Ashley Smith – a tragedy waiting to happen

Like most Canadians, I was shocked and saddened by the video footage released this week showing how Ashley Smith was duct taped to an airplane seat and forcibly injected with pharmaceutical tranquilizers to control her behavior.  Ashley Smith’s story illustrates the caverns and pitfalls[1] in Canada’s mental health system and in particular how it relates to youth.

Ashley had trouble in school. Starting when she was 10 years old, she became increasingly difficult to manage. She engaged in inappropriate behavior and had been suspended many times. Ashley committed several offenses during her teen years including assault, insulting people on public transit and making harassing telephone calls. She was funneled through an alternative measures program and placed on probation. Her adoptive parents also took her to a psychiatrist to rule out mental health issues.[2] She then underwent a battery of assessments and the results indicated personality disorders but not depression. She was also diagnosed with ‘oppositional defiance’ disorder. Eventually, Smith would breach her probation and end up incarcerated.

Smith’s story is one of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The expectations at the New Brunswick Youth Centre required that Ashley conform to expected norms. The system was predicated on the ability of inmates to improve their status and rise through the hierarchy.[3] Ashley did not function well in these settings. Ashley’s behavior became increasingly challenging for institutional staff to handle. As she escalated, so did the consequences for her behavior with her eventually being sentenced to secure custody. When she would be discharged, she would do something else and end up back in.

When you watch the video of her on the airplane, you can clearly see she is shackled to the seat. She does not appear to be struggling at all. Then, for some unknown reason, her hands are duct-taped. The video of her receiving the forced injections is even more disturbing. She is faced with guards and staff in gas masks who don’t treat her with basic human dignity.

One really has to wonder why everyone seemed to be so afraid of this young woman. Clearly the only way they could deal with her was to treat her as sub-human. Why were they all so afraid of her that she needed 2 spit hoods? It seemed like they were trying to ‘break’ her in order to get her to comply. The feminist in me is peaked as I wonder why a system would be so overwhelmed by one young woman with oppositional defiance disorder? Perhaps people working with her felt the need to for her to behave properly, like a ‘lady’ instead of an out of control hooligan.

What I also find interesting is that Ashley was adopted. I am really beginning to wonder if anything good comes from adoption. Sure, it works out for the parents who want a baby but what about that child or the birth mother? Children need to see themselves reflected in those around them. I get that there are situations where adoption is the only answer for children but I think it is an imperfect answer. Certainly open adoption is more preferable than the old system of secrecy and denial. I do wonder what affect adoption had on Ashley.

Regardless of the circumstances of Ashley’s adoption, what happened to her in the system is unconscionable and unforgivable. As a society, we must start to put resources into people instead of profits. Our politicians need to step up and do the right thing and create a mental health strategy for our country. Even though Ashley did not have a diagnosed mental health issue she still needed therapy. Clearly something happened to this young woman, some kind of trauma, to cause her behavior to escalate. There had to be some place in our world where Ashley would have fit. One thing we know for sure – the prison system was not the place.


[1] To call them ‘cracks’ would be erroneous.

[3]  page 13

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Published in: on November 4, 2012 at 12:40 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Could not bear to watch the video as likely my blood pressure would be spiking and the computer in danger of being smashed. It is the helplessness of both Ashley and the viewer to make things better that I shy from. Cowardly perhaps.

    It is so frustrating to see a life laid out the way Ashley’s has been through documentaries and inquests and be so powerless to break the cycle. Perhaps there were pivotal moments where intervention may have been successful, but without one adult worthy of her trust, that never happened.

    A quick read of ODD indicates that causes are rooted in both nature and nurture. It is quite probable that Ashley inherited the temperament that would lead to this diagnosis. It would take skilled parenting to recognize and seek treatment something that is not always readily available for stressed parents and angry children.

    Adoption with a complete family history is necessary in order to prepare adoptive parents for the potential of that child. The potential for talents, diseases, and temperament. I wonder how many heartaches and tears would be mitigated by that knowledge.

    I think you are right when you mention the square peg. Everyone has a learning style and personality of her own. If it doesn’t fit the norm, life becomes awkward or even deadly.

    As well, your questioning of heavy handed tactics may indeed be rooted in the fact that ODD is found in more males than females. Perhaps experiences dealing with that gender did not prepare the various organizations for a young woman exhibiting such aggressive – read male like – behaviour. Choosing compliance to rules as the treatment plan was doomed to failure.

    All in all a tragedy.

    You wrote a heavy duty blog today, and thank you for that.

    • Thank you for your insightful and thoughtful comments. I just can’t move away from the feeling I have that some of this is rooted in her gender and the societal norms and expectations for young women. I just wish someone had been able to take the time and risk to actually talk to her and not just try to force her to bend their will. I don’t doubt that Ashley was difficult to handle. I worked in group homes with youth for 10 years and I know how trying it can be. But with almost every kid I worked with there would be a time and a place where you stood a chance of getting through to them. The key is creating a relationship. I don’t think many people bothered to do that with Ashley.

  2. Had all the resources allocated to paying the salaries of Ashely Smith’s “caregivers”, staff, captors and jailers been invested instead in teaching her to navigate the landscape and live in the world, there would have been a dramatically different outcome to this horrific story. The system that is set up to recognize clients, cases, and inmates, not girls and boys or young men and young women failed Ashley at every opportunity. That’s what happens when a child becomes a case number or a file, she ceases to be human. It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a system to destroy one.


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