The treatment of people with special needs in Nova Scotia is in crisis and federal laws need to change to stop the criminalization of people with intellectual disabilities, according to groups that represent them.

Victor Murphy broke down in tears as he told a news conference on Monday about his 34-year-old daughter Amanda.

She has the intellectual abilities of a five to eight year old and experiences outbursts and lives in a group home in Antigonish. She has been before the courts several times.

"My wife and I wonder when we’re gone who’s going step up for her," he said.

"She had been put on probation before and community service and we don't know what’s going to happen this time."

Amanda is facing an assault with a weapon charge next month after allegedly throwing a shoe and piece of foam at a health-care worker.

'Amanda is just a child but now she's being treated as a criminal and quite honestly she can't help what she does.' - Victor Murphy

"Amanda is just a child but now she's being treated as a criminal and quite honestly she can't help what she does," he said.

Murphy is not alone.

Brenda Hardiman, the mother of Nichele Benn, has also been vocal on the issue.

Her 26-year-old daughter was charged with assault and assault with a weapon after she allegedly bit and hit an employee at the Quest Regional Rehabilitation Centre in Halifax on Dec. 12.

Benn has epilepsy, cerebral palsy and an organic brain disorder that causes her to have aggressive behaviour.

"These are health issues and if they're incarcerated their behaviors will continue," said Hardiman.

"It's like another Ashley Smith situation unfolding, they'll just continue to be in there. If they hit a guard, the guard will press charges and then their time will be extended in jail."

Smith is the New Brunswick teenager who died in a federal prison when she strangled herself in her cell, prompting a public inquiry.

She was transferred between institutions 17 times in the 11 months before she died at the age of 19. Her parents say she never received the psychological help she needed.

More attention called for

Cindy Carruthers, co-ordinator for People First Nova Scotia, is asking for a meeting with Justice Minister Peter MacKay.

Carruthers, who used to work in small options and group homes, said there are other ways to deal aggressive behaviours.

"These crisis situations can be minimized and perhaps even eliminated with appropriate housing, effective staff … and good programs," said Carruthers, who has worked in the field for 20 years.

A spokeswoman for MacKay did not specifically say whether MacKay would meet with the group.

The province's Community Services Department responded with an emailed statement pointing out that each care-giving facility in the province develops its own policies on when to call police.

A spokesman for Nova Scotia Justice Minister Lena Diab issued a statement saying anyone who feels they are in danger has the right to call police.

"Nova Scotians deserve the right to feel safe and to be treated with dignity….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. Every person and every situation is different."

With files from The Canadian Press