Rally supports N.S. woman with special needs in trouble with law

Rallies were staged across Nova Scotia on Sunday in support of Nichele Benn and some others with intellectual disabilities who advocates say are being dragged into the criminal justice system.

Nichele Benn is intellectually disabled and has outbursts; she's been charged with assault

Nichele Benn cries outside the RCMP detachment in Lower Sackville on Sunday. She has intellectual disabilities and has been charged with assault and assault with a weapon. (CBC)

Rallies were staged across Nova Scotia on Sunday in support of NicheleBenn, with advocates saying she is not the only person with intellectual disabilities being dragged into the criminal justice system.

Benn was born with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and an organic brain disorder. She has periodic episodes of aggressive behaviour and lives at the Quest Regional Rehabilitation Centre in Lower Sackville, N.S.

Benn has been charged several times with assault. The latest case came last month when she was accused of throwing a piece of foam and a shoe at a staff member, according to her mother.

Brenda Hardiman ​says staff should be using therapeutic measures like quiet rooms when her daughter acts out. Instead staff are involving police, she said.

"She has several assault charges and convictions against her and this is another one," Hardiman said. "We’re trying to bring this to the forefront. There’s a lot of other people in the same situation."

On Sunday Benn and Hardiman went to the RCMP detachment in Lower Sackville because police wanted to fingerprint Benn. Her mother called it a "devastating" and "horrible" experience.

She spoke outside the detachment as Benn wept beside her.

Demonstrators supporting Nichele Benn protest outside the RCMP detachment in Lower Sackville, N.S. (CBC)

The Nova Scotia Department of Community Services says it's rare for a care facility to call police for help. A spokeswoman says facilities employ caring staff trained to deal with difficult situations.

"Police are only called as a last resort in situations of imminent danger when other less intrusive interventions fail," Elizabeth MacDonald said in a statement.

"No policies exist at Community Services which guide or regulate who can call police or in which situations police can or cannot be called."

A spokesman for the Nova Scotia Department of Justice says it can’t speak about specific cases.

Chad Lucas said any changes to the Criminal Code of Canada to address people with special needs would require federal legislation. He said once someone is charged there are options like mental health court and adult diversion.

"Once police are called to a situation, they are trained to be sensitive to people's needs and abilities and to assess carefully whether charges should be laid," Lucas said in a statement. "Every person and every situation is different."

But advocates say something needs to change. Benn had the support of demonstrators outside the police detachment, as well as people rallying in four other locations in the province.

"There are many people with the same challenges as Nichele, and more severe behaviours, who are being supported very effectively by residential agencies across Nova Scotia," said Cindy Carruthers, with the advocacy group People First Nova Scotia.

"There’s this disconnect with Nichele and others who have been put in jail because of those behaviours. We need to stop that disconnect, we need to support everybody the same."

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