Judge rebukes P.E.I. health minister for 'deplorable treatment' of family

P.E.I. Supreme Court Justice Nancy Key has sternly rebuked the province’s former Health Minister Doug Currie over the way the health system treated an Island woman with severe autism and her family.

Controversial technique led to allegations of sexual abuse against father of woman with autism

Supreme Court of P.E.I. Justice Nancy Key wrote the Minister of Health 'should not be permitted to trample on the rights of a vulnerable member of society.' (Steve Bruce/CBC)

P.E.I. Supreme Court Justice Nancy Key has sternly rebuked the province's former Health Minister Doug Currie over the way the health system treated an Island woman with severe autism and her family, and has awarded the family $61,086 in costs.

The case revolves around a controversial technique used to help those with severe disabilities to communicate. In this instance, it led to allegations of sexual abuse against the father of a 35-year-old woman with severe autism, although no charges were ever laid.

In her decision, Justice Nancy Key refers to the "deplorable treatment" of the woman and her family by former Health Minister Currie, the province's adult protection program and by staff of Queens County Residential Services.

'Vulnerable child in an adult body'

The CBC has decided to protect the identity of the woman and her family. Court documents describe her as "a vulnerable child in an adult body," diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and a severe learning disability and capable of minimal verbal communication. One expert called to testify in the case compared her level of understanding with that of a one- or two-year-old.

The woman lived with her family until she was 21, then became a client of Queens County Residential Services. 

Doug Currie's actions 'were heavy handed,' wrote Supreme Court Justice Nancy Key in her decision. (CBC)

Caregivers there 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.

Using the technique, caregivers determined the woman was telling them her father had sexually abused her for 22 years. Staff signed affidavits, and as of Feb. 7, 2015, her father was prevented from having contact with his daughter, although he was never charged with any crime. 

Her mother was also later prevented from having unsupervised contact, after staff alleged the young woman communicated she did not wish any further contact with her mother outside the facility she called home.

Later, "the Minister, without providing any rationale whatsoever and with no grounds for doing so, expanded the group" of those restricted in visiting the woman to all of her family members, Key wrote in the court documents. 

No more valid than 'a Ouija Board'

But Justice Nancy Key determined those communications, including the allegations of sexual abuse, originated not with the woman but "were the communications of the facilitators, namely the very caregivers who provided affidavit evidence of [the] allegations of sexual assault by her father," according to the court documents. 

The family provided 70 scholarly studies and reviews to the court, all critical of the technique of facilitated communication. 

One review of similar cases published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found, "the data presented here lend no more support to the validity of the alleged sex abuse incidents than data gathered via a Ouija Board."

The family also sought expert opinions -- including one from a psychologist at Harvard Medical School -- who all concluded the woman was "incapable of generating the communications that are being attributed to her."

For its part, the P.E.I. Health Department promised to provide an affidavit from a provincial psychologist including an assessment of the woman,  but no affidavit was ever produced. A lawyer for the province said the results of government's report were "inconclusive."

The Minister's actions were heavy handed and in certain instances the Minister had no authority to act as he did.— Nancy Key, P.E.I. Supreme Court Justice

Justice 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."

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. 

Needless trauma

No criminal charges were ever brought forward against the woman's father. 

A stay of the proceedings was issued on June 26, 2015. On July 30, the Health Department withdrew its application for a protective intervention order regarding the woman. The same day, her parents were jointly appointed as her guardians, and she resumed living with them soon after.

"Our clients are relieved that the Supreme Court has acknowledged the trauma their family has been put through, needlessly. They wish to take some time to reflect on this decision before commenting further," states a brief email from the family's lawyer to CBC News.

A spokesperson for P.E.I.'s Health department said government is also reviewing the decision.