When the group advocating for the continued existence of Michener Centre goes to court in November hoping to get an injunction against the government’s plans, it will hardly be the first time a judge is asked to consider if Michener is the right place to house disabled individuals. Over the years, residents have gone to court to try to get out of Michener, people have been forced into Michener, and judges have lamented the fact they could not put ex-Michener residents who had fallen afoul of the law back into the facility.
Of the thousands of people who have moved out of Michener Centre over the decades, most have transitioned well into life in group homes or in independent living situations. But, in the early 1990s particularly, when a series of ex-residents ended up in the courts, judges struggled with what to do with them.
In 1991 alone, the cases of four repeat offenders left local courts in a bind as to how best to deter future wrongdoing and protect the public from the assaults and sexual assaults the one-time Michener residents were carrying out. Without the option of sending those convicted back to Michener though, in each case the judges reluctantly imposed prison sentences, which left advocates fearing the handicapped would be easy victims within prison walls.
The Michener parents’ organization at the time argued that the cases showed that the institution had a purpose — to house those who could not function properly in the community. Mark Keohane, then an early-career Edmonton lawyer, suggested that wholesale changes were needed to address the “blatant inequities” in the justice system that saw those with mental handicaps treated like regular adults in the courts rather than with regard to their actual functional level.
He said both handicapped victims and offenders should have special provisions under the law similar to children because they may have the same mental capacities. His own sister Susan has lived most of her life at the centre and though she has been sexually assaulted in the past, no charges were laid because police could not prove that she did not consent.
While that change has not occurred, in 2012 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that mentally handicapped individuals are able to give truthful and reliable testimony, even if they have limited mental capacities. The court challenge came about after the accused in a sexual assault case successfully argued that the testimony of the mentally handicapped complainant should be dismissed because she could not swear an oath or communicate effectively.
Notwithstanding societal progress in the treatment of the developmentally disabled, Keohane says that the process of deinstitutionalization leaves scores of mentally ill and handicapped individuals vulnerable to abuse and more likely to abuse others. Various studies have found that over 80 per cent of intellectually disabled individuals will experience some form of sexual abuse during their lifetimes.
“I don’t know what happens to these people. I think I see them when I’m walking to the courthouse, they’re pushing shopping carts full of cans and they’re sexually assaulted from time to time and terrible things happen to them,” says Keohane.
In 2006, then B.C. premier Gordon Campbell called mass deinstitutionalization a “failed experiment,” linking the closure of large facilities to an increase in the numbers of homeless people on the streets and in jails in his province. Campbell’s comments had more to do with the closing of mental hospitals than places like Michener Centre, though, and Alberta Association for Community Living CEO Bruce Uditsky says the two processes should not be compared.
“The mental health system has never had the community-based support systems we’ve created largely because the community living movement is family driven. Its roots lie in families wanting their sons and daughters to be able to grow up at home, able to stay in their communities, to be able to go to school and to have the supports necessary to do that,” he says.
But Dr. Robert Lampard, former Michener medical director, notes that approximately half of all centre residents are dually diagnosed with developmental disabilities and treatable mental illnesses. Dealing with such residents requires tolerant, knowledgeable staff who are able to quickly judge whether to treat related behaviours medically or in another fashion, he said.
Coming Thursday: The cost of Michener Centre compared to community care.