Brenda Hardiman wants to prevent more special needs individuals from being unfairly criminalized. She is the Chairperson and co-founder of Advocating Parents of Nova Scotia (APNS), a non-profit organization that aides and support parents who have children with physical and/or intellectual disabilities.
“We decided that Nova Scotia needed something like Advocating Parents with families that were having problems navigating community services and health,” she said. “They could contact us and we could help them with that because both of us have already been through it.”
Hardiman founded the organization with another parent in 2014 after her daughter, Nichele Benn, was charged with assault by a staff member at the Quest Regional Rehabilitation Centre where she was a resident. Benn has since been moved to a small options home, but Hardiman says it’s a lack of compassion and understanding that causes people to criminalize persons with special needs.
“In today’s world, people with intellectual disabilities are quite often segregated and isolated from the general public,” she said. “People are not exposed enough to various abilities and disabilities, so when they do see somebody or have contact with somebody who has an intellectual disability, it frightens them.”
To resolve this, Hardiman is partnering with Peoples First Nova Scotia (PFNS), an advocacy group for people with intellectual disabilities, and Archie Kaiser, a Dalhousie law professor who specializes in mental disability law. They plan to create educational literature for local police, lawyers, judges and others who regularly interact with special needs individuals.
The idea was inspired by Dave Kent, President of the Board at PFNS, and his experience with the local Truro police two months ago. He was stopped on the street by police officers who accused him of drinking and refused to believe Kent when he explained it was his medication for bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia that affected his walking.
“They gave me a breathalyzer and nothing showed up. Then they followed me home,” said Kent. “What they put me through that night made me nervous. I thought they were taking me to jail.”
Cindy Carruthers, the executive director of PFNS, says Kent’s story is one of many that happen daily and it’s not just with law enforcement.
“Many lawyers struggle with these cases when they have people with intellectual disabilities coming to them, needing support,” said Carruthers. “Through lack of knowledge, they often suggest ‘just plead guilty’ because they don’t know how to support them. Whether they’re innocent or guilty, it’s often just the recommendation to plead guilty.”
Though Halifax Regional Police train officers on how to respond to calls that involve individuals with special needs, Hardiman believes there’s still a lack of knowledge in the policing community.
According to the Department of Community Services, in 2015 there were 1,153 clients in small option homes and 189 clients in regional rehabilitation centres. Individuals with complex needs can cost upwards of $250K-$1M every year for each case. These cases has increased by an average of 17% every year in the last 4 years.
Hardiman said although people with intellectual disabilities can commit crimes, incidences involving special needs individuals should be viewed as a health issue and not a criminal issue.
“The legal system is meant to be punitive for people, but for the people that can’t learn a lesson there’s no point in making it punitive,” Hardiman said. “If people could just stop and think how they would treat their own family member if they had an intellectual disability, they would be a little bit different.”
Though the educational package is still in the beginning stages, Hardiman and PFNS are confident it would be a success. They plan on launching the package next spring.
“I think you would find most individuals with intellectual disabilities and special needs are fearful of the police,” said Carruthers. “We would like to try to change that a little bit so that they can see them as someone who can help them and not someone to be feared.”