Getting home: 1 man’s way through Manitoba’s new court for offenders with fetal alcohol disorder

By | January 14, 2020

On a cool Thursday afternoon, Everett Redhead sits in a Winnipeg court, about to learn his fate.

In the prisoner’s box, he is wide-eyed in his grey sweatsuit as John St. Cyr, his caregiver from the age of 15 on, rises in the quiet courtroom to make the case to bring him home.

“Everett just wants to do well,” St. Cyr tells the court. The towering high-school football coach became Everett’s 47th foster parent in 2014, and he considers Everett a son.

His voice breaks as he tells the court the only reason the 20-year-old ran away from an addiction treatment centre in December — a breach of his court-ordered probation — was because he wanted to be home for Christmas.

“He wants to stay with Papa Bear — that’s what he calls me. He’s my bear cub,” St. Cyr says. “He wants to stay with me till he’s an old man, that’s what he says.”

By this point, Redhead has been in custody for 307 days for breaking into a Subaru dealership and stealing a vehicle with another person nearly a year earlier.

Some of that time was spent waiting to get here, into Manitoba’s new fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) court, designed to handle people like him, people who exhibit some of FASD’s wide-ranging symptoms.

He was the second person to pass through the court. CBC News has followed him since his first court date in April.

Everett Redhead found stability in the home of John St. Cyr in 2014, and has lived there ever since. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

FASD is a disorder that affects the brain and body, caused when an unborn baby is exposed to alcohol in the womb. It’s an umbrella term that includes a handful of diagnoses related to alcohol exposure, and the way it presents can range from mild to severe.

Some people with FASD have physical characteristics including a smooth ridge from nose to mouth or a smaller head. But for Redhead, and many others, the effects are cognitive. St. Cyr calls it an “invisible disability.”

In Redhead’s case, FASD means he has a hard time understanding things right away and poor impulse control. Cause and effect are blurred. He’ll say yes sometimes when he means no, or to authority figures even when he doesn’t understand what they’re saying.

10 times higher in prison

It’s not known exactly how many people in Canada have FASD. Health Canada says it’s about one per cent, based on research from the ’90s. But more recent studies suggest it could be higher — more like three or four per cent, according to the Canada Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Research Network.

What’s certain is that the number is far higher among those behind bars. One study suggests up to one-quarter of inmates in federal corrections facilities could have the disorder, while a 2011 study at Stony Mountain Institution in Manitoba found the rate was 10 times greater there than in the general population.

On that morning in April, Redhead’s lawyer, Lori Van Dongen, told Judge Mary Kate Harvie the young man has an IQ below 60 and is easily led astray by his friends.

“That’s how Everett’s brain works, and the whole point of this courtroom,” Van Dongen said. “There is a reduced moral blameworthiness for somebody in Everett’s situation.”

Van Dongen, a Winnipeg defence lawyer who was instrumental in creating the court, points out it was specifically intended for people like Redhead, whose diagnosis and crimes are connected.

‘A chance for you’

The court was created in March 2019, following a pair of Manitoba Court of Appeal rulings that said FASD should be considered a mitigating factor in sentencing, provided there’s a nexus, or connection, between the diagnosis and the offence.

FASD court is a disposition court, which means it handles sentencing offenders once they’ve been convicted or pleaded guilty.

The lights are dimmer and the court clerk’s keyboard is quieter. Once you walk in, you’re asked not to leave or use your phone until it’s over.

The main goal of the court is to create sentences appropriate to offenders’ abilities, and to connect them with services to support success and keep them from coming back.

Before it launched, Van Dongen worked with clients with FASD who sat through their sentencing and left without knowing whether they were being sent to jail or sent home. Other times, judges handed out probation requirements like curfews or strictly scheduled check-ins with probation officers, but her clients weren’t able to tell time.

“They have a medical diagnosis that prevents the simple task of understanding their sentence,” she said.

The Manitoba Youth Centre hosts sittings of the FASD court on Thursdays. (Google Maps)

A week after Redhead’s proceeding, a teen sits in another prisoner’s box across the city, this one in the small, dim courtroom of the Manitoba Youth Centre, for another FASD court sitting.

The 15-year-old, who can’t be named because she’s in the care of Child and Family Services, has already served 55 days in custody after two thefts that happened in December and January.

Both are related to stealing alcohol, court hears. In one of them, she and some friends stole more than $1,000 worth from a liquor store on Regent Avenue.

She returned most of it after, her lawyer says.

The lawyers and judge call her by her first name.

Since she was arrested, she’s been in and out of court for a series of probation breaches.

“Clearly, we’re not doing something right,” Crown prosecutor Jodi Koffman tells the court.

The teen was diagnosed with FASD in 2017, and court hears she has a history of running away, suicide attempts and drug use that started when she was nine, in addition to severe cognitive impairments, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

She’s impulsive and vulnerable to peer pressure, court hears, especially because she’s a good friend who presents as a “social butterfly.” She’s working hard on not drinking, and loves sports, movies and the trampoline park.

Today, the court is working on a way to get her off probation, so she can end the string of appearances she’s made for breaches over the past several months. They want police to drive her home, instead of back to the juvenile detention centre.

“This is a chance for you,” the judge tells her.

She’s given six months of unsupervised probation, to be spent working with multiple FASD and substance abuse-related programs as well as a foster parent.

‘Huge success’ but challenges remain

So far, the court has been a “huge success,” said Mary Kate Harvie, the judge who presided over Redhead’s sentencing and chaired the committee that created the court.

Late last year, the court tripled its adult sittings to meet high demand and deal with long wait times.

The cases the court sees are among “the most challenging in the system,” with offenders who present a complex set of problems, Harvie said.

“They have often fallen through the cracks or not been properly diagnosed at an early enough age to allow some meaningful intervention,” she said.

Crafting an appropriate sentence is a balancing act, Harvie said.

In any court, sentencing is an evaluation of public safety, deterrence and the nebulous legal concept of “moral culpability,” or blameworthiness.

That’s made more difficult when an offender has a cognitive impairment. In some cases, offenders have challenges processing cause and effect, or short-term memory issues. This court was set up specifically to deal with those issues in the context of FASD.

The second prong of the court’s mission is to connect offenders who pass through with support services, to address “what happens when they get out,” Harvie said. But it’s limited by what services exist outside its chamber.

“The biggest lesson we have all learned is the shortfall in community resources, particularly in housing,” the judge said.

For youth offenders, there are more options, she said, including 24-hour wraparound supports through CFS. But once they age out of care, there’s a shortage of services, Harvie said, including safe and supportive places to live.

“I think we’re shining a light on that with the court.”

1 piece of puzzle

Eight months after his April court date, on a sunny day December day shortly before Christmas, Everett Redhead and John St. Cyr sit on the couch in their big home in south Winnipeg, watching hockey.

Redhead has been back in court once already, after he broke into his high school.

St. Cyr thinks FASD court is a good idea, but it hasn’t worked for his family yet.

“I didn’t understand it,” Redhead says. “I don’t know. I didn’t know what was going on, about FASD court and what it was.”

Beside him on a cozy loveseat, St. Cyr says it’s discouraging that the court still hasn’t managed to meet its goal of making proceedings understandable.

St. Cyr, a high school football coach, says Redhead wants to succeed. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

He thinks Redhead has pleaded guilty in court without really understanding, and he worries offenders who don’t have lawyers with as much experience as Van Dongen might be left in the lurch.

“There is a gap there, still, that the experts haven’t really figured out,” he says. “It’s kind of worrisome that you’re trying your best … but we haven’t been able to unlock those doors for Everett yet.”

St. Cyr also has struggled with the supports put in place by the court in April. St. Cyr has butted heads with some of Redhead’s workers and disagreed with some of their plans.

He’s frustrated by the fact the justice system has repeatedly been the way they’ve accessed support services for all of Everett’s life.

Good things to come

But he’s proud of Redhead’s progress. In their living room, Redhead’s framed high school graduation photo is displayed on the mantle. That was a win this year that Redhead is proud of, too.

In their quiet moments, St. Cyr says, he and Redhead talk about the future, about religion, about family planning.

If you ask Redhead what he wants for himself, he says he sees good things to come.

“It’s great that the court has recognized there’s a need for support with individuals. But that’s just one … piece of the puzzle,” St. Cyr says. “Society is a few steps behind in understanding who these people are.”

Meanwhile, it’s nearly Christmas, and Redhead is at home, spending it with his family.