David Frum March 28th, 1998 at 12:00 am
Last Friday, at about four o’clock in the afternoon, someone attempted to murder my wife. Quite literally. Danielle had just stepped off a westbound train at Toronto’s St. George subway station and was walking toward the stairs. The train she had exited was now roaring away from the platform. She passed a small seemingly normal woman walking in the opposite direction. As she passed, the woman suddenly body-checked her, hard, toward the speeding train. My wife staggered, fell back, and caught herself. Had her attacker been only slightly stronger, my wife would very likely have been killed.
The attacker was caught and proved to have — no surprise — a history of mental illness. She told the police she had been prescribed drugs to control her condition, but had not been taking them.
To those of us who love her, my wife is the centre of the world. But in a big and busy city, she has inevitably become a statistic: the sixth person to have been shoved toward a Toronto subway train by a deranged person in the past six months. One of the six, 23-year-old Charlene Minkowski, was killed.
These subway incidents have spread fear in Toronto. In a city once rightly proud of its worldwide reputation for safety and civility, passengers now make a point of staying far from the edges of platforms and keeping a watchful eye on odd-looking people. Not that these measures do any good: as my wife observed, the woman who shoved her looked perfectly normal. The attacker was just the sort of person around whom even a cautious subway rider would relax.
So being careful on the subway will not necessarily protect you. But then again, there should not be any need for passengers to be so careful. These subway shovers do not appear out of nowhere. The truth is, almost all of them turn out to have long records of mental disturbance. Consider this case. Six weeks ago, 19-year-old Jean Derose was shoved by a man onto the same St. George tracks on which my wife nearly landed. (Derose escaped with just minor injuries.) The man had been apprehended by police and confined to mental hospitals 10 times since 1991. And always with the same result: after 72 hours he was released back into the community.
Sound crazy? Well, the hospitals did not have any choice. Under the most recent reforms to the Ontario Mental Health Act, it is illegal to detain a mentally ill person for more than 72 hours — no matter how frightening his prior history — unless he or she is an ‘imminent’ danger to others.
What happens is this: a deranged person does something violent. The police catch her and arrange for a psychiatric assessment. She’s diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and detained. While under detention, she is given drugs that control her condition. By the time the 72 hours are up, the drugs are working, the mental illness has abated, and the patient is no longer an ‘imminent’ danger. Which means she must be released.
The doctors can entreat her to continue taking her medication. But if she stops, there is nothing anybody can do about it — until she shoves somebody again. At which point the whole cycle of apprehension-detention-release begins again.
It’s become commonplace to blame Ontario’s government cutbacks for the proliferation of dangerous lunatics on Toronto’s streets. But we could double the money we spend on mental health and then double it again without reducing the danger from the violent mentally ill, so long as the Mental Health Act exists in its present form. That’s because the trouble is not too few dollars, but too little sense.
The trouble is Ontario’s mental health law has been commandeered by a small band of ideologues who argue that deranged people like the one who tried to kill my wife have a right to roam the streets, committing mischief after mischief, until they actually succeed in seriously hurting someone.
Originally published in The Financial Post.