The Criminalization of Women with Disabilities: An Interview with Bonnie Brayton from the DisAbled Women’s Newtork of Canada

On Wednesday February 12th, Bonnie Brayton, National Executive Director of DAWN-RAFH Canada, spoke to CKUT about the criminalization of women with disabilities and the lack of systemic support that exists for women like Ashley Smith and Nichele Benn:

Stephane Bertand: Today on the Avalanche show we will be speaking with Bonnie Brighton from the DisAbled Women’s Network of Canada (DAWN). We are going to start by talking about Ashley Smith. So what’s been happening; we know that she had a mental illness and in the beginning she struck a postal worker with crab apples and was sent to a couple of prisons and she should not have been in a prison but in an institution, got services to help her.

Bonnie Brayton: The question of where Ashley Smith belonged instead of the federal prison is sort of the overarching question for women with disabilities. And I really appreciate you taking time to look at not just the Ashley Smith case but why we continue to criminalize women with disabilities when we don’t support them.

SB: When I think about these women, and especially Ashley Smith, I wonder what’s wrong with our penal system?

BB: It’s something that I think starts before the prison system. And of course, what we know is that in December there was finally a verdict of murder in the case of Ashley Smith but with no one named and no one being convicted for it. And that in and of itself is problematic because if the coroner’s report has concluded that Ashley Smith was murdered then why wouldn’t we want to pursue fully to the extent of the law and to the extent that any judicial system in Canada should to prosecute the people responsible for her death and to ask ourselves indeed who its responsible for the death of Ashley Smith. Because, it does go beyond those walls, it goes back to a societal problem that we know exists which is that women with disabilities, particularly with mental health problems, intellectual disabilities, and brain injured women are overrepresented in our prison systems and overrepresented in general in the context of being criminalized  because they are not being supported by a society that owes them that support.

SB: I’m talking from my organization of the West Montreal Readaptation Centre (Centre De Réadaption de L’Ouest De Montreal) who is trying to get money to help people out with autism and all kinds of disabilities and the government does not give them much money. And the WMRC waiting list is way over their head of people trying to get in there and there are not much services out there.

BB: And since the Ashley Smith case there have been two other cases that you all may be familiar with. One of them was a little bit earlier this year and involved a young woman, Nichele Benn, and her mother, Brenda Harderman. Nichele Benn is a young woman with an intellectual disability who is being charged with assault with a weapon. It says here that police alleged that Ben bit and hit an employee with a shoe at the Quest Regional Rehabilitation Centre in Halifax on December 12th. While that may be true, the underlying question is what was the precursor to her striking or biting this person. The reality is that the systems, none of them, whether we are taking about the social systems or justice systems, are adequately informed or educated to understand or even ask those questions or to investigate a situation like this. You know at first glance when you look at that the first that occurs to me is that we’re not talking about something highly criminal here. Again, I do understand the concern around the safety of the people working in the health care system. But, it’s important to understand that what that is linked to is a lack of training and education for people that are supposed to be working with and in support of people like Ashley or Nichele Benn. And you know, there is another story that broke in February, Stephane. A woman living with an intellectual disability in Nova Scotia by the name of Amanda Murphy who is now also facing charges based on the fact that she’s accused of striking a worker in the group home where she lived. Now, I can tell you Stephane, that I know of instances in group homes in other parts of this country because of the abuses that people who were supposedly under the care of these workers in the group home but who were instead abusing them. In one very egregious case, three women with intellectual disabilities were sexually assaulted on a daily basis for a period of over 20 years before the group home was investigated and eventually shut down. So, what are we really talking about? A systemic failure vis-a-vis how women with disabilities are not supported at the community level on a fundamental basis for their basic needs.

SB: I think too that people with disabilities, like those people who bit people, didn’t understand what they did.

BB: Well, again, when you read about that woman. The most recent case, this woman is someone with an intellectual disability who functions at an 8 year olds level. So in terms of the support she needs, she needs care workers who understand what her limitation are and so would therefore not be putting her in a position of the kind of agitation that would cause her to, in this case, assault, bite or do something like that.   If you look closely at the Nichele case, what you end up hearing is that there is a specific instance where there is a worker on shift and there’s no incident with her because that particular worker has the right level of empathy and understanding to know how to work with Nichele when she’s distressed. If you listen to her mother and you listen to people who have provided care to her you begin to understand that the change and criminalization of Nichele comes when she moves in to a congregated living situation where her individual needs are not being met. Again, when you talk about these other two women you are talking about congregated living where people’s individual needs are not being understood or met. What we’re talking about is providing the minimal, minimal level of support where its laughable to call it support. It’s really just whether you’re talking about a prison or an institution that supposed to be providing support to people with intellectual disabilities or mental health problems they are both just setting up a situation like this to happen and then you are revictimizing people who have already not been supported and then criminalizing them.

SB: Yeah, and criminalizing them for something where they didn’t know what they were doing, you know?

BB: Well you are holding them responsible instead of the system that failed them responsible. And coming full circle back to the Ashley Smith case, what we have is a verdict while gratifying to hear doesn’t bring Ashley back to her family. And still leaves us with many questions about what will happen going forward to the next person and of course you don’t even have to wait more than a month for the story to break about this woman Nichele and then Amanda Murphy. So we’re talking about a need for huge, huge change in terms of policy as far as what we know and what we understand needs to happen National disability organizations and community disability organizations such as People First and Canadian Association For Community Living have been advocating a very long time for that fundamental systemic change to happen. And what that’s about is the full inclusion of people with disability in society – not with this notion of separateness and difference but instead understanding and supporting those needs. And it comes back to if you have the supports that you needs as a family and as an individual then its a game changer in terms of your likelihood of ending up in a positive place in society as opposed to in a situation of victimization.

SB: The girl who bit the person, they didn’t turn around and ask ‘why did she bite her?’

BB: What you really need to look at is why she went from not having any “criminal behaviour” to after moving in to a group home setting suddenly becoming criminalized. That’s got nothing to do with her, that’s got everything to do with the support surrounding the person.

SB: For me, I think it’s more the group home where there is something wrong with that group home.

BB: Well for me what I was going to say is that I am not going to blame this particular group home what I am going to come back to is the systemic problem. A systemic problem that goes beyond that particular group to the idea that you need to have people working with people with disabilities who understand how to support them. And it’s about support. And you know, that’s the key word, not control, support. What was happening just before that? If you listen to the story from the mother and from Nichele, just before she bit someone she was being dragged down the hallway. She was frightened, she reacted badly, because she was afraid of what was going to happen. In the case of Ashley Smith, something that, as you said started with her throwing a crab apple at a postal worker went to going in to the prison system without there being a diagnosis and proper support for her. And as we know from there all of the other terrible things that happened to her before she was left to die.

SB: Yeah, and what’s going to happen with these two other girls?

BB: Well, that’s exactly it. Are we looking again at putting Nichele in prison now, are we going to put this other woman in prison now and hope for the best?

SB: Yeah and it could get worse

BB: I mean you can see with Nichele and her mother her greatest fear is that she will end up in the prison system. And another victim like Ashley. The victim here is Ashley, the victim here is Nichele. I am not trying to discount the worker who received the bite or the other worker who was slapped, who are also victims, but they are not victims of these individual women they are also victims of a system which is broken.

SB: And i think that a bite or a slap like that, to throw them in prison is kind of ridiculous. We got all these other people who are doing fraud and things like that and getting a slap on the wrist. Then to turn around and charge a person who doesn’t understand what they did it’s ridiculous.

BB: That’s right. In terms of what work DAWN is doing, DAWN has been working very actively with a number of other organizations, including the Canadian Association for Community Living and the Department for Justice. Moving forward we’re very committed to working with them and across the country with our partners and the other organizations we work with towards the idea that what we need to do is to start building at the community level the kind of supports that Nichele needs, that Amanda needs, and of course that Ashley needed at the time.

SB: Absolutely, and you know like restaurants we got somebody going to check out if they’re giving us good food it would be good if there were people going in a checking to make sure these people are being taken care of properly. And treated right. It’s like these people can’t fight and say “this guy is dragging me” you know?

BB: Well, you know, imagine how difficult it must be for Nichele’s mother on top of having to try and support her daughter feel like she has to take on the judicial system of Nova Scotia. Because the courts system is another important place where things must change. We must have judges, who when they find themselves with somebody like Nichele in front of them or Ashley, says “okay hold on a second,  how does this person end up in front of me?”. Not just looking at the complaint but at the reality of the person that find in front of them and to ask themselves before pronouncing sentence, before making any kind of a judgement if you will, what are the preconditions that bring this person before me and who’s responsible for that? Are we talking about an individual or are we talking about a societal issue? And we know for certain based on all the statistics that have been collected that people with disabilities are victims much more than they are criminals. And it’s not to say that it’s not possible for a person with a disability to be a criminal of course but we are talking fundamentally about a system that instead is criminalizing people that are victims. And that’s where the big, big, change has to come.

SB: Bonnie, I want to thank you so much.

BB: Well thank you for letting me vent on this one. As the executive director of DAWN and as a woman with a disability I am so distressed about this one because I feel like every woman with a disability must feel that she must look over her shoulder at any time she is interacting with people as to whether or not she will be recognized as a victim in a situation or indeed be accused of the crime.

SB: We’re lucky we have people like you Bonnie to look after these people.

BB: Well thank you for letting us have a voice I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you and your listeners Stephane. Anytime, I am always happy to share with you and to talk with you. I appreciate very much the support from Avalanche and from CKUT.

DisAbled Women’s Network Of Canada

5 thoughts on “The Criminalization of Women with Disabilities: An Interview with Bonnie Brayton from the DisAbled Women’s Newtork of Canada

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