Justice

Of anguish and mercy

RAE CORELLI November 23 1998
Justice

Of anguish and mercy

RAE CORELLI November 23 1998

Of anguish and mercy

Justice

Her name is Brandie-Leigh and for the entire six years of her life she has been a ravaged victim of cerebral palsy. She cannot speak, see, hear or walk and is fed through a stomach tube. Last week, Brandie-Leigh was in the McMaster University Medical Centre in Hamilton, listed in critical condition from an overdose of prescription painkillers. And on the day of her admission, police charged her mother, Lisa

Thompson, 37, with attempting to murder the youngest of her four children. Justice of the Peace Morley Kitchen released a pale and tearful Thompson on her own recognizance the following day—under orders not to be with her other children without supervision—and police took her to a hospital in Niagara Falls, Ont., where she lives, for psychiatric evaluation and counselling.

Thompson was arrested on Nov. 8 after walking into a Niagara Falls police station and telling the receptionist she wanted to speak to an officer. “I just happened to be going past at that time and I asked her if I could help her,” said Det.-Sgt. Mike Gamble. After they spoke, “emergency crews were sent to the Thompson home and started working on the girl,” Gamble said. “She was in distress when they found her.” As for Brandie-Leigh’s mother, he added,

“there is no doubt in my mind that she loves her daughter and cares for her dearly. No doubt whatsoever.”

While Thompson’s lawyer, Charles Ryall, declined comment, friends, asking that their names be withheld, rallied to her support. They talked of her commitment to her daughter’s welfare —which had left Thompson with “an unbelievable life”—and how she had become “increasingly demoralized” by the demands it made on her. They said the child was always in pain and had to be medicated, was fed through a tube

into her stomach because she was incapable of swallowing safely, and had days when she could not even move and appeared to be comatose. Thompson’s immediate family—her mother and brother live in Niagara Falls and her father runs a restaurant in the Niagararegion community of Jordan—were described as “good, honest people.” Brandie-Leigh’s father lives in Hamilton.

But of those caught up in the tragedy, few were more moved by it than Gamble, a Niagara region police officer for 28 years. “I’ve had a lot of cases dealing with children being abused or dying at the hands of a parent or guardian, but those are usually referred to as shaken-child syndrome,” he said. “One thing you’ll find, not talking about this case, because I won’t, but in other cases I’ve been familiar with, is that basically the parents have reached their limit. Emotionally, they short-circuit; they can’t cope any more. When I finished with this case, I came back to the office and I said

to my partner, ‘I can’t even categorize anything I have in my life as a problem when you look at what some people go through.’ ” Although Kitchen issued an order prohibiting the publication of evidence, it seemed inevitable that the case would revive the debate over mercy killing and provoke comparisons with the ongoing ordeal of Saskatchewan’s Latimer family. Five years ago, farmer Robert Latimer killed his 12-year-old daughter, Tracy, disabled

A mother is charged with trying to kill a disabled child

by cerebral palsy, by putting her into the cab of his pickup truck and filling the interior with exhaust fumes. Convicted twice of second-degree murder (an appeal was sandwiched between the trials), Latimer could have been sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole for at least 10 years. Instead, he was given two years with only one to be served in custody. However, both he and the Crown are appealing. Latimer’s lawyer argues that the penalty was too harsh and the prosecution says it was inadequate. Organizations representing the disabled sided with the Crown, contending that the sympathy for Latimer was misplaced.

The killing of Tracy Latimer led to one of the nation’s most widely publicized criminal cases in recent years, but there have been others involving handicapped children since. In December, 1994, Cathy Wilkieson of Hamilton and her 16-year-old disabled son, Ryan, died of carbon monoxide poisoning from exhaust fumes in a car in her parents’ garage. The boy, who had cerebral palsy, was in his mother’s arms when they were discovered. The 43-year-old Wilkieson left a suicide note in which she said she could no longer go on but could not leave her son behind.

Two years later, 44-year-old Danielle Blais of Montreal drowned her sixyear-old autistic son Charles-Antoine bathtub. She slashed her wrists

and then called police who got her to a hospital in time for doctors to save her life. Blais left a suicide note in which she criticized her son’s school for not understanding the behavioral problems caused by autism. Blais eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was given a 23-month suspended sentence.

Last week, as doctors remained hopeful that Brandie-Leigh Thompson would survive and the legal system prepared to deal with her mother, a social work professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., released a report critical of government cutbacks across Canada in programs for the disabled. It is an urgent concern, says Peter Dunn, because as the population ages, so will the number of disabled people. And so, predictably, will the number of families living their lives in anguish.

RAE CORELLI