Guest Blog: Looking in - by Sarah Harland-Logan

Editor's Note:

Sarah Harland-Logan, a second year law student, assisted the firm through the University of Toronto's Pro Bono Law program.  We were grateful for her stellar contribution especially during some crunch times. When the inquest that she meant to assist us with was adjourned due to a judicial review application, she worked on other projects and sat in on a Consent and Capacity Board hearing.  We asked her to write up her initial impressions. The result is this insightful post "Looking In".

Looking In
by Sarah Harland-Logan, Law Student

Much like its reluctant clients, the Consent and Capacity Board’s building bears fewer identifying marks than one might expect.  At first glance, 151 Bloor Street W. is just another sleek sliver of offices in one of the pricier parts of town.  It exudes that shiny, corporate sense of alien-ness rather than the gray, slightly ramshackle look that I associate with government offices. 

It is disconcerting to learn that I have in fact frequently walked past this place, engaged in banal pursuits like going to class or running errands at the drug store, while somewhere above me polite people dressed in suits decide if and by what means other people should be detained or restrained.  (Yes, a good number of these people will one day look back on their recovery and be grateful for these physical and/or chemical interventions.  But to me that process still feels like prison; I can’t speak for them.) 

Sue Fraser is my mentor, and she’s suggested I attend this Board hearing, for which I’ve done some research.  My first challenge is simply finding the correct floor: I forgot to Google Maps the building in advance, and now I find myself wandering around the ground floor in search of some more knowledgeable person.  Eventually I’m rescued by two people in (…naturally) suits.  On the elevator ride up, a fellow passenger asks where I’m headed.  When I tell him, he grins at me, raising his eyebrows: “The CCB, eh?  They’ll know how to take care of you there.”

Unlike me, Sue’s client – who came straight from a shelter – has managed to arrive in good time.  She and Sue are chatting quietly about the case, but take a brief break while Sue introduces us.  Naturally, I will give her a pseudonym: she asked to be “Cinderella” here, whose tale invokes for her the story of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a young nun who chose a quiet, cloistered life so that she might better know and serve God, with nothing to stand between them. 

Waiting, Cinderella is nervous, but given the circumstances seems remarkably composed.  She will retain this composure throughout the next several hours, during which five different people in positions of authority will discuss, in her presence, various intimate aspects of her life history, living conditions, and mental state.

Specifically, the question here is whether or not Cinderella has been issued a valid Community Treatment Order, which requires her to live in a group home with other people deemed to need 24-hour supervision, and to take an array of medications with unpleasant side effects.  Cinderella sees herself as a deeply religious person whose unusual experiences, rather than signifying mental illness, form a vital part of her profound faith.  It’s as if she was born in the wrong century: once upon a time, the non-believers would have been the crazy ones.  But today, I catch a few people fighting to keep a straight face as Cinderella explains the inception of her religious delusions – alternatively, her struggle to weather God’s displeasure and stay in school as witches, angels, and demons fought for her soul.

Although of course she’s not happy about it, on balance Cinderella seems surprisingly okay with the fact that the powers that be think she’s crazy.  After the hearing, the three of us will even have a few laughs in the lobby, bringing up parts of the proceeding that showed the giant, impassable gap between the general understanding of Cinderella’s mind, and her own.

But through the entire session, the most socially inappropriate thing that Cinderella does is to lose her cool exactly one time.  (Sue puts a calm hand on her shoulder and quickly brings her back: “Cinderella, it’s not your turn right now.”)  I doubt that I could acquit myself half so well, faced with a roomful of people who thought me mad and possessed the power to act on that belief.  At the least I would expect quite a few tears and some angry, desperate shouting.  I wonder how exactly she does it.  Fortitute?  Seroquel?  Practice? 

Cinderella’s psychiatrist doesn’t seem to share this admiration.  She has nothing to say to her patient, nor to Sue.  I don’t know if this is standard practice or her personal preference.  Either way, though, I seem to be exempt.  Our gazes catch in the hall as we wait to return to the little conference room after a break, and we strike up a perfectly pleasant conversation – she offers a friendly smile and is curious about my law school classes.  (For a moment I experience the cognitive dissonance that comes when you’re having fun doing something that’s frowned upon or is supposed to be unpleasant.)  So I’m not too far into the enemy camp.  Not yet.

In addition to her mental illness (or lack thereof), the Board discusses the conditions at Cinderella’s former group home, from which she has fled – to the shelter.  She describes several troubling incidents involving aggressive male residents.  I wonder if the Board members believe her; surely these complaints should be taken seriously, whether she’s sane or not?  After all, in Evidence we learned that there are provisions to enable even quite young children to testify. 

The Board upheld Cinderella’s Community Treatment Order. 

Saint Thérèse chose her walls, and found within them her freedom; this highly unusual decision was rooted in a faith so profound as to verge, for most of us, on the incomprehensible.  She was celebrated – canonized – for this faith. 

By contrast, like most of us, Cinderella would choose freedom of a more literal, readily apparent kind.  But the CCB, at least, sees her as unfit to choose.  Compelled to keep certain hours, to take certain medications, to refrain from certain life choices and partake in (normatively) saner ones, Cinderella must live, if not quite cloistered, then certainly confined.