TRURO - Peaceful demonstrations are being held in Truro and other parts of the province on Sunday to protest against the criminalization of people with special needs.
"They can't control their behaviour," Cindy Carruthers, administrative support co-ordinator for People First Nova Scotia, said of people who are labelled as being with special needs, whether through mental health, autism, a brain injury or whatever.
"They need support around that behaviour and they can't learn how to manage it because of their disability," she said.
"That is part of the condition. It's a medical condition. And people should not be criminalized because of medical conditions. It's a health issue and we need to support our most vulnerable component of our community and not throw them in jail."
The demonstrations, which are also being held in Lower Sackville, New Minas, Windsor and Yarmouth, are being held to highlight criminal charges recently laid against Nichele Benn, who is scheduled to report to the RCMP detachment in Lower Sackville on Sunday for fingerprinting.
Benn, 26, suffers from various intellectual and physical disabilities that sometimes lead to behavioural issues. She lives in an adult support and rehabilitation facility in Lower Sackville and has previously been convicted, sentenced to probation, ordered to perform community service and forced to provide a DNA sample, despite the fact she has the mental capacity of a 12-year-old.
"One charge is assault because she (allegedly) bit a staff member while she was being dragged across the floor on her stomach by both of her arms," said Benn's mother, Brenda Hardiman of Bible Hill. "And when they put her in her room she threw a foam letter at a staff member and a shoe. And they're considering that assault with a weapon."
Given her daughter's mental condition, however, Hardiman and those at People First say such behaviours are not criminal actions and they should not be judged as such.
"It's a health issue and we're nervous that if she gets in jail it will be similar to the Ashley Smith situation. Her behaviours won't stop, right?"
Smith, 19, died six years ago after guards in an Ontario prison failed to move quickly enough in removing a ligature the troubled young inmate had tied around her neck because of orders from senior management not to intervene as long as she was still breathing.
The jury for an inquest into Smith's case recently returned a verdict of homicide as the cause of the death, not suicide.
Smith's initial crime was that she threw crab apples at a postal worker. After being incarcerated, however, her behaviour towards guards led to further charges and years of incarceration while being repeatedly transferred from one penal institution to another before her eventual death.
And Hardiman worries that a similar fate awaits her daughter, should she be convicted.
"That is the purpose behind it," she said, of Sunday's demonstrations, "to draw attention to how people with special needs are being criminalized. Not just Nichelle, it is a provincial issue.
"We're trying to promote awareness. We're asking the premier to take a look at this. I mean his staff aren't looking at it. Community services, justice and health should be getting together and coming up with a plan on how to deal with people with special needs that do have aggressive outbursts. Nichelle is a prime example. She has the mentality of a 12-year-old and she has outbursts because of her medical condition and she's being criminalized because of it."
Hardiman said anyone working in an environment such as where her daughter lives should accept the challenges that come with the position.
"They keep saying that staff have the right to press criminal charges if they think they've been assaulted. But you know, quite often these people like Nichele, they (the workers) know what their health issues are and they know the people that they are going to be working with. So we don't wish harm on anybody but they're working in an environment where this is to be expected and I don't think it should be left up to staff as to whether or not criminal charges are going to be laid," she said.
"They need to look at that and not put people in jail. Criminal activity is with intent. You know, planning something out. We want them to change how they're dealing with people with special needs. They are not criminals."
Participants wishing to join in Sunday's protest in Truro are asked to meet at the Atlantic Superstore at 9:30 a.m.
A procession will then depart for the RCMP detachment on Pictou Road as way to demonstrate Benn's actual fingerprinting process taking place in Lower Sackville.
For information is available on the Facebook page: Help Nichele Benn-Have We Learned Nothing From Ashley Smith?