3-month delay connecting Lionel Desmond with follow-up care after hospital release, inquiry hears
Veteran with PTSD who fatally shot family and himself called Veterans Affairs trying to get help sooner
It took more than three months following Lionel Desmond's release from an in-patient psychiatric program for Veterans Affairs to connect him with the person assigned to help him transition to life outside the military and the hospital, a fatality inquiry in Port Hawkesbury, N.S., heard Wednesday.
That gap occurred even though Desmond's case manager at Veterans Affairs spoke to the assigned social worker on Aug. 16, 2016 — one day after Desmond was released from hospital and about four and a half months before he fatally shot his wife, his mother, his 10-year-old daughter and himself on Jan. 3, 2017, in Guysborough County, N.S.
Desmond, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, had called his case manager in mid-October to say he was struggling at home and needed more support, but the social worker, Helen Luedee, first saw him on Nov. 30, 2016.
Luedee told the fatality inquiry looking into the circumstances of the shooting that Veterans Affairs needed her to complete an online training course before meeting with Desmond. The course, she testified Wednesday, was to last a few hours and teach her how to upload notes from her sessions to a federal database.
It's unclear why it took months for Veterans Affairs to get her signed up for the course. A senior manager from the department testified Tuesday the module could only be offered once a certain number of people had signed up.
Luedee started the training about a month before meeting with Desmond, but that day, the power cut out, and she couldn't finish the program.
Desmond's Veterans Affairs case manager, Marie-Paule Doucette, initially said someone would be in touch to reschedule training but later told Luedee that she would connect her with Desmond anyway.
"They were saying that I could not see the client until I got trained on it, until Ms. Doucette said, 'We're just going to have to go ahead with this,'" said Luedee. "I detected some frustration in her voice with the barrier of the technical aspect getting in the way of the actual work with the client."
Luedee didn't end up completing the course until some time after the fatal shooting.
'He was just so eager to get started'
Instead of holding her first meeting with Desmond in an office setting, Luedee suggested a place where he said he'd feel relaxed: the Big Stop in Aulds Cove.
The two seemed to quickly develop a sense of trust, with Luedee noting that Desmond's initial fidgeting and lack of eye contact had gone away by the end of their first meeting.
They decided the first part of their work together would be to help Desmond re-engage with his family and "establish new and healthy routines at home."
In the next two weeks, Luedee would help him connect with family counselling services that work with veterans. She also referred him to the Family Services centre in Antigonish that had a men's health centre and offered peer support and parenting classes.
She ensured that he was meeting with his clinical therapist, someone he had just met for the first time at the beginning of December. Luedee said she also planned to see what sort of resources local gyms had and to refer him to an occupational therapist.
Each time she spoke about Desmond during her testimony, she described him as someone who was deeply motivated to get well and re-create a life with his family.
"He was somebody who spoke very highly of his daughter and his role as a father," she said.
Desmond told Luedee his mental illness was damaging his relationship with his wife, Shanna, and that "he was willing to do whatever it took to make it work," the social worker said.
"Out of a 10, he was probably an 11 at that point," she said of their first meeting. "He was just so eager to get started."
Final phone call
That motivation continued for the next month, she testified. Luedee said Desmond would send her texts or leave her messages after he had accomplished the goals they set out together.
When they met again, he was eager to get marital counselling set up — a commitment he'd made to his wife.
But his demeanour was very different on Jan. 2, 2017, Luedee testified. Desmond had just been released from hospital, where he'd spent the night in an emergency room bed following a fight with his wife. She had asked him to leave the house.
The inquiry has heard from previous witnesses that in the days leading up to the fatal shootings, Shanna asked her husband for a divorce.
Twice on Jan. 2, a holiday, he called Luedee on her cellphone. She called him back and testified she could tell that he "was in distress."
"He sounded sad," she said. "He was upset, clearly, about his marriage ending. He still wanted to work on his marriage. But he still sounded future-focused and hope-focused because he still wanted to make sure that he was doing well enough to be a father to his child."
Luedee said Desmond told her that he would need help finding a good home, because he said that Shanna said their daughter, Aaliyah, could only visit if he had a safe place to live.
Luedee testified she did a risk assessment with Desmond for both homicide and suicide and felt that while he was at a higher risk, it was not an immediate one. They made a plan for him to call his therapist the next day and for him to call the Family Services office.
She said she made him promise that he would call if anything changed and that she would answer.
Desmond did not call her again.
But he did follow through on their agreement. He called his therapist, Catherine Chambers, the next day and had a conversation very similar to the one he did with Luedee. His phone records also show that he called Family Services.
Later that afternoon, he would drive to a hunting store and buy the rifle with which he killed his family and himself roughly an hour later.