Nichele Benn 'extremely happy' after charges dropped

A Nova Scotia woman with intellectual disabilities has had all charges against her dropped.

Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard won't tell care homes to stop calling police

Nichelle Benn, right, and her mother Brenda Hardiman wait at provincial court in Dartmouth, N.S. on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. Hardiman says her daughter has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and an organic brain disorder that causes periodic episodes of aggressive behaviour. (The Canadian Press)

A Nova Scotia woman with intellectual disabilities has had all charges against her dropped.

Nichele Benn's mother, Brenda Hardiman, says the family is ecstatic.

"We just want to say thank you very much to the prosecutor for exercising his discretion," she said Thursday. "We've been battling this for seven years and we're glad that it's finally come to a close."

Hardiman said Benn knew the court procedures were over. "She's extremely happy and relieved, but doesn't understand fully the gravity of how it impacts her life," Hardiman said. 

She would be following the footsteps of Ashley Smith in our justice system.- Brenda Hardiman

Benn, 27, was facing one charge of assault and one charge of mischief after an incident with another resident at the Quest Regional Rehabilitation Centre in Lower Sackville, N.S. last September.

Had the charges gone ahead, Hardiman said her daughter could have found herself in a bad situation.

"She's not going to end up in jail," she said. "There's no doubt in my mind that she would be following the footsteps of Ashley Smith in our justice system."

Hardiman said it should prompt community services to examine its policies and shift from calling the police to putting better supports in place.

She hopes the case inspires other families in similar situations.  "Don't stop fighting. Keep going."

Crown 'very reasonable'

Defence lawyer Jane O'Neill said there are no outstanding charges against Benn. "Nichele is free of the criminal justice system."

O'Neill spoke with Crown lawyer Alex Keaveny and he decided not to proceed with the charges. She said he's "very good to work with and very reasonable." 

Workers have the right to be safe.- Joanne Bernard

"The discussions were really based on what was the best thing in the public interest and what was the best thing for Nichele," O'Neill said.

Hardiman said the legal problems began when Community Services started requiring service providers to call police over aggressive incidents.  

Joanne Bernard, the minister of community services, said the government won't start telling staff when they can or can't call police.

"Absolutely not. I would not want to be a service provider that was told by a government department what was appropriate in terms of my staff who felt like they had been assaulted of whether they can call police," she said.

"Workers have the right to be safe. The individuals involved in these facilities have the right to be safe as well."

Dave Kent is the vice-president of People First Nova Scotia, an advocacy organization for people with intellectual disabilities.

"I'm really happy the Crown decided to drop all charges," he said. "People with special needs shouldn't be charged anyways, because they don't know what's taking place."

People First argues better support in the home should be used to handle such incidents, and that it's not a justice issue, but a health issue.

Province phasing out care homes like Quest

Benn was born with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and an organic brain disorder. She has periodic episodes of aggressive behaviour and lived at Quest as part of the transition program. She has been charged with assault several times.

Discussions have been ongoing for a number of weeks between the defence and the Crown prosecutor about Benn's progress.

Late last year, Benn was moved from the Quest rehabilitation centre to a "small options home" run by the Department of Community Services. Since that move, Benn's behaviour has improved.

Her mother says no one would push for charges against a child, and nor should they against an adult with an intellectual disabilities. 

Meanwhile, the province says it's phasing out residential care homes like Quest. Hardiman says that day can't come soon enough.

"Their needs are not being met," she told CBC News in an interview last summer.

She says it's not right for people with behavioural problems to be living in group homes where staff can't handle their outbursts.


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