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The Girl with the Curl on Her Forehead

Network, Winter 2005
A father talks candidly about his journey with his daughter through the criminal justice system.

There Was a Little Girl

   There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

   — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Do you have a specific intention or goal you hope to accomplish through doing this interview?

I just wanted to see if there is any way I can help other people going through the things I went through who maybe weren’t as lucky as I was. Karyn Baker, with the Family Outreach and Response Program in Toronto, was able to help guide me through the system.

What were the circumstances for you or your relative prior to your family member coming in contact with the criminal justice system?

I guess I’d go back to my first wife’s family where there was a history of mental illness. My first wife was bipolar and passed away — she committed suicide when my two daughters were quite young. It didn’t look like we were going to have any problems with the family until my daughter had just graduated from university and gone overseas to teach — as an interim step before she started teaching in Canada. When she got back, in fact the day she got back, she started exhibiting signs of psychosis, and at that point we were able to get her into the hospital.

She was treated — as it turns out, inappropriately — for depression. It was totally the wrong thing. She was in the hospital, as luck would have it, for only a very short period of time and then she came out and was able to cope.

Melissa [not her real name] is a very aggressive and self-motivated girl — quite bright. She immediately decided she was going to travel in Europe. When she flew back to Canada after about eight to 10 months she had another episode, but this time in the Montreal airport, and she ended up in a hospital in Montreal.

When Melissa is a patient she’s a very difficult patient. She’s kind of like the little girl with the curl on top of her forehead. When she’s good she’s really good. When she’s sick she’s terrible and she won’t cooperate. She fights, she argues… she becomes belligerent. The doctors in Montreal I thought were quite good, but they couldn’t come up with a diagnosis. They knew it wasn’t depression. It didn’t, as the doctors said, smell like schizophrenia. Her doctor thought it might be some kind of multiple personality disorder — he wasn’t sure. In any case, she went AWOL and came back to our house in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area].

We tried working with her for a while, and it just became impossible in the house and she ended up moving into Toronto. Very shortly thereafter she was picked up by the police, taken to the Clarke [Institute of Psychiatry] and was treated there. Once again they were treating her for depression. They simply went back to what she had been treated with before.

And then she had a manic episode in the hospital. The long and short of it was after lots of discussions with the psychiatrists and staff at the Clarke, who were excellent, the doctors finally came up with the proper diagnosis — bipolar. They started treating her as a bipolar patient and she got well rather quickly, and it looked like she was back on the mend again.

She came out and went to live in Toronto and immediately stopped taking medication. At that point she hadn’t really come out of the cycle, and ultimately… she ended up kind of wandering around neighbourhoods and she was walking by someone… a lady was taking her child to school. She had left her car in the driveway running and my daughter just kind of jumped in the car and took off. Melissa doesn’t know why she did it, or understand it for any other reason. She was apparently on the loose for a couple of days. She obviously wasn’t thinking very straight and was using her VISA card to buy gas for this car.

Do you think your daughter had any insight into her illness at that time?

She might have but she was in total denial. Then the police picked her up after a couple of days. It wasn’t a car chase. She just came to a rolling stop. And she refused to tell the police who she was, or anything about herself. They luckily traced back through the VISA — they found out who she was. And I got a phone call at 2 o’clock in the morning from the police and that’s when it started.

What was the encounter like, dealing with the police, for yourself or your daughter?

They were very understanding, but at the same time they didn’t understand her. They thought she was just a rotten person and wasn’t cooperating. On the other hand, they knew she wasn’t a down-and-outer. She wasn’t a hooker. She wasn’t truly criminal, but she was totally uncooperative and acted, they thought, quite superior to everyone and like she didn’t have to answer to anyone. They were pretty frustrated. I kept trying to explain to them that this was an illness. They were very good with me after I explained things — oh here’s what’s happening — but they were ready to throw the key away. Ultimately, she ended up appearing the next morning in the court downtown.

There was a charge laid?

Yes, there was a charge laid, a criminal charge. She was even in court quite belligerent. At that point I had called Karyn at the Family Outreach and Response Program. She showed up with my wife and I in court. We didn’t really get to speak to Melissa because she was first led in in handcuffs, but at that point we were able to go see a COTA mental health court support worker. Between Karyn and the COTA worker they knew the ropes. They knew what I should do to protect Melissa and how to negotiate the system — which is very daunting at best.

There I had a very bad experience with the justice of the peace, who was just absolutely the most unfeeling petty bureaucrat I’ve ever met in my life. I was very upset with him. But ultimately we had to play the game, and we got through that. The COTA worker advised us which lawyer would best be suited for Melissa’s case. We obtained a lawyer and then started working our way through the court system.

Then the COTA worker lost her job, or that program was cut back or cut out. I don’t know exactly, but she wasn’t available anymore.

We did see a court psychiatrist who I guess was helpful… but was totally overworked and didn’t have the patience to work extensively with Melissa who was… who did not want to take medication and who didn’t appear to want to help herself… so it wasn’t a totally good experience but it wasn’t a bad experience.

At that point we were put in touch, at one of our many appearances in court, with the CMHA worker at the court. She was terrific and she showed up in court with us when we appeared before the judge, and I think just her being in the courtroom made a difference. And our lawyer was kind of exceptional. So between the two of them we were able to get the charges stayed and then she got better. And then Melissa was good for two years and was teaching again.

Were you able to find within the system that you could get support for your daughter?

We could get support but it was generic support. More or less it wasn’t really tailor-made to her case. It was very much a case of a holding tank situation until luckily she was properly diagnosed. I appreciate how difficult it is to do that, but they’re overworked — psychiatrists are overworked, social workers are overworked, everybody is overworked, so they don’t have the time unless they’re forced to take the time to really pay attention to give someone the attention that they deserve. And that’s not a knock on anybody, it’s a knock on the system.

Was there a crisis team involved in helping your daughter stabilize and recover?

She was assigned a social worker in the community who was terrific. And that helped a lot. Melissa could actually relate to this person. And that worked out extremely well.

Were you involved in treatment options and was your knowledge of your daughter’s history taken into account?

Yes, I was involved all the way through the process. Melissa had signed off [on a Form 14, giving permission to share her health record], and I was allowed to have information, show up, and help her choose various directions.

How were you coping with your daughter prior to the incident with the car? And now?

Now I’m doing fine because she’s fine. I do okay and I help… I think I’m instrumental in helping her when she gets sick… but as a father it takes a lot out of you.

Do you think there was something that was key at the time that helped your daughter? Was there a turning point and then something that made a difference?

No, it’s still ongoing. She’s back on track now. Since that episode, she went out west and ended up being rehospitalized. She ended up coming back within the system to Ontario and basically waiting out the cycle. Now she’s back off medication and back at the top of her game. Each time she goes through this she gains a little more awareness. She knows that she’s sick. She knows, for instance, that I’m talking to you and she was fine with that.

She has a GP at least. She has told him her story and he’s keeping an eye on her right now… we are too. Since her cycles seem fairly long in terms of being good, we’re hoping she might go two or three years and then be only six months down. I don’t blame her if she doesn’t like taking medication on a permanent basis. She should hopefully know when to get on them and stay on them until she’s feeling okay again. That will be the secret to her success, that awareness — it’s kind of trial and error.

What are your dreams for your daughter and family now?

My dream is for her to recognize her disease. I think the best-case scenario is that she recognize when she’s going to get sick and does something about it before it gets so bad that she develops it, and she flips into psychosis and does something silly. She gets very impulsive.

So before she gets to that stage, my dream is that she gets treatment and then when she gets better she can get off medication. It does not appear to be a problem because she can go for two or three years and be fine. So that would be the best-case scenario, that’s most realistic… unless there is some great medical discovery.

Looking back, with hindsight often being 20/20, what would you like to have seen happen before or after the incident that didn’t?

The problem is it’s a very difficult thing to assess someone and pin it down as to what they are. But I certainly would have liked to have seen a recognition of her disease earlier and the proper diagnosis earlier. But it may not be realistic to think that that could happen on the first try. It probably does take three or four times. It is a very difficult thing. I would like to have seen that happen earlier… but that may not have been feasible.

Is there anything else you feel needs to be said?

I think in terms of the court system, it’s a question of being understaffed. Certainly, in the case of the justice of the peace, I still harbour resentment for the guy. He had no compassion whatsoever, but I realize he had been hardened by the system. On balance, you know the fact that there was someone there shows that the court does recognize that this situation exists and they can’t just treat everybody the same. And in her case it worked, luckily. Her court case was stayed and her records were destroyed. So hopefully she doesn’t do it again.

» Return to the Network, Winter 2005 – Contents