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Lawyer for man sentenced for chainsaw attack appalled by lack of housing for mentally ill

He got out of jail Thursday, but Taylor Mitchell’s problems are far from over.

Taylor Mitchell is led out of provincial court Thursday after he was sentenced to time served for a chainsaw attack on his father and step-mother in January.
— Photo by Rosie Gillingham/The Telegram

With a serious mental illness, a criminal record, no place to live, no source of income or funding and no community support, the 22-year-old’s future looks bleak.

It worries his lawyer, who wonders where Mitchell will end up.

“It’s really, really atrocious and it says a lot (about the system),” Joan Dawson told reporters after Mitchell’s sentencing at provincial court in St. John’s.

“How can individuals with serious mental illnesses function in the community without appropriate supports?”

Mitchell was sentenced to 106 days time served, with 18 months’ probation.

However, Dawson expressed her concerns about Mitchell’s future if he doesn’t get help.

“This is not unique to this province,” Dawson told Judge Jim Walsh. “The problem is how do we deal with a person who is mentally ill (once out of jail)?”

The 22-year-old St. John’s man has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder.

Dawson said she checked every possible agency in the metro area to help find Mitchell a place to live, but nothing is available.

She said Choices for Youth and the Tommy Sexton Centre are both at capacity, while the Wiseman Centre only takes people 25 years and older.

She said he could apply to get emergency accommodations through the Advanced Skills and Education Department, but noted it would only be for a few nights.

Dawson said applying for these places also takes time — time Mitchell doesn’t have.

“None of this happened immediately,” she said.

While Mitchell has been in and out of the Waterford Hospital several times, she said he can’t go there to live.

“The Waterford is not an option for housing,” Dawson said.

She also pointed out that it will also take time for Mitchell to reapply for social assistance. She told the judge that once he gets it, “He’s an able-bodied man, so income will be minimal.”

Rehabilitation will also be a challenge.

“That’s where we are and it’s really unfortunate,” Dawson said. “Like I said, it’s not unique. I’ve seen (mentally ill) people released out in the snow with their flip-flops on.”

She recommended the judge include a release condition that Mitchell reside in a place approved by his probation officer. Until then, his only hope is to get emergency accommodations.

“Institutionalizing the mentally ill is (not appropriate),” said Dawson, who added that it was Mitchell’s first offence and that his mental illness was an issue long before he committed the crimes.

She said jail is no substitute for secure accommodations with treatment, “and unfortunately it’s not available in this city.”

Dawson’s remarks raised eyebrows in the court — even the judge’s.

“Well, you’ve opened my eyes,” Walsh said. “You’ve exposed a hole in the system and hopefully someone will pay attention.”

Mitchell was taken into custody Jan. 14 after he tried to attack the couple at his grandparents’ house on Thorburn Road.

He chased the couple while they were in their car in the driveway. He revved the chainsaw as he got closer while yelling, “I’m going to f--king kill you.”

Mitchell eventually put the chainsaw back in the shed, but when his father got out of the car, Mitchell punched him. His father blocked the blows with his arm.

Mitchell pleaded guilty to assault with a weapon, uttering threats, assault and breaching court orders.

He also pleaded guilty to causing a disturbance at the Waterford Hospital clinic in October 2013, when he stormed into a doctor’s office and demanded medication.

“If I don’t get my drugs, I won’t be responsible for what I do,” Mitchell had said. Staff said he was angry and agitated.

Crown prosecutor Mike Murray had asked the judge to give Mitchell a six-to eight-month jail term, with 18 months probation, pointing to the seriousness of the offences. He also pointed out Mitchell has a long history with non-compliance with court orders and taking his medication.

In suggesting time served with probation, Dawson said Mitchell is “a young man with complex mental health issues” as well as addictions.

She said between the ages of 17 and 21, he was admitted to a psychiatric unit eight times — seven of them at the Waterford Hospital.

Dawson said Mitchell had no criminal record before these incidents and got in trouble six days after he was released from hospital.

You’ve exposed a hole in the system and hopefully someone will pay attention. Judge Jim Walsh

As part of Mitchell’s sentence, he must pay $800 in victim surcharges — a result of recent changes in legislation, which no longer waives the fee for convicted individuals who have no means to pay. He has 30 days to pay.

“He can ask for an extension, but he has to apply,” Dawson said. “For someone who has a mental illness, that’s not an easy task.”

Mitchell’s mother was again in court today. She chose not to comment, but has said her son is “a brilliant man,” who desperately needs help, which is she is unable to provide with his illness.

Dawson told reporters the only type of assistance he will get — as a single male on social assistance — is through slum landlords. That means either a boarding house, a small, one-bedroom apartment or a bed-sitting room.

“It’s all he will be able to afford,” she said. “That’s the only place that’s available because housing is at a premium.”

Dawson said with hospital beds closing and cutbacks in the health-care system, people like Mitchell have become the responsibility of the justice system.

“So jail is now the institution that has more mentally ill (people) than hospitals,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”

She said while there is some supportive housing, she said agencies like the Stella Burry centre and Choices for youth aren’t able to cope with the demand.

“It’s not enough. We need more,” she said.

Dawson said it’s time the community stand up and do something about the lack of housing for mentally ill people.

“I think until the community is prepared to do something more, these kinds of cases, unfortunately, are going to continue ….,” she said.

“Last week, people were marching for sidewalks to be cleared from ice and snow. People marched to prevent the fence at the waterfront so they could see out through the Narrows.

“And I think until people are prepared to walk and demand there be better housing for the mentally ill, it’s not going to happen.”

 

 

Organizations: Waterford Hospital, Tommy Sexton Centre, Wiseman Centre Advanced Skills and Education Department

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Recent comments

  • C
    April 11, 2014 - 16:18

    Just seen this guy walking up and down George street talking to himself. How many more people with serious mental illnesses will be on the street tonight?

  • Geri
    April 11, 2014 - 10:43

    I take exception to the Judge's comments regarding 'you have exposed a hole in the system'...really...where has this judge been up to now?.....this issue has been upfront and personal, with the law (in the courts, and in the media) for years! We've had many similar cases in the past and the verdicts have mostly been the same...recommending treatment....well it was a joke in the past and it's still a joke. God help those families who have relatives that are mentally ill....my heart goes out to you for the anguish you must suffer because there is no 'real' help in this province for people with mental illness. Lots of 'band-aid' stuff...like filling a pot hole...but no real help for those poor souls.

  • Hans Rollmann
    April 11, 2014 - 07:16

    It is scandalous how we treat people with mental challenges and disabilities in Newfoundland and Canada and many other countries. Imprisonment is no solution to their plight. And the history of psychiatric treatment in our Dickensian prison has been appalling. A Newfoundland that can be exemplary in Student Aid should put on its agenda an equal commitment to become a leading light in helping those ill and less fortunate among us. We can lead the way!

    • Robin Barrett
      April 11, 2014 - 09:51

      I agree with Hans Rollmann and with Ms. Dawson. We have gone the route of trying to deinstitutionalize those with a mental illness and yet have failed to put into place supports that they truly need to live in the community. One of those supports is adequate housing, not bed sitters or slum housing, which is all that Social Assistance will get you. That only adds to the problems associated with the illness. I have a friend in the same situation, mental illness, drug addiction, poor housing and inadequate supports. A doctor's 15 minute appoint every three months is not adequate support. When will our government do something meaningful for those with a mental illness, instead of locking them in prison when they break the law?

    • Robin Barrett
      April 11, 2014 - 09:52

      I agree with Hans Rollmann and with Ms. Dawson. We have gone the route of trying to deinstitutionalize those with a mental illness and yet have failed to put into place supports that they truly need to live in the community. One of those supports is adequate housing, not bed sitters or slum housing, which is all that Social Assistance will get you. That only adds to the problems associated with the illness. I have a friend in the same situation, mental illness, drug addiction, poor housing and inadequate supports. A doctor's 15 minute appoint every three months is not adequate support. When will our government do something meaningful for those with a mental illness, instead of locking them in prison when they break the law?