit down and get to know these people.

"You can have all the training in the world, but if you don't get to know a person you can easily set them off."

Last year the provincial Department of Community Services announced with much fanfare the phasing out of large institutions and a more individualized approach in terms of care and funding.

The current Liberal government has publicly stated that it is committed to the initiative, but nothing concrete has been announced.

"The most important thing is to have the transformation staff appointed. I don't think that is being put in place, and I am hoping that is what they are working on," says Coleman. "And we need the money to back this all up. If we don't get any significant amount of money in this budget than I am quite fearful."

Coleman, who took part in shaping the new approach, also hasn't been told if the Provincial Advisory Group, tasked with leading the implementation, and consisting of civil servants and stakeholders, has yet been put in place.

"I am hoping and praying that they are working to get the funding to start April 1st to put their words into action," says Coleman.


People First Nova Scotia and Advocating Parents of Nova Scotia are organizing demonstrations in support of Nichele Benn, Richard Rector, Amanda Murphy and others like them. These rallies are scheduled for Sunday February 2nd in Halifax, New Minas, Truro, Windsor, Yarmouth, Amherst, Sydney and possibly other towns as well.

A rally is scheduled in Antigonish on Thursday February 6th, the day that Amanda Murphy is to be sentenced.

The Nova Scotia Association for Community Living is appealing to families and allies of people with disabilities to call on their MLAs and let them know that the announced changes at Community Services mentioned in this article should not end up collecting dust on a shelf.


Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert

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As someone who has bene fallowing up on this stroy!

Good job for covering this Robert. I just want ot say that I had been fallowing up on this story about interluctually changlened peopel getting punished under the crimal justice system, and for them it is not fair. These people cannot help the way they are. However the system these days does not seem to care. I hope Community Services gets more small options homes up and running sooner then later. As being a person with a disability myself, and with knowing the disaiblity community, it is goign to be sad to see what being in jail is going to do to these people.


Kendall Worth

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