Q You were a victim of one of the worst crimes a parent can imagine. Your two-year-old son, Zachary, was fatally stabbed by a mentally ill neighbour. The Harper government has recently introduced two bills that are supposed to help victims. One of them, C-14, now in the Senate, would make it harder for people like the woman who killed Zachary ever to be free. Yet as a doctor of psychology who works with victims, and a victim yourself, you say this bill not only doesn’t help but may do harm. How so?
A Bill C-14 ties together supporting victims and harsher measures for the mentally ill who commit crimes. If it gets tough on these people, that’s somehow supposed to make me feel better. But it doesn’t. No matter what the sentencing, it’s not going to help the hurt. Victims have needs, but the criminal justice system is not the place where they are met. So putting us in the courtroom, where we don’t have a say, can re-victimize us by making us feel helpless. It doesn’t help. It may just make us angry, and when you are angry, you get stuck in your grief. It’s hard to try to live again.
Q The second proposal, Bill C-32, known as the Victims Bill of Rights, claims to put victims “at the heart” of the justice system. And although it gives them a right to more information on the prosecution process, it still leaves decisions up to the Crown and the courts. Is this going to make victims even more frustrated?
A Yes, for sure. They talk about giving the victim more of a voice, but the court is about the accused and the Crown. Legally, that [voice] can’t happen. It’s false promises creating false hopes. The act includes a fund for victims to pursue complaints, but that money would be better used in providing services to help them rebuild their lives. Victims feel the process is all about the accused, and it is. But the victim is about rebuilding.
Q You have a second problem with Bill C-14: it also stigmatizes the mentally ill. Our laws provide that mentally ill people may be found not criminally responsible (NCR) for their crimes. If their illness is successfully treated and a review panel finds them at low risk to reoffend, they can be released. This legislation makes that more difficult, even when doctors say they are no longer a danger.
A A very small percentage of people with mental illness are violent. More often, they are the victims of violence. But the way the bill was presented made it seem as if everyone with a mental illness is violent, which isn’t true. The recidivism rate for people on NCR orders, released after treatment, is much smaller than that of people with mental illness who go to prison and are not treated.
Q If not this legislation, then what would help victims?
A Victims need to be heard, but outside the courtroom. Victims need people to listen to them, that practical and emotional support. They may need money for having to be off work or for counselling for their grief and trauma.
It would help if the government made it easier for victims to get treatment. I just had a client whose attacker was having parole hearings. We requested more funding for treatment, and she was denied it. Financial and emotional assistance are what would meet a victim’s real needs.
Q If someone harmed a hair on my child’s head, I’d want to tear her limb from limb. Yet you don’t seem to be vengeful or bitter. Why?
A At first I was in shock. I’m not an angry person. I did want someone to pay, someone to be held responsible. For me, the focus was on who let Zachary down. It was the mental health system that failed everybody, failed Zachary, failed his killer. But someone from the Ontario victims’ program was at the hospital with me from the start. It was probably the beginning of my healing. Brenda focused on Zachary and me, not the crime and the investigation. She directed me away from the criminal justice system and toward my own healing.
Although we have these things in place, and Ontario does have a victims’ bill of rights and a witness assistance program, there are not enough people like Brenda, and not all victims are treated the same. Some who have less education and lower socio-economic status are not treated very well.
I had one client whose only son was killed. A woman from the victim witness service had agreed to be in court with her for the preliminary hearing, but when it opened she came briefly and then left [my client] by herself. And when a trial date was set, my client heard about it through the grapevine rather than from the victims’ program.
Q I know you can never forget Zachary and what happened to him. But is it possible to forgive?
A I’ve never thought about forgiveness. Forgiving or not forgiving, it’s not a concept that entered my mind. I think that’s because I’ve been so focused on my own recovery. I thought the system would take care of my neighbour — the system that had already failed everybody, my family and hers. Her children have to live with the knowledge that their mother is a killer.
We did have a relationship, before she got sick, and probably I would be willing to meet with her, if she had recovered. But right now she is still very angry and delusional and has not responded to treatment.
Q Before Zachary’s murder, this woman had threatened to kill you. She attacked your husband physically. She damaged your house. When she was taken to hospital, she was released after a few days, but didn’t keep her follow-up appointment and didn’t take her prescription drugs. Do you think she could have been stopped before this happened?
A We called the police many times. On the one occasion when they did go to see her, they could see she was delusional and took her to hospital. Did the hospital do a proper risk assessment before it released her? We don’t know. It’s a delicate issue. We need to consider the rights of the mentally ill but also the safety of the public. Her family was trying to get help for her, but because of privacy issues, family members often aren’t kept in the loop.
We try our best to prevent these crimes, and our mental health system does need help, but when they happen, we have to help the victim rebuild, and I don’t think vengeance is going to help them do that. Since Zachary died, I’ve become the go-to person for victim services. It’s rewarding work. If I can make someone feel a little bit better, if they can leave with just a glimmer of hope that they can live again, then it’s worth it. Right?
*This interview has been condensed and edited.
Sign up for our free e-newsletter now!
Get The Observer’s latest stories on justice, faith and ethics by signing up for our e-newsletter. It only takes a few seconds to join and we’ll deliver award-winning content to your in-box.
SIGN UP TODAY