- This essay was originally published on Pat Kane's blog. It was first reprinted on CBC.ca Jan. 5.
On January 2, 2014, my dad was attacked in his home, while resting on the couch, and beaten by my brother. I got the news late in the evening, around 11 p.m., when a doctor from the Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., hospital called me at home in Yellowknife. He said my father sustained a serious head injury and wasn't likely to live. I was told to start making funeral arrangements.
It's an unnerving thing to hear news like that. I was given little information and only after I relayed the news to my siblings did I hear that my brother, Ryan, was arrested in connection with my dad's injuries. I knew right then what happened, and strangely enough, I wasn't the least bit surprised.
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Ryan's original name is Harley, given to him by his biological mother after he was born on a reserve near Kenora, Ont. He was given up for adoption in his first year, moved to a Toronto foster care home, and eventually adopted by my parents, Hazel and Leo.
My mother, an Algonquin girl born and raised on the Timiskaming reserve in northwestern Quebec, wanted to adopt and raise a baby and offer a better life. With three teenaged children already, my parents figured the time to adopt was now or never. Ryan was brought home to Sault Ste. Marie in 1977. I was born two years later.
I remember growing up with Ryan. We were the closest in age between all our siblings. We played together constantly. As we grew up however, we started down different roads: I was more interested in sports and Ryan was more interested in building things. He was great at making forts and tunnels and secret hiding places.
I knew Ryan was different from all the other kids our age but it was only when I was 13 or 14 that my parents told me he was born with FASD, or Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. His biological mother drank heavily while she was pregnant with him. My parents were aware of this but decided to adopt him regardless, obviously unaware that his condition would become increasingly worse as he grew older.
For years, my parents reached out for medical and psychological care, but services were few and far between. Ryan was put into a special education program for children with learning disabilities.
My parents did the best they could given their resources and backgrounds as educators: he was enrolled in Cadets because he loved watching war movies. He joined karate because that interested him too, and art classes because he loved to draw. He was given all sorts of opportunities to do the things he enjoyed.
Into our teenage years, we really drifted apart. In 1996, my mother suddenly passed away, a shock of course to our entire family. I'm not sure how Ryan dealt with her death in the long run; I only recall him destroying his bedroom after hearing the news. He coped with rage.
In many respects my mom's death was a turning point in all of our lives. Our three older siblings had long moved out of the house and had their own lives to live and I would be leaving for university in only a few years. And when I left, it would only be Ryan and my dad living together in a small house with some bizarre, odd-couple relationship.
By the time I left home for school, Ryan had already been to jail several times — mostly for petty crimes like theft and vandalism — and was unemployed. He lived with my dad because my dad would never turn him away. And he never did. Even as my brother descended further into trouble, my dad was always there to try and help him back on his feet.
When I returned home from school one summer, I really noticed a change in Ryan. Now in his mid-20s, he had gained a lot of weight and grew his hair out. He paced around the house for hours and laughed at his own thoughts while looking out the window.
I also noticed a change in my dad: he wasn't as youthful as he usually was and seemed withdrawn. He had a short temper with Ryan and was agitated that he had to tell a grown man not to eat all of the food in the fridge (which Ryan did often) and to stay away from booze.
When Ryan did drink, he went to his room in the basement, blasted his stereo and wailed on his punching bag. Shady characters, friends of Ryan, would come to the house at all hours of the day and night. I couldn't imagine that this is what my father lived with on a daily basis.
In 2005, I moved north and things remained the same between my dad and Ryan. My eldest sister was the only family member left who still lived in Sault Ste. Marie, checking up on my dad, making sure Ryan was staying out of trouble, and generally helping my dad take care of him. But eventually she left too, to be with her husband and family in Toronto.
It was time for Ryan to find his own apartment. More importantly, it was time for my dad to enjoy his life — we decided that he could not and should not have to babysit a grown man any longer.
We knew the transition had to be managed delicately. We weren't just going to kick Ryan to the curb. We needed some assistance in getting him into some kind of subsidized apartment building and someone to help him manage his money. At the same time, we needed to ease my dad into the idea of selling his home and moving to a smaller condo.
We met a social worker who was experienced and willing to help us with Ryan's physical and emotional detachment from my dad. Things were looking great and even Ryan was hopeful about a new start and a new future.
None of us expected what happened the night my dad was attacked but none of us were completely surprised either.
After all, one of the main reasons we wanted Ryan and my dad to live apart was to avoid a confrontation like this. Our family had said for years that we didn't like the idea of our dad living with someone who got into trouble so easily, or worse, could potentially bring trouble home.
I once told my sister that I could see Ryan getting mixed up with the wrong person, and that person would follow Ryan home to where my dad was. But everything was going well, or so I thought.
After I received the call from the doctor in Sault Ste. Marie, my dad was airlifted to a head trauma centre and ICU in Sudbury. I flew to Sudbury the following day and met my family there. My dad had undergone surgery while I was travelling. I wasn't sure if he'd be alive or not when I got there, but thankfully, he was.
It was shocking to see my dad, lying in a coma after surgery. Luckily, he had not suffered any injury to his brain although he was in very rough shape. From what I could tell, he had a broken leg and the back of his skull had been crushed inwards. His forearms and hands had been fractured and bruised in the scuffle as he tried to defend himself.
My dad was alive but not yet out of the woods. His recovery was not guaranteed, and if he did recover, it would be a long process.
Ryan was arrested for aggravated assault with a weapon. We didn't know the extent of the damage until my siblings and I drove to Sault Ste. Marie to check on my dad's house.
Dried blood and forensic markings were splattered all over the walls, from the living room to the entranceway. The large, heavy wooden coffee table was smashed on the ground. The Christmas tree and decorations still hanging.
The scene made us all sick to our stomachs. Knowing that our own brother did this to the only person on Earth who took him in, raised him and continued to care for him far longer than he should have, made it all seem worse. I was, and still am, disgusted with Ryan for what he did.
Police later confirmed that Ryan had been drinking that night, and most surprisingly, that he was the person who called 911 in time for dad to be saved.
In interviews with my dad, it was learned that Ryan was already intoxicated when my dad returned home from a meeting in the evening. He scolded Ryan for drinking but went to the couch for some much needed rest.
In a fit of rage, Ryan lashed out at my dad, walked into the living room and attacked him. The two fought in the living room and moved toward the staircase leading upstairs. It's believed that my dad tried to get away and Ryan picked up the coffee table and threw it at dad, either hitting him directly in the back of the head, or hitting him from the front, knocking him backwards where he hit his head on the foot of the stairs.
Before making our way back to Sudbury, we visited Ryan in jail. We needed to confront him and explain how much damage he had done.
I showed him photos of dad on the hospital bed. Ryan looked upset and sorry for what he did but still could not understand why he was in jail. "I only did that one thing," was his defence.
In his mind, assault causing serious harm was the same as stealing a candy bar. We left him that day knowing that he might not ever really understand what he did to our dad and our family.
Dad's recovery was quick, miraculously.
Within two weeks he was transferred from ICU to rehabilitation — almost unheard of for a man his age who's suffered such a serious injury. Within three weeks he was feeding himself; he was using a walker within a month. It was like nothing any of us (and certainly many of the nurses) had seen before. The recovery process was intense, but he made it through the worst of it.
The next year would be about dad and his recovery. When he was finally released from hospital, he was allowed further rehabilitation in a centre close to my siblings in southern Ontario. We had his house cleaned out and ready to sell. He would have his own place when he eventually returned to Sault Ste. Marie, despite our suggestions to move closer to one of us. His friends and life are in the Soo, which we understand.
Six months after the attack, my dad was up and walking again with nothing more than a cane for support. He was doing very well. The potential for a trial was looming, however, and it weighed on all our minds.
In the months following the attack, Ryan had been evaluated by a psychiatrist to see if he was criminally responsible for the act. The results of these tests were incredibly important to us and more importantly, my father's safety and the safety of the general public.
The potential for a trial was looming, however, and it weighed on all our minds.
If Ryan was found criminally responsible, he would go on trial and likely be found guilty and put in jail. If found not criminally responsible, he would likely be sent to a psychiatric ward and subject to strict monitoring for several years, if not the rest of his life.
On the surface, it seems that a conclusion of criminally responsible and subsequent jail time would be in the best interest of everyone, but this is not so. When offenders with obvious psychological issues are found criminally responsible, they go to trial, many are found guilty and many serve only a few months in jail. But they are eventually released out into the general public.
It was important for us — my father, the city of Sault Ste. Marie, even Ryan himself — that he be found not criminally responsible because at least then he would be under the watch of mental health specialists. To us, it was obvious: Ryan had suffered from FASD and mental health issues his entire life.
But such was not the case. The doctors found him more than fit to stand trial, and one specialist even suggested that Ryan behaves strangely because he may have fallen on his head too many times (I'm not making this up). At his lawyer's suggestion, Ryan would enter a guilty plea, bypass trial and be handed down a sentence in early 2015.
It was still baffling to me that Ryan was found criminally responsible. I understand why but I don't understand how.
I mean, here was a man who clearly struggled with FASD and was suffering from wild delusions in the year leading up to this event.
In fact, a recent file was discovered that states that Ryan went to the hospital himself and spoke to doctors about his mental condition and paranoia. The report says he was seeing alien spaceships in the sky and thinking up ideas for weaponry that he wanted to sell to the Canadian military. The doctors he approached in Sault Ste. Marie, used phrase-terms like "being odd" and having "weird thoughts" in their official reports.
Someone pointed out to our family that "odd" and "weird" are not medically recognized diagnoses, but rather symptoms of something far more serious, like paranoid schizophrenia or another mental illness. Ryan was prescribed several bottles of anti-psychotic medication and sent on his way. Doctors did not notify family or his social worker that he was given these drugs, or even that Ryan came in to see them.
It was mind blowing to me that Ryan was sent out the door with anti-psychotics in hand, and worse, that doctors misdiagnosed him. The mental health system failed him. We tried to figure out where things went wrong and ask what we could have done as a family to avoid this.
A friend close to the family put things in perspective:
Ryan was born with severe learning disabilities as a result of FASD. He was also addicted to alcohol before he ever took his first drink. Growing up, he was at his best because he had family support — many siblings and several success stories. He was encouraged to participate in extra-curricular activities and was given a real opportunity to succeed with the best resources available.
In short, our family and especially my parents held him up to a point where his struggles were not so obvious to the medical community.
In short, our family and especially my parents held him up to a point where his struggles were not so obvious to the medical community.
Later in life, after my mom passed away and as we all moved to jobs in different cities, Ryan slipped backward.
Suddenly there was no group to hold him up anymore and he became unemployed, lonely, paranoid and concerned enough about his own mental health that he sought treatment but was labelled a weirdo by doctors and given a bunch of pills.
This past February, Ryan was in the Sault Ste. Marie courthouse. My father, sisters, older brother and I all wrote victim impact statements for the judge to consider. We wanted justice for my father but did not want a sentence without mental treatment after his jail term. In short, we don't want him to offend again when released.
Ryan was handed a two-year sentence, minus time served, and credited with two months for being detained in solitary confinement. In total, he was in jail for one year and four months for nearly killing his own father. He was released in May 2015.
Personally, I'm divided about how I feel about this whole situation.
On the one hand I recognize that what Ryan did was deplorable and I may never forgive him. On the other hand, he was failed by both the mental health system and the justice system in Sault Ste. Marie. This is not uncommon in our country.
There are thousands of families affected by Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and both the medical and justice communities are challenged with understanding this disease and dealing with cases like ours appropriately.
I'm writing this as a way of coping with this tragedy on a personal level, but I also hope my story raises awareness about the disease as a call to action for proper treatment for others who struggle with FASD.
This disease is preventable and I believe we can avoid stories like ours.
This essay was originally published on Pat Kane's personal blog. It is reprinted with permission.