By Roger Annis, October 9, 2015
An independent review into the conduct of police and the Nova Scotia prosecution service following the suicide death of then-17 year old Rehtaeh Parsons in April 2013 is harshly critical of both agencies. The review was released yesterday, October 8, in Halifax.
Parsons was the victim of a sexual assault in November 2011 and was then doubly victimized by tormenting from her peers and the failure of school, social service and police and judicial officials to protect her, including their failure to promptly investigate the two young men who assaulted her.
This writer has reported this story extensively on ‘A Socialist In Canada’. The reporting examines how the federal government and the Nova Scotia government sought to divert attention away from the institutional failures to protect Rehtaeh Parsons by talking up and introducing new laws against “cyberbullying”. As the independent review released yesterday makes clear, the existing laws were more than adequate to protect young Rehtaeh and to prosecute her attackers. What was lacking, and what failed all along the line, was the political and social will by police, judicial and education officials to do so.
The new ‘cyberbullying’ laws adopted by the Canadian and Nova Scotia governments in response to the Rehtaeh Parsons case seriously infringe upon civil rights. The Nova Scotia law is being challenged in court. The lead counsel in that case calls the law a “dumpster fire that can only be extinguished by the charter [Canada’s federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms]”.
For background on the new federal law (approved in March 2015), see, Ottawa’s proposed law on ‘cyberbullying’ attacks civil rights, by Roger Annis, Nov 22, 2013.
Eventually, the two young attackers were convicted, but not for assault or for threats and harassment following the original crime. They were convicted of ‘child pornography’ laws (for distributing the photos they took of their assault).
Two police agencies were involved in the failure to protect Rehtaeh Parsons–the Halifax police and the federal RCMP. The RCMP is the contracted municipal police force in Cole Harbour, where the assault took place and subsequent threats and bullying originated.
Enclosed is a CBC news story on the report of the independent review into the death of Rehtaeh Parsons. Below that is the statement by Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s mother, in response to the report of the independent review.
The province of British Columbia is presently being shaken by news of the failure of its child welfare ministry and government to protect teenagers in foster care. This follows the death last month of Alex Gervais, an 18 year old youth who, contrary to ministry of social service regulations and to the story being told by officials, was being housed in a hotel.
There was a national outcry in Canada over placing foster children in hotels after the murder of Tina Fontaine, 15, in Winnipeg in 2014. She disappeared from the Winnipeg hotel where she was lodged by Manitoba’s child welfare system.
Canada was earlier shaken by the investigation of the grim treatment during a five year-plus span of teenager Ashley Smith by authorities in many provinces, beginning in New Brunswick, and by the federal prison system. The psychologically troubled girl was institutionalized at the age of 14 for a string a petty transgressions, including throwing crabapples at a postman. During the years that followed, she was transferred randomly to many institutions in five different provinces. In prison, she was subjected to pepper spraying, straightjacketing, solitary confinement and other forms of torture. She killed herself in an Ontario lock-up in 2007 at the age of 19 as authorities looked on.
Many details of Smith’s story came to shocking light in a documentary broadcast in 2010 by CBC Television’s The Fifth Estate. It was titled Out of Control. The documentary showed her being tasered at a young age in a New Brunswick institution and it shows her final minutes captured on prison film before killing herself in the prison in Ontario. In 2012, during the Ontario government inquest into her death, another shocking video came to light, this one showing police transferring her by airplane from a prison in Saskatchewan in April 2007. Police placed her in a straightjacket, covered her head with a hood and sealed her mouth with duct tape.
Canada is a failed state for many of its young people, particularly those who are Aboriginal. Suicide rates of young Aboriginals in northern Canada are multiple times higher that their those of their non-Aboriginal counterparts in southern Canada. None of the main parties in the present federal election have any big ideas to fix this.
Rehtaeh Parsons case review finds system ‘failed’
The independent review into how authorities in Nova Scotia handled the Rehtaeh Parsons case has found errors were made by both police and Crown. Murray Segal, Ontario’s former deputy attorney general, was tasked with examining how Halifax police and the province’s Public Prosecution Service dealt with the case.
The report, which makes 17 recommendations, says the investigation into allegations of sexual assault and an explicit photo took too long, and it highlights a series of missteps, beginning with Parsons’s first unrecorded interview with police.
Parsons’s family said she was sexually assaulted by four boys at a November 2011 party, and a photo of the incident was subsequently circulated. Parsons died after attempting suicide in 2013.
“What took place on November 12, 2011, in the Eastern Passage bedroom was wrong on many levels,” Segal said in his report. “A young person’s integrity, dignity and privacy was violated in a degrading manner. A teenage girl was sexually objectified in a dehumanizing way.”
Police said they looked into the allegations of sexual assault, but initially concluded there weren’t enough grounds to lay charges after consulting with the prosecution service. While Segal concludes that determination “was within the realm of reasonable decisions given all the circumstances,” he points to a series of problems in how the case was handled.
Segal says RCMP Const. Kim Murphy did the first interview with Parsons, but didn’t follow proper protocol and the officer “unnecessarily interviewed her at length.”
The report says because Parsons was a young person, there should have been a social worker present, and not Parsons’s mother, who should have been interviewed separately. The mistake meant Rehtaeh Parsons had to be interviewed a second time by another officer.
This error caused “an avoidable negative impact” on Parsons, the report says, and the second statement wasn’t taken under “conditions conductive to optimal reliability.”
The report found the sexual assault investigation unit’s investigation should have wrapped up sooner. But while it included errors, it was “proper and thorough.” “It took too long for a kid and a family in crisis,” Segal said as he presented his report in Halifax Thursday afternoon, October 8.
A digital photo of the alleged assault began to circulate. Parsons family said Rehtaeh was mocked by classmates and endured relentless harassment and humiliation.
Segal found a police investigator tried to interview as many students as possible and was “apparently thwarted by school authorities.”
The report says the investigator, Halifax Regional Police Det.-Const. Patricia Snair, intended to arrest two of the boys, interview them and charge them, but first went to the Crown for advice. After reviewing the file, Crown attorney Shauna MacDonald determined “there was no realistic prospect that sexual assault charges would result in convictions.”
“While I find that more attention could have been given to the allegations surrounding the events that occurred at the window, the Crown’s position, in view of the many evidentiary challenges in this case, was not unreasonable,” Segal says.
There were problems, however, with the advice from another Crown attorney, Peter Dostal. The junior counsel, after consulting with a more senior lawyer, determined child pornography charges couldn’t be pursued as it was impossible to tell whether those in the explicit photo were underage.
It turns out this advice was wrong, Segal said. “It reflected a misunderstanding of the law as it relates to child pornography,” he wrote.
The report also found the investigation failed to address the cyberbullying Parsons experienced. Police were unsuccessful in intervening to stop the circulation of the photo. “The rapid, ongoing damage caused by the distribution of the photo was not alleviated in any way by the authorities’ intervention,” the report says.
Segal said police could have obtained a search warrant to seize phones from the boys they believed had the photograph. He said that would have sent a message to students that police were taking the matter seriously. He also found the police could have put more pressure on the school to co-operate.
Segal concludes by saying the investigation should have wrapped up sooner and that the investigator’s workload played a factor. “A year-long investigation was simply unacceptable,” he said.
Ultimately, child pornography charges were laid, but only after the case was reopened following the death of Parsons. Police charged two men just four days before Segal was appointed to lead the review. The both men subsequently pleaded guilty to child pornography-related charges and have been sentenced.
Comment by Leah Parsons, mother of Rehtaeh Parsons, on the judicial review of police conduct over the suicide death of Rehtaeh Parsons in April 2013
Yes, I was pleased with the results of the review in terms of the mistakes made not being covered up so far in the report that they can’t be found. Yes, I was relieved that FINALLY what we knew was wrong all along was written out in black and white. The reasons for no sexual assault charges…I will never agree with. But I’m with heavy heart because Rehtaeh was brave enough to come forward. She knew 100% what happened to her was wrong. How she was treated by police, schools and hospital is not how anyone should be treated let alone a child. “Human Error”….once yes.. but so many human errors is unacceptable. These “human errors” were pointed out to those in power many times in conversations. “what if they listened?”
I’m proud of Rehtaeh and will continue to speak for others so that families/children do not have to live the trauma that is now coming up to 4yrs. Because what many do not realize is that this trauma is not over. How could it be? As a family we have to be brave and continue on with this pain every single day. It all began Nov 12 2011 when I wish I said no to a “sleep over” but I realize I can not live in “what ifs” but for today after reading this thorough review and re-living so much pain I can’t help to think “what if the police did what was needed at the time?” when Rehtaeh was struggling to survive. What if I was not considered “the demanding mother” asking for clarification.
I will also say “what if” it was not my child…how many more children would it take? Change has come….these recommendation will go into effect and some already have. The government have taken this serious on many levels. Lets continue to protect our children by never being silent when we know it is wrong to do so.