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and stock photo are used to protect her identity) was being tormented by bullies, at school and online, and had become withdrawn and depressed.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.”