Kayla Bourque redux

There has been a lot interesting comment on Kayla Bourque’s situation. Some of the comments I have received show a great deal of anger and misunderstanding of how our legal system works and the role personality disorders play in mental health. There are no easy answers in this type of situation however we must be mindful that fear and emotion do not drive the discussion.

Personality disorders fall on Axis II of the DSM. Wikipedia defines personality disorders as: “are a class of personality types and enduring behaviors associated with significant distress or disability, which appear to deviate from social expectations particularly in relating to other humans” (emphasis mine). I find it quite interesting that personality disorders are defined as behaviors that deviate from social expectations. It makes sense though when you realize that some behaviors, which may well be maladaptive in our society, may be extremely adaptive in other cultures.[1] Bourque has been diagnosed as having anti-social and sociopathic personality disorder. Human beings turn out as social creatures because our parents or caregivers nurture us and meet our needs. When a child fails to attach in a meaningful way they can, like dogs and cats, become feral. This may well be part of what happened to Bourque in a Romanian orphanage. When Canadians adopted children from these places many experts warned that these children may well be quite damaged and struggle in our society. I am sure there are far more successes than Kayla Bourques who came out of those places. I suspect that there is a necessary set of conditions that causes someone to become an animal killer. If Bourque had attached as an infant she may well have still struggled to some extent.

Personality disorders differ from mental illnesses, as they are innate. Mental illness is something that, in many cases, can be transient either through treatment or time. Personality disorders are with people for life. Sometimes the debilitating effects can be mitigated through intensive counselling and education however the prognosis is quite poor. Bourque really does not understand that what she has done is wrong. She is a predator. Given the opportunity she will likely kill someone as research has shown where the path she is on will lead. Will counselling help Bourque? I don’t think it is likely. She lacks compassion and empathy.

Our legal system is pretty clear on how this will play out. Canadian citizens have rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Amongst those rights is the right ‘not to be arbitrarily detained or imprisoned.’ Our legal system is a reactionary; a crime is committed, a person arrested and charged. There are no provisions to lock someone up because they might commit a crime. So as much as our knee-jerk reaction is to want to lock her up forever we simply cannot justify it.

I commend the judge in this case who is taking the time to craft a set of parole conditions that will keep the public safe. In all likelihood Bourque will not be able to abide by these strict conditions and will end up back in jail. Once her parole is over she will no longer have restrictions on her liberty. It will then be up to the police to track her movements and hopefully keep society safe. I am sure this will come at significant cost to taxpayers. Personally, I think it will be money well spent.

[1] Now before anyone assumes that I think it is adaptive to kill and torture animals, I am not saying that in any way.

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