Doctors failed mentally ill Ontario man who killed his mother day after seeing psychiatrist, says family
Joel Vassell found not criminally responsible for killing mother, court ruled this month
Family members of an Ontario man diagnosed with schizophrenia say his doctors didn't do "their due diligence" when they failed to admit him to a hospital after he called a crisis line the day before stabbing his mother and setting her house on fire with her inside.
Joel Vassell called the crisis line at Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences in Whitby, Ont., in the early hours of Dec. 10, 2019, and asked to be admitted because he believed he was being poisoned and said he'd been experiencing paranoid thoughts.
Vassell had been under the care of the Ontario Review Board (ORB) since he was found not criminally responsible (NCR) in 2015 for an assault on his mother and attempted murder of his grandmother. The ORB oversees individuals who have been found unfit to stand trial or not criminally responsible for an offence because of a mental disorder.
At the time of the crisis call, Vassell had community privileges — which meant he was living on his own in a small apartment in Richmond Hill, Ont., where outpatient services followed up with him about once a week. He was also required to return to Ontario Shores once a month to see his psychiatrist.
Later that same morning, Vassell was assessed by his psychiatrist, Dr. Derek Pallandi, at Ontario Shores, east of Toronto. Pallandi chose not to admit Vassell to hospital.
The next day, Vassell's mother, 61-year-old Yvonne Bachelor, was stabbed, and her townhouse in northwest Toronto was set on fire while she was trapped inside.
Vassell, who was charged with first-degree murder and arson, told a crisis worker afterward that he hadn't taken his medication for two days. He was found not criminally responsible for Bachelor's death on Jan. 5.
Details of Bachelor's murder and events leading up to that day, including Vassell's interaction with Ontario Shores, are contained in an agreed statement of facts submitted to the judge who heard the case in Ontario's Superior Court of Justice.
'This could have been prevented': family
Vassell, who is now 25, is currently being held in a correctional facility awaiting a placement decision and an initial hearing by the ORB on the new NCR finding in the coming weeks.
While research into NCR outcomes in Canada has concluded that those found not criminally responsible for a serious violent crime are some of the people least likely to reoffend, that fact is of little comfort to Vassell's extended family.
They believe Vassell's doctors "didn't do their jobs," and it cost Bachelor her life.
"I really, truly believe that this could have been prevented if they had kept him in custody and did their due diligence with him to see what's going on, to make sure that he's taking his medication," said one of Vassell's relatives.
CBC News is not naming the relative because the family fears for its safety given Vassell's three attacks on family members to date.
WATCH | Vassell's relative says keeping him in custody would have prevented murder:
The relative says Vassell's doctors took a urine sample when he was assessed on Dec. 10, 2019, but he was released before the results came back showing low levels of medication in his system.
"The consequence of this was somebody's life," the relative said. "We cannot get her life back. We have to live with that the rest of our lives."
Mother's death a 'tragedy,' says review board
CBC News reached out to Pallandi, the psychiatrist who assessed Vassell, for this story but did not receive a response.
In a statement, a lawyer for the ORB told CBC News that "a tragedy occurred with the death of Mr. Vassell's mother" and that the board can't speak for the hospital or clinicians.
"Like the ORB, treatment providers must weigh multiple factors in arriving at any decision to enlarge or restrict liberty," Joe Wright said.
"Every individual presents with positive and negative risk factors. The decisions that clinicians and the board make must be made on the evidence, case law and the structured clinical discretion of experts."
Ontario Shores said in a statement to CBC News that the hospital can't comment on specific patients because of privacy considerations.
"Ontario Shores extends our deepest sympathies to the victim's family," spokesperson Andrea Marshall said. "The treatment of people living with serious mental illness who have come into contact with the law is a complex and often misunderstood area of the province's mental health care system."
'Significant threat' to public safety a key issue
In the Criminal Code, anyone found NCR after committing a crime must be discharged absolutely unless they are a "significant threat to the safety of the public."
In practical terms, that means a person who is found NCR can be put on a detention order and remain under the care of the ORB if they're a significant threat or they can receive a conditional or absolute discharge into the community.
Vassell was still under an ORB detention order when he killed Bachelor in 2019. But the board had been increasing his community privileges incrementally since 2017.
In August 2018, Vassell moved out of Ontario Shores and transitioned into an apartment in the community with help from forensic outpatient services. Shortly after, he started attending a college program.
The ORB's mandatory annual review order of Vassell's case in 2018, called a disposition, said he'd been fully compliant when it came to taking his medication and hadn't shown any signs of psychosis since he was discharged from the hospital.
However, in the ORB's review order in November 2019, the board refused to grant Vassell a conditional discharge because it said he continued to pose too great of a threat to public safety.
Part of the reasoning given by the ORB was that Vassell continued to reject his schizophrenia diagnosis and was "ambivalent" to the benefits of his medication.
"Without the oversight of a clinical team provided by a disposition, Mr. Vassell is likely to become non-compliant with medication," the ORB said. "In that state, Mr. Vassell would experience personal and paranoid beliefs that relate to individuals close to him in his life, and he would be at real risk of acting on those beliefs for self-protection or retribution."
Another factor was that in October 2019, Vassell's psychiatrist had agreed to reduce the dosage of his medication, and the board still wasn't sure how Vassell would respond to the change.
Two months after the change in dosage and a month after the review order, Vassell killed his mother. He told a crisis worker that he set the house on fire because he was "tired of the abuse" from Bachelor and that he wanted to "free her soul," according to the agreed statement of facts.
More violent cases have low recidivism rates: study
Despite the media attention given to cases such as Vassell's, a study on NCR outcomes in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry in 2015, shows that cases such as his are outliers. The National Trajectory Project looked at the outcomes of 1,800 people found NCR across Canada's three most populous provinces.
"Those who committed more serious forms of violence, which could include sexual crimes or homicide, were actually less likely to reoffend," said Dr. Michael Seto, who worked on the study.
That group had the lowest recidivism rates in the study, with just six per cent committing a new offence of any kind within three years.
Seto, forensic research director at the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group, said part of the reason for that is people with more serious offences are typically in the review board system longer and can be kept under conditions even when they start living in the community again.
Overall, the study found that Quebec had roughly double the recidivism rate for people found NCR compared with Ontario and B.C., and Ontario kept people in the review board system for the longest amount of time on average.
"Ontario is more conservative than Quebec or British Columbia in terms of how people move from detention order, where they're in hospital, to conditional discharge to absolute discharge," Seto told CBC News.
Family members are the most common victims of crimes committed by people found NCR, according to the study.
Vassell's relative said they are still worried for the safety of Vassell's surviving family members.
"He knows where everybody lives in the family," the relative said. "If he ever gets out, then we would have to move to have some type of sanity in our day-to-day lives without looking over our shoulders."
Vassell's relative is also calling for a coroner's inquest into Bachelor's death, so that something like this doesn't happen again.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.