‘An extremely difficult, complex case’

Rosie Mullaley
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Doctors say mentally ill woman in jail for attacking four people needs to get help outside province

Facilities in this province are not equipped to deal with the special needs of Alexandria Harnum.

Alexandria Harnum in provincial court in St. John’s Thursday for her sentencing hearing. Dr. Jarbir Gill (right) was one of two doctors to testify at the hearing.

That was the opinion shared by two psychiatrists who testified Thursday at Harnum’s sentencing hearing at provincial court in St. John’s.

“She’s an extremely difficult, complex case,” Dr. Sheila Lynch said while on the stand.

According to both Lynch and Dr. Jasbir Gill, neither the Newfoundland and Labrador Correctional Centre for Women in Clarenville nor the Waterford Hospital in St. John’s are suited to best help Harnum — a woman with several psychiatric issues who is in jail for assaulting four people.

Lynch said the Clarenville prison doesn’t provide the necessary psychiatric treatment to meet Harnum’s needs, while at the Waterford Hospital, she’s considered too dangerous to staff and other patients. That’s why she spent so much time in seclusion there.

“We don’t have the environment, the proper protective places, here that some provinces do,” said Lynch, noting a moderate to maximum security facility would be best for Harnum.

Harnum has pleaded guilty to assaulting two nurses at the hospital, a sheriff’s officer and a female bar owner.

Last month, during a court appearance, during which she was denied bail, Harnum grabbed a female sheriff’s officer by the head and hauled out a clump of hair. In July, she assaulted the owner of Lottie’s club on George Street after the woman asked Harnum to leave the bar. She also pleaded guilty to several breach of probation orders, including one that ordered her to have no contact with her mother.

Thursday’s hearing delved into Harnum’s psychiatric issues. In the past, Harnum has been diagnosed with such illnesses as bipolar disorder, psychosis and traits of anti-social personality disorder.

Lynch and Gill both noted Harnum had a difficult childhood.

At age three, she was smoking, and at age six, she showed the first signs of aggressive behaviour.

She spent time in several foster homes. Her mother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, was unable to handle her daughter’s aggressive behaviour. As a result, Harnum — who has a Grade 5 education and has an IQ of less than 70 — was sent to psychiatric treatment centres in Saskatchewan and Ontario when she was 10 years old.

When she returned to this province, she was in and out of jail and the Waterford Hospital.

As a teenager, she got into drinking and drugs. She was assaulted and raped on the streets. She was suicidal and lost.

Feels paranoid

Doctors described her as defensive, paranoid and often delusional.

“She feels everyone is out to get her,” said Lynch, who said Harnum has mild to moderate retardation. “She also has insomnia. She felt the staff (at the Waterford) was plotting against her at night.”

Lynch said she attacks people on impulse, noting “there was no rhyme or reason to it … but she doesn’t have the insight to change it.”

Lynch said she is among the 20 per cent of patients who does not respond to psychotic medication.

Throughout proceedings, Judge Lois Skanes asked the doctors several questions.

“I need to know what can be done for her,” Skanes said.

Gill said that wherever Harnum is sent after sentencing, there needs to be a team effort to address her needs.

“This cycle of bounding around system (hospital to jail) has to stop,” said Gill, who added that Harnum has a 10-volume medical record at the Waterford.

“There needs to be a team approach. (Wherever) she is, safety has to be paramount.”

Complex needs

Probation officer Lori Smith also testified that there is nothing community services can do for Harnum.

“We’re unable to deal with the complexity of her needs,” Smith said.

Harnum made verbal outbursts several times during proceedings.

However, she did show physical aggression at the end of the day. Just as proceedings were wrapping up, Harnum spat in the direction of the judge’s bench. That prompted the two sheriff’s officers in the courtroom to restrain her. As they and two other sheriff’s officers who ran in were leading her back to the holding cells, Harnum reportedly bit one of the female sheriff’s officer’s arms.

It’s expected Harnum will be charged as a result of the incident.

Crown prosecutor Sheldon Steeves and defence lawyer Derek Hogan have yet to present their suggestions on sentencing.

However, the lawyers indicated they are far apart in their recommendations.

Steeves said he will seek a two-year federal term for Harnum. Hogan will look for a three-month prison term.

The hearing is scheduled to continue March 4.


Twitter: @TelyCourt

Organizations: Waterford Hospital, Newfoundland and Labrador Correctional Centre for Women, Waterford

Geographic location: Clarenville, George Street, Saskatchewan Ontario

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Recent comments

  • seanoairborne
    February 21, 2014 - 17:14

    She's just putting on a dog and pony show to get into the federal system.They set you up with light house keeping situations in the federal system.Better then being in a 180 yr old stinkhole!

  • Anne Hoskins
    February 21, 2014 - 10:14

    Everyone with a mental illness should become part of a study like they do with children with leukemia. It is too bad we do not yet have the equipment to study the brain in more precise detail so these people can be helped. When violent people or animals die, their brains should be donated to science to search for a cure.

  • Brian O'Dea
    February 21, 2014 - 07:42

    This woman is not a criminal. Using the courts to deal with her extreme brokenness points to how broken our society is. She was broken as a baby, as a child, as a teenager, and as an adult, and our only recourse is to criminally charge her? I am ashamed of all who participate in this injustice.

    • J F
      February 21, 2014 - 09:21

      I'm inclined to agree with your sympathy...but if you seem to have such a deep knowledge of what's right and wrong about this system, surely you have a better idea of what to do to help this person, rather than sitting at your keyboard and bemoaning this "injustice"...?

  • Virginia Wates
    February 21, 2014 - 07:35

    Another Ashley Smith in the making. In the year of her death from homicide in an Ontario prison, Smith had been transferred 17 times from institution to institution (including the noted Saskatchewan psychiatric prison facility). The teenager's history is remarkably similar to Harnum's, except that much of her aggression was directed at herself. These are extremely challenging cases with few, if any, facilities equipped to deal with them. Unfortunately they try the patience of the people handling them until - all too often -the institutions begin to see them and treat them as something less than human. The prognosis is pretty grim given the limited tools for dealing with such extreme behavioural problem.

  • Calvin
    February 21, 2014 - 07:17

    I don't understand the stance of the defence in this case. This woman is not mentally fit to function in society. Two doctors have essentially recommended federal time so that she can get some of the help she needs. Yet the solution of the defence is 3 months in jail so that in 4 months time the courts can be tied up with this individual again? Make NO sense.