P.E.I. government facing lawsuit over 'deplorable treatment' of woman with autism

The family of a P.E.I. woman with severe autism has provided notice it intends to sue the provincial government after a widely-discredited form of communication was used to level unsubstantiated accusations of sexual abuse against the woman’s father.

Family provides notice of legal action after unsubstantiated accusations brought against woman's father

The family has filed 90 days notice with the Supreme Court of P.E.I. (CBC)

The family of a P.E.I. woman with severe autism has provided notice it intends to sue the provincial government after a widely-discredited form of communication was used to level unsubstantiated accusations of sexual abuse against the woman's father.

The woman was in the care of Queen's County Residential Services (QCRS) at the time. In court documents she's described as "a vulnerable child in an adult body," diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and a severe learning disability and capable of minimal verbal communication.

The woman was 35 years old in January of 2015 when caregivers at QCRS introduced the controversial technique of facilitated communication, in which a facilitator holds or guides the hand or arm of a person who is normally unable to communicate. Together, they point to letters on a board or to keys on a keyboard.

Father prevented from seeing daughter

Using the technique, caregivers determined the woman was telling them her father had sexually abused her for 22 years. The CBC has chosen not to identity the woman and her family given the nature of the original allegations.

The father was arrested, although no charges were ever laid. He was also prevented from having any contact with his daughter for six months. The woman's mother and other family members were also prevented from having unsupervised contact with the daughter.

The family took the province to court to regain guardianship of their daughter. As part of their case they presented 70 studies and papers critical of facilitated communication, and sought out an expert from Harvard who testified that the daughter was "incapable of generating the communications that are being attributed to her."

Judge calls woman's treatment 'deplorable'

Justice Nancy Key concluded the accusations were coming from the caregivers, not the woman herself, and offered harsh criticism to the minister of health at the time Doug Currie as well as QCRS and the province's adult protection program for their "deplorable treatment" of the woman and her family.

Key said representatives of the P.E.I. Health Department, including the minister, ignored concerns raised by the family regarding the scientific validity on which the allegation of abuse was based.

"With very little effort, the vast resources of the Minister of Health may have been employed to critically examine the allegations of sexual abuse made…. The Minister has a legislatively mandated requirement to investigate allegations of abuse against vulnerable persons, in this instance… He did not do so."

Trauma is ongoing, family says

The failure by the minister to call an investigation came at "the detriment and great expense, both emotional and financial of the family. The Minister of Health and its designate must be held accountable," Key wrote in her decision. 

Key ordered the province to pay the family $61,000 in legal costs, although the family says its legal costs have risen above $200,000.

A statement released this week by the law firm representing the family said the parents are "significantly out of pocket for the expenses they incurred due to the baseless allegations made against them.... The trauma the family experienced due to the acts and omissions of the [former health] minister and others is real and is ongoing," the statement said.

Now the family has provided the P.E.I. Department of Justice with the required 90-day notice that it intends to pursue further damages "stemming from the conduct of the Honourable Doug W. Currie ... his designates and departmental employees and the costs to [the woman's family] associated with providing her adequate care and housing."

According to the notice, the family intends to argue the province violated the woman's charter rights.

The province provided this response to CBC News via email: "Adult care and protection is difficult work that community organizations, government and employees take seriously. The primary concern is always for the safety and well-being of the individual, and to balance the rights of families with the need to protect vulnerable individuals. The province is committed to providing the best care possible, using the best evidence-based practices and tools.

"With respect to the matter at hand, we will be reviewing the claim upon receipt and will respond in due course."

With files from The Canadian Press