An anti-bully intervention gone awry

A teenager’s talk of harming her bully got her two weeks in custody and months of house arrest. Nine years later, she’s suing for $4 million.

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In court documents, she is identified only as “Jane,” an Ontario student who was 14 when police came to take her away. Jane (a pseudonym and stock photo are used to protect her identity) was being tormented by bullies, at school and online, and had become withdrawn and depressed. She sought counselling, yet, in a bizarre twist, ended up in a detention centre. Jane, who was charged with uttering threats against her bully, spent two weeks in custody, and another nine months under a form of house arrest. She was acquitted after a two-day trial. Jane and her mother have since launched a $4-million lawsuit against defendants that include Southlake Regional Health Centre, located north of Toronto in Newmarket, and York Regional Police. The case is scheduled to go to court in 2015.

Bullying was once understood as a “normal” part of childhood—an unpleasant side effect of growing up. That’s completely changed. Provinces are adopting tough new anti-bullying laws; Ottawa has announced legislation that targets cyberbullies. Jane, whose arrest now dates back seven years, has been following these developments with interest. “If it had happened to me today, [the bullies] would have been expelled from school,” she says with emotion. Yet hers is also a cautionary tale about intervention gone awry. While there’s no doubt Jane needed help, she would not find the help she needed in detention.

It was 2006, and Jane’s mom was concerned. Her daughter, who was in Grade 8, was being picked on over a boy with taunts like “everyone hates you,” “I’m going to smash your face in,” “I’m going to beat you up,” “I want you to die.” Bullies spat on her as she crossed school property. Even at home, Jane couldn’t escape. They found her on MSN Messenger, and continued bullying her there. Her self-esteem was crumbling. She started cutting her legs. “I didn’t know what to do. I thought I should get her some counselling,” says her mom, a single working mother of four.

She took Jane to a family doctor and talked to the school guidance counsellor. On June 8, they went to Southlake hospital, where Jane was evaluated. According to the statement of claim—with allegations that have yet to be proven in court—Jane was released into her mother’s care after it was agreed that she’d come back the next day for an appointment with a child and youth crisis worker, Stacey Morton, and see the on-call psychiatrist. Considered at risk for self-harm, Jane was admitted to North York General Hospital in Toronto for the weekend, as no beds were available at Southlake, and was released after another psychiatrist found her to be fit—a “normal kid,” as the statement of claim says, likely suffering from anxiety and depression. Jane continued counselling sessions closer to home with Morton, and became the patient of psychiatrist Dr. Harry Felcenbush. “I told her, ‘It’s a safe environment. You can get out all the hurt,’ ” says her mother, who adds that Jane saw Morton six times in total, from May to August.

According to the statement of defence by Southlake and Morton, Jane described to Morton (whose lawyer declined to comment, as the case is before the courts) her drug use, acts of theft she felt unable to stop, and fire-setting behaviour. Jane says she smoked pot with a friend, but she and her mother deny the other points. Jane also, according to Morton, revealed a violent plan to kill one of the bullies, which included kidnapping the girl, cutting her mouth and sewing it up like a character in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Jane and her mom insist that this was a childish fantasy, nothing more. The bully lived in another municipality, a half-hour drive away. “If they just thought, ‘Wait a second, the only way she could get there is if her mother drove her,’ ” Jane’s mom says in exasperation. “I’m going to help her kidnap some girl?”

They claim that the plan was egged on by Morton, as the crisis worker asked her over the course of their sessions to describe in detail how she’d get back at her tormentors. (According to Jane’s statement of claim, she told Morton she had no intention of following through; Morton and Southlake disagree.) “I wanted people to understand how much these kids were hurting me,” says Jane. “After all the times she asked me what I wanted to do with them, I felt I had to answer.” According to Jane’s account, Felcenbush knew of the “plan” and didn’t think Jane was capable of carrying it out, nor that she was a risk. Morton and Southlake maintain that the psychiatrist did in fact think that Jane met criteria for involuntary admission—but the hospital’s adolescent in-patient unit was closed.

What’s shared in a counselling therapy session is confidential. It’s between the clinician and patient and, sometimes, shared with a larger team of health care professionals. But confidentiality has limits, and patients must be informed of this. (Morton discussed the limits of patient confidentiality with Jane, her statement of defence says.) “If they communicate any intention to harm themselves, or someone else, we need to intervene,” says Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, who isn’t involved with this case. “It cannot remain confidential, given those exceptions.” Understandably so; when acts of violence do occur, “Who missed this?” is one of the first questions asked. Still, there’s a “level of interpretation” when weighing whether a threat is serious and intervention is necessary, Kamkar says. In Jane’s case, Morton decided it was.

Their last counselling session was on Aug. 28, 2006, just days before Jane was to begin Grade 9. In the meeting, the teen appeared “confused” and “agitated,” the statement of defence says. The next day, Morton consulted with her team at Southlake, including psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Steadman, who hadn’t treated or met Jane, she and her mother say. In Steadman’s statement of defence, she agreed that Morton should notify the police. Jane would soon be charged with uttering a threat against her bully—a criminal charge—based on what she’d said in her counselling sessions.

For Jane and her bewildered family, the days that followed were surreal. When police came to arrest Jane, her mother assumed at first they were investigating the bullies. She was flabbergasted to learn otherwise. “My mom had to turn me in that Labour Day Monday, at 8 in the morning,” Jane recalls. “They questioned me and took my shoelaces. I was handcuffed, put in the back of a police car, driven to the courthouse and put in a holding cell.” Jane’s mother was horrified. “She looked about eight years old,” she says, “just tiny, with these big handcuffs on.”

At the bail hearing, Jane says she listened to her mental health history described in open court, which was one of the most difficult moments for her. “[Morton] had relayed everything that I said to this cop, things that had nothing to do with anything, like my fears,” she says. Bail was denied and Jane was taken to Southlake in handcuffs for a mental health assessment. According to Jane, a crisis worker at the hospital determined that she wasn’t a risk to herself or to others. She was released into police custody and taken to the York Detention Centre, a secure custody and residential facility for youth, in Toronto. It was late in the day. Jane was strip-searched and held overnight. “Before breakfast, we had to do chores, so I washed the cell doors.” Although the facility was co-ed, according to Jane, she was the only female there. After just one day, she says she was handcuffed again and taken to the Rexdale open-custody detention residence, where she stayed for about a week. Then she was moved a third time, to Everett open-custody detention residence. Jane received no mental health services during that time, she says. Worse, she felt cut off from her main support—her mother. (Everett continues to operate; the other two have since closed, according to Ontario’s Ministry of Children and Youth Services. All three centres, in Toronto, served youth aged 12 to 17.) ?Jane stayed in custody for two weeks. She was released on Sept. 18, after a bail review hearing. During her time in custody, she says, she was sexually assaulted and harassed by other inmates. (When contacted, the provincial ministry responsible for youth corrections said it cannot comment on specific cases.) She says she suffered a panic attack. And she missed the start of Grade 9. Fellow students found out quickly enough where she’d been—news travels fast in high school—and, when she did start class, she felt stigmatized. “Of course, it spread, and nobody wanted to be [Jane’s] friend,” her mother says. “As much as I love all my kids, if one of my boys came home and said, ‘This is my new girlfriend, she spent 14 days in jail,’ I’d think, ‘No.’ ”

Jane’s bail conditions essentially amounted to house arrest. She could go to school, but she was prohibited from leaving her home at all except in the presence of her mother, or either of her two adult brothers. Because she was banned from entering the municipality where her alleged crimes had taken place, she had to switch schools. She recalls making a new friend, who invited her to see a movie—but she couldn’t, because the theatre was in the prohibited municipality. On June 7, 2007, about nine months after she was first charged, Jane was acquitted after a two-day trial.

Today, Jane is a soft-spoken 21-year-old. She shares flashes of humour with her mother, even when discussing this dark period. Yet she says she can’t move on. Lonely and isolated, she struggled to finish high school and took an extra year to graduate. She now works part-time at a store and rarely ventures far from home. She’s afraid to go to college because of the “social atmosphere,” she says. “I play it safe. I stay home, I go to work.” Jane continues to take antidepressant medication. “I will probably be on it forever, because I don’t know how to get off it.” She says she will never seek mental health services again. “How could you go back to counselling,” her mom says, “when our lives spiralled out of control?” In 2015, nine years after Jane was arrested and charged, she will have her day in court. For her lawyer, Barry Swadron, Jane’s “ultimate victimization” lies in the fact that it’s taken almost a decade to seek redress. “Sadly, whatever the result will be,” he says, “the course of her life has been compromised.”




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An anti-bully intervention gone awry

  1. This comment was deleted.

    • you said this lady tried to ban the “Barenaked Ladies” etc. But yet, there is a legate SLUT walk in Toronto. How funny is that? One thing for sure I am not a slut, and therefore will never attend that walk.

      • That’s a shame, because the idea of the “slut walk” is women claiming their sexuality, and not being forced to live with the false labels that society attaches to us. It’s not anyone’s right to say how one should dress, or what their sexual habits should or shouldn’t be..
        “Slut shaming” is the most popular form of bullying, for young women (funny how that doesn’t happen to men, hmm?)
        By not participating in the walk, you’re silently condoning the continued idea of “sluts”.

      • wow, louise, you seem to have understood nothing in the article or comment.

  2. This Morton was probably trying to pin down the next “Columbine” kind of kid and had her sights set on this girl. People were afraid of “quiet kids” even before then. Still waters, and all that bull.

    When I was young and getting bullied, nothing bad ever happened to the bullies if I did nothing. If I hit them back, I got into trouble. Why? Because coming from me, the violence was break from the norm. Something to be addressed. From the bullies? Nobody cared about that. It’s sad to see that even 10-15 years later in 2005 this was still typical… and honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if it still was. And this girl didn’t actually do anything.

    • That is very strange, isn’t it? I remember looking at teachers when being physically bullied and they would actually make eye contact yet do nothing. The moment I would swing back or make any sort of equivalent response it was always an immediate and harsh intervention followed by myself typically being the only one in trouble. I even remember a teacher telling my parents in the 5th grade that I needed to “tolerate” some of these kids behavior because they had problems. How about pulling them aside and telling them insulting and pounding the crap out of other kids isn’t going to help or make them feel better? Sometimes I wonder if this was just the stupidity of the faculty at my school or if it is some sort of unspoken educational policy…

    • Yes I would say this attitude is alive and well. I still hear from adults that child victims of bullying are victims because they lack self-confidence. They need karate lessons, etc, etc to build up their self confidence, then they wouldn’t be a target. I think they blame the victim because its easier, they’re afraid to meddle with the bully. It’s so much easier to do nothing and blame the introvert, the quiet one, the shy one. than to take on the troublemaker.

  3. I hope the best for Jane. However, when it comes to services provided by the gov,t either fed or provincial, it’s all b.s.. They say they want to help, but when the time comes, they throw the ball at each other, and blame everyone else but themselves. Chances are you will get nothing from them, OR you will make a HOLE. “youth corrections cannot commnent on specific cases”, blah-blah………. Beware of social workers.

    • Dogs have fleas. The poor have social workers.

  4. So the hospital closed the unit she should have been admitted to, and consequently they called the police. This happens more often than people realize.

  5. Deus ex machina. God out of the machine. Morton, it seems, followed protocol. And then processes strangled common sense until this girl was well and truly damaged. A grade 8 girl’s counselling sessions were presented as evidence in open court as part of a bail hearing? Did she have counsel or access to counsel? WTF?

  6. i was horribly bullied in middle school. i hated going to school at all. my father gave me some great advice after on particular horrible day of bullying, he put his arm around me and said “screw em all…get straight A’s and get the hell out of this town. all of these A**holes will amount to nothing and you will never hear about them again once you leave this crap school system”….so thats what i did.

    Far away great college…Now a great career, great house, great family…and i did find out what my worst bully is up to now. He works part time at a gas station, cant afford a car, and has been arrested numerous times on drug charges…waste of a life…i dont mean to smile when i think about him, but i kinda do. Most young a**holes just grow up to be lonely miserable a**holes.

    • Best. Advice. Ever.

      • Right beside my mother’s advice to “Kick em’ in the nuts and run like hell.”

    • Sure, but I really think it depends on the degree of the bullying, and the status of the person being bullied. I was bullied too and came out ok, but I never had to endure what this girl endured.

      And then you get to cyberbullying, which is in a class of its own.

    • Heh heh heh,,, are you SURE you don’t mean to smile?

      Or maybe even grin happily?

    • I just googled someone from years ago, he’s now charged with child pornography. There’s something wrong in their heads, or his anyhow.

  7. Makes one wonder why all those violent threats against Jane went unpunished. The stupidity of Canada’s justice system know no bounds.

    • She didn’t call the police. The people she did go to betrayed her. I am sure they had the best of intentions. As I suggested earlier, so often social services or medical agencies think laying charges is the way to get a youth help.

      • The authorities sure knew all about after it was entered into evidence in court yet still no arrests. The one word I feel best describes justice systems worldwide is Incompetence. We are hiring the wrong people for these jobs. Forget the whole military structure crap and hire smart people for a change who are willing and allowed to think outside the box. All our present justice systems do is perpetuate crime to guarantee their own employment.

        • Yup

  8. Sadly, the system seems more likely to abuse than to heal. Six months ago my 15 year old daughter allegedly told a friend that she had been abused by a babysitter approximately 7 years ago. She made mention of the fact that she had suicidal thoughts. I was heartbroken for my little girl and immediately sought out a counselor that had been recommended by a family at our church.
    My daughter had developed close ties with a woman at the church. One night i went to pick up my daughter at the church and she seemed very upset, so i talked with this woman to see if she knew what was going on. I mentioned that perhaps she shouldnt come to the youth group for a bit, as it seemed to upset her.
    What followed is three months of absolute insanity. The woman talked to my daughter intensely for quite some time, then i dropped her off at her mother’s place. Before i got home i received a call from her mother saying that my daughter was screaming and had locked herself in the bathroom. To make a long story short we agreed that my daughter would spend the night with the other woman. This turned out to be the biggest mistake of my life.
    This other family is now essentially holding my daughter hostage. They have somehow managed to convince my daughter not to talk to me, and have tyrn her couselor, the minstry, her private school, and even the church where i was heavily involved against me.
    Theyve manipulated every angle: If I make an attempt to get her back, I will be seen as angry and violent.
    The financial hardship this is causing is simply crushing – in order to pay for her new arrangement i will have to move out of our home and live in my truck. Fortunately it rarely goes below -39 in Kamloops.
    In the past few months Ive been accused of being an abusive father, a deadbeat dad, of wanting to have my daughrer committed to an asylum simply because i followed through with the counselor’s recommendation to have an assessment of my daughter’s suicide risk (my other daughter found a notebook in which was written the methods that my youngest would use to harm herself).
    I’m being told to be patient, yet every time I see my daughter she runs away or cowers like I’m some sort of monster. And as she grows further from me nobody seems to see the ling term damage this will cause. Like “Jane”, my daughter will likely only have more scars to deal with after the “help” she’s getting.

  9. I’m from the government, I’m here to help.

  10. I would urge Jane to see a cognitive therapist who practises EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique).
    At the very least her mother should have transferred her to another school.
    My response to bullying was to catch the ringleader off school property when she was alone and literally punch her out. I dare say Jane would have suffered far less overall trauma if she had just done the same thing.

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