Ghosts in the machine

Justice system unable to see, let alone deal with, chronic solvent abusers


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John Calvin Dorion is a living, breathing ghost, an apparition who haunts Manitoba’s justice system.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/11/2014 (2871 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

John Calvin Dorion is a living, breathing ghost, an apparition who haunts Manitoba’s justice system.

Now age 40 and his mind largely melted from the long-term effects of solvent abuse, it’s estimated he has cost the province millions of dollars in the last two decades on policing, punishing and jailing him.

And if the sticker shock from the cost of dealing with this one sniff addict isn’t enough of an eyebrow-raiser, consider the larger implication. Despite virtually countless and well-intentioned interventions into Dorion’s life by the courts, police and corrections departments since the early 1990s, nothing’s really changed.

Dorion’s case is complicated by illness and by poor cognitive skills that have left him “borderline” in intelligence and that are nonetheless not acute enough to have him placed in the category of mentally ill and eligible for other treatments.

It cannot be said Manitoba has done nothing to help him, though the province has a patchy record at providing for cases like his. Manitoba has no residential treatment for solvent abusers, but it has made strides in other areas — such as the creation of the Mental Health Court and the Drug Treatment Court.

Depending on the definition of “chronic offender,” Dorion is but one example of the hundreds of “frequent flyers” of varying degrees in Manitoba’s jails.

A single, and mainly non-violent, scofflaw trapped inside an endlessly revolving door. It’s almost as if the system seems incapable of seeing Dorion at all, let alone of “correcting” his behaviour with the tools it has at hand.

Obsessed with huffing at specific lot

Tell anybody who doesn’t work in the justice system that Dorion’s record is 31 legal-sized pages long and their eyes widen.

And jaws drop at the reason for the vast bulk of his arrests, convictions and stints in jail over the last eight years.

Essentially homeless for his entire adult life, Dorion has a seemingly pathological obsession nobody can seem to figure out, including mental health professionals.

He repeatedly goes, alone, even in the depth of winter, to huff gasoline fumes from tanks of trucks sitting on a U-Haul lot at 175 McPhillips St.

Sometimes his lips would freeze to the pipes and he’d rip them off, leaving bits of skin behind and seemingly oblivious to the pain. The mess fell to U-Haul staff to clean up. If they locked the trucks, he’d smash his way into them.

He did this for nearly a year before employees, worried Dorion was going to die, called police. They called prosecutors, who authorized a mischief to property charge. This resulted in a conviction and orders to stay away from the business — orders he’s repeatedly breached.

Being sent to jail over and over hasn’t deterred him. Whatever probation conditions judges bind him to have proved virtually useless.

He’s lost his lower legs (and very nearly a hand) to frostbite from his compulsion to get there — even by rolling through the streets in a wheelchair.

We either jail Dorion or place him on probation or both. Because that’s really all we have. It’s done nothing to remedy the situation and there’s no expectation now that it will.

‘The system failed this man’

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Amanda Sansregret is a legal aid attorney representing John Dorion
Amanda Sansregret is Dorion’s long-time lawyer. More than that, she’s been his only consistent advocate, a role that’s stretched far beyond the confines of the courtroom and is unusual for a criminal defence lawyer.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Sansregret told a provincial court judge in 2012 of her quest to find supports in the community.

“Certainly nobody’s knocked on my door and said: ‘Hi, how can we help Mr. Dorion,’” she said in a recent interview. “He’s been sniffing and living on the street as long as I’ve been practising law.

“But as one human being to the next, I felt compelled to do what I could to see to it that he didn’t freeze to death on the street.”

Sansregret, a lawyer for 23 years, was finally able to connect with Manitoba’s Provincial Special Needs Program and find Dorion housing through Turning Leaf, a non-profit community support agency for adults with intellectual challenges.

‘Section 718 of the Criminal Code does not include preserving your client’s life as a valid sentencing objective, but at what point do you cease to respect the life of another human being? I am just not that morally bankrupt.’

— Amanda Sansregret, defence lawyer

This wasn’t until around 2010-11, after many years of Dorion living under bridges or elsewhere on the streets. Dorion’s chronic breaches of court orders have placed all of this planning and effort in peril.

“(Provincial Special Needs) is now indicating that unless (he) stops breaching, they may withdraw services which would end his funding with Turning Leaf and leave him homeless again,” said Sansregret.

This, she added, would be tantamount to a “death sentence.”

Dorion’s reoffending is unlike anything Sansregret has encountered. His solvent abuse is being criminalized and Dorion has become institutionalized. In other words: he can do time in jail standing on his head. He doesn’t seem bothered by it.

“Nothing the justice system doles out to this man can be worse than what this addiction has done to him,” said Sansregret. “The system has well and truly failed this man.”

Because of his record, prosecutors are loathe to ask for anything but stiff jail sentences. This approach borders on comical, she said. Dorion’s addictions issues, she said, must be dealt without outside the system for a myriad of reasons.

“Not the least of which of which are the enormous expense to the taxpayer to continually lock him up and the fact that clearly criminalizing his addiction has not gotten the desired result.”

‘Waiting to get drunk’

One can’t be put through the system with Dorion’s frequency without drawing attention to yourself with respect to potential mental health concerns.

Yet court-ordered assessments on Dorion that the Free Press accessed found no evidence he’s suffering from a major mental illness. The fact he can’t be typecast as mentally ill could be key to why neither the system nor society can seem to do anything to end his offending.

In August 2010, a Crown prosecutor asked forensic psychiatrist Dr. Frank Vattheuer to meet Dorion in jail and do two things: assess his state of mind when he breached probation on Jan. 9, 2010 and try to determine why Dorion kept returning to the U-Haul lot despite the clear consequences of doing so. Dorion, according to Vattheuer’s report, answered the second question first.

The U-Haul, said Dorion, allowed him to feed his addiction. “(It’s) somewhere that I know I can get it.” Asked why he didn’t go anywhere else, Dorion was again frank: “I get drunk and then I end up going there.”

“Later, in the midst of his account of the alleged crime, (Dorion) asked, ‘what else do I have to do?’” Vattheuer wrote.

Vattheuer noted Dorion had developed several ailments in custody, including insulin-dependent diabetes. He was giving himself his insulin injections daily, was able to measure the doses and check his glucose levels.

“(Dorion) said that he was worried about his health and that he was now seriously considering stopping drinking and using inhalants as he understood that further substance abuse could be dangerous and lead to his death,” the doctor stated.

‘It seems to me we should be dealing with them in a different fashion as opposed to just a punitive fashion. We just recycle them.’

— retired Judge Ray Wyant

Dorion recalled on the day of the breach he and some “street friends” had bought some beer and taken it to Central Park, but he parted ways with the group when they went to go panhandle downtown, he said. “Mr. Dorion said that he then ‘went to the U-Haul because (he) wanted to get high.’”

Vattheuer queried him on what would have happened if he’d been reminded at that point he was about to breach a court order. “I probably would have shook it off. I was drunk and (would have) thought nothing of it,” Dorion replied.

When out of jail, Dorion “just sits around waiting to get drunk or go back to Main Street.” Vattheuer described Dorion as “an unfortunate individual,” but one who knew he was acting against the law. But he also made some additional findings.

“When out of custody, Mr. Dorion will require significant ongoing resources and structure aimed at helping him to achieve and maintain abstinence and to provide for him options other than associating with panhandlers, living on Main Street and coping with his impoverished lifestyle by using whatever intoxicants he can obtain,” Vattheuer said.

To his knowledge, there are no long-term residential treatment programs in Manitoba for solvent abusers and recommended Dorion be referred to the provincial special needs program, he noted.

“Without intensive supports in the community, it is my opinion that (Dorion) is at high risk of coming before the courts with similar issues in the not too distant future.”

Dorion was ultimately arrested, charged and returned to custody on at least 18 occasions after this point — and sentenced 13 additional times, records show.

All for doing pretty much the same thing.

Began sniffing gas as a child

A psychological assessment done more than a year after Vattheuer’s report spells out Dorion’s background in greater detail. Dr. David Kolton’s report notes his “extensive history of instability, abuse and neglect,” as well as a path from abused foster child to a man of 18 who subsequently lived either on the street or in a correctional facility. “He reported he has not been out of jail longer than six months in the last 20 years,” it states.

There is a new nugget of information: It was his anger at a cousin’s cruel and abusive treatment of him that led him to solvent abuse. “That’s why I sniff,” he said.

“He reported that he began sniffing gasoline with friends between the age of eight and 11 and has abused various solvents (paint thinner, white-out) over the years.”

He’d also undergone residential-based treatment in Winnipeg and elsewhere.

Put through cognitive testing, Kolton found him to be of “borderline” intelligence and functioning. Dorion was likely to process verbal information more effectively when it was “supplemented with a visual or performance-based component.”

Dorion, Kolton found, is traumatized, has a “weak working memory” and may benefit from psychological intervention. He believed Dorion will need extensive support and substance abuse treatment. Yet with this additional knowledge in hand, Dorion’s offending never stopped. It raises the question: What more do we need to know?

Little help available for solvent addicts

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Crown attorney Susan Helenchilde
Manitoba has provided Dorion with help and services over the years and strings were sometimes pulled to put him on a better path. But the absence of a treatment program for solvent abusers — and perhaps a lack of ownership of his issues — could be the central reasons he’s caught in the revolving door. That’s what a senior Manitoba Justice prosecutor familiar with his case suggested.

Solvent abuse generally afflicts people already struggling with issues such as homelessness and poverty, Susan Helenchilde said. A former community prosecutor who became the Crown attorney for the Winnipeg Mental Health Court, Helenchilde said the ravages of addiction seem to be a cut above even what she saw as a federal prosecutor in downtown Vancouver in the 1990s.

“Solvent addictions are vicious,” she said. “They seem to be worse than heroin addictions. They seem to get a hold of these individuals and never let go.”

She recalled one sentencing hearing where Dorion breached probation, was handed nearly six months in jail and she thought time in lockup would be for the best. “Time to dry out,” she remembered thinking.

There was a plan in place for him upon release, to head out west and start over in B.C.

‘There is one gap — and that’s the fact we don’t have a solvent abuse treatment program in Manitoba. And really, there’s no solution if you don’t have that program.’

— Crown attorney Susan Helenchilde

No dice. He was released Oct. 6, 2008 at 6:15 a.m. By 7 p.m. he was back at the U-Haul and then back in custody. This scenario repeated itself nine months later despite what Helenchilde described as considerable efforts to halt the cycle.

“In this case, this is not someone we’re looking to punish. This is someone we’re trying to help for everybody’s benefit,” she said. The best way to ensure public safety was “to help John Dorion stay away from U-Haul and achieve sobriety.”

But without some buy-in from him, what’s to be done? In one instance, Dorion thwarted what Helenchilde suggested was a reasonable release plan.

“There was nothing we could do. This is the problem,” said Helenchilde. “You try and try and try and he was not on board.”

Given what’s known about his challenges: Is he even able to act in his own best interest?

‘We just recycle them’

To retired provincial court Judge Ray Wyant, offenders often fall into three categories: “The bad, the mad and the sad.”

The bad are offenders who harm others violently, think nothing of it and need to be locked away. Dealing with “the mad and the sad” in the same fashion, however, often doesn’t yield any positive results.

“The mad and the sad are a little bit different,” Wyant said. “Often times (they) become these chronic offenders and maybe through no fault of their own they find themselves in situations where their offending behaviour is more related not to the fact that they’re criminals — or that they’re criminally disposed, evil, bad people — but circumstances lead them to commit offences.”

After 16 years on the bench, Wyant estimates there are hundreds, if not thousands, of chronic offenders in Manitoba.

“These are people who offend because of their mental health issues or their addiction issues… as opposed to being just mean, bad people. It seems to me we should be dealing with them in a different fashion as opposed to just a punitive fashion. We just recycle them.”

It’s a bit jarring to hear a judge say the justice system isn’t set up to deal with offenders. And it’s a lack of tools available to courts to deal with the issues — combined with lacking resources — that’s largely to blame, he suggested.

Boiled down to essentials, judges really only have jail and/or probation orders to try and deter an offender and attempt to promote his or her rehabilitation.

When you have chronic offenders with cognitive and substance issues, combined with entrenched poverty or homelessness, they can get set up to fail. That means a repeat trip to jail and all the associated disruption and expense.

It’s like telling an alcoholic he is forbidden to drink, Wyant said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there’s going to be a breach.”

Also missing is a focus on individual offenders and resource planning. And things might only change for the better, he said, if the focus switched from placing the onus on the offender to meet a court’s obligations to helping him meet them.

“You might just be able to save a few souls and probably going to save a great deal of money. We haven’t come to that yet,” Wyant said.

‘He’s a poor soul’

Wyant recalled Dorion and his circumstances, having sentenced him in the past. And he wondered why it is up to his defence lawyer to find ways to keep him off the street and out of jail.

“Why are we waiting until (Dorion) offends and then once he offends you turn to the criminal justice system (and say), ‘OK, now help him, deal with him, make sure he doesn’t reoffend,’” Wyant asked. “Do you really want to lock a guy up forever who is addicted to gasoline sniffing? I guess it’s a matter of view. But he’s a poor soul. A very poor soul.”

Wyant is empathetic for Dorion’s victims — the U-Haul employees who clean up his mess or are frightened by his presence.

“From my perspective, it shows the justice system is incapable of dealing with him,” said Wyant. “I don’t know what it would say to the victim. I think the victim may say the justice system is failing.”

Chronic offenders’ issues are so layered that they can’t be “pigeonholed” and authorities often cannot respond, he said. And Manitoba’s Mental Health Court and Drug Treatment Court, however laudable, aren’t set up for people like Dorion.

“He doesn’t have a recognizable mental illness and yet, he’s cognitively impaired, he’s significantly addicted and likely has some maybe undiagnosed mental health problem… in a wider sense,” says Wyant. “Those guys aren’t being caught by a drug court, mental health court.”

He’s blames no one, but nor does it mean nothing should be done. “It would seem to me that we could easily devise a program to deal with the Jonathon Dorions and (those) who have that multitude spectrum of issues that defy pigeonholing.”

Vicious cycle

Ian Smith / Postmedia News Files Delta Chief Constable Jim Cessford
Go to any major urban centre in Canada and the burden chronic offenders place on the justice system is a hot topic, with Victoria and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside most prominent.

But there’s also Delta B.C., part of Metro Vancouver, but comprising several communities. Delta’s top cop submitted a report to the police board this year outlining the strain chronic offenders placed on resources.

Three cases were presented to illustrate the urgency of developing a new approach — one involved a 47-year-old man with a long criminal record, chronic illness and drug addictions. He smashed car windows to steal to support his habit and was “reluctant” to get into treatment. He came into contact with police 72 times since 2009 and seemed undeterred by the prospect of new jail terms, Delta Police Chief Jim Cessford noted.

While he was out of custody, police responded to 147 “theft from auto” incidents in a 3 1/2-month period, 50 of them within 1,500 metres of the offender’s home. When he was locked up between July and September 2012, the thefts dramatically dropped. He’s considered one of many offenders with “concurrent disorders,” the report notes — addictions and mental health issues that make dealing with him a major challenge.

“The shift in recent years from institutionalized to community-based mental health care compounds the problem of concurrent disorders and often results in police contact,” Cessford said.

“The vicious cycle of mental illness, substance abuse and criminal activity is seemingly impossible to break for many and they spend their lives in constant crisis.”

When offenders are sentenced to jail, treatment and programming is made available to them. But, Cessford writes, often this is voluntary and the sentences are often not long enough to complete the programs.

But will sentencing people to longer terms in jail accomplish anything? The jury’s still out, he suggested.

“It is debatable whether lengthier prison sentences are appropriate for certain chronic offenders, recognizing that they need intense medical treatment for a variety of issues. Not to mention locking people up is expensive. An evidence-based treatment approach would include mandatory treatment specific to the needs of the offender whether in-custody or through a community-based model.”

And police aren’t able to do it all themselves, he said, backing an approach involving health care, probation, courts, housing and education “at a community-based level in order to relieve pressure on all stakeholders and increase public safety.”

The report spurred calls for action. In May, Delta’s political council urged the federal government to work with municipalities and the province on a “social justice” approach to managing offenders with mental health and addictions problems.

Doing life on the installment plan

Manitoba has long blazed a trail embracing innovation in justice and courts administration.

And thinking outside the box may be what’s needed to keep addicts like John Dorion from languishing in jail at great expense, “doing life on the installment plan,” as criminal lawyers often quip.

For Helenchilde, the main reason she left B.C. was Manitoba’s willingness try new things. “I came here and I was not disappointed,” she said.

Since becoming the Mental Health Court (MHC) Crown in 2012 when the court started up, Helenchilde said she’s seen the evidence-based and supportive approach it takes change people’s lives for the better.

“It is, in 21 years of prosecutions, the most effective thing I’ve seen in the system,” she said.

It has a lot to do with how the “problem-solving” court is structured. MHC diverts suspects with severe and permanent mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (serious violent or sexual offenders are ineligible) away from the regular court system into tailored treatment.

One key is offering participants access to psychiatric help, Helenchilde said, and a focus beyond mental health. Supportive professionals help address problems ranging from addictions treatment to finding housing to education.

Housing, as it’s always been for Dorion, is a huge issue in keeping MHC clients on track.

“You cannot reasonably expect a person who does not have a place to live to take care of their mental health,” said Helenchilde. “If I’ve got to go line up everyday at Siloam Mission to make sure I’ve got a place to sleep tonight, I’m not going to have time to worry about getting my (medication).”

Dorion is ineligible to be a MHC client because he doesn’t have a diagnosed mental illness. But in addition to creating a solvent-abuse treatment program, there’s nothing to stop the province from adapting a similar approach to chronic offenders such as Dorion, she said. She has encountered four current MHC clients in community prosecutions and they are doing well in the program.

Judge Wyant backs the use of therapeutic courts and pointed to efforts in Victoria and the New York borough of Brooklyn.

“It would seem to me that you could do that type of conferencing in relation to a Jonathon Dorion where you get all the players around the table and try to come up with a solution in the same fashion that you do in a drug court or mental health court. Maybe it’s a chronic offenders court,” Wyant said. “It’s not rocket science. It takes energy and some dedication.”

There is willingness in the various independent, yet inter-dependent, actors in Manitoba’s justice system to talk about new approaches, Wyant said. “We now have the culture for that type of discussion.”

Dorion, however, will have to make a sincere effort to kick his addiction to have a reasonable shot of it working, Helenchilde cautioned.

“It’s his life, and he’s the one who’s got to, at the end of the day, make the decision that he wants to get better,” she said. “When he lost his legs… I remember feeling so bad that happened, but also thinking: ‘maybe now (this will motivate him to change)’ … Surprisingly it was not.”

‘We’ve got to get him out of town’

It was billed as the best possible plan for the future: Get Dorion out of Winnipeg and into a supported-living environment on a tranquil ranch far away from the U-Haul. It took just 40 days before history repeated itself.

On Wednesday, Dorion finds out his latest punishment when he appears in court to answer allegations he breached his probation orders by turning up at the U-Haul on Sept. 29. Weeks earlier, he’d been released from his latest jail stint of 65 days.

At an Aug. 19 sentencing, court heard that Dorion was being placed at the El’Dad Ranch near Steinbach to live and hopefully get support and treatment.

That plan derailed when he and a worker came to Winnipeg to see a movie, said Sansregret. Dorion went off to get a drink and vanished. He was picked up hours later at the U-Haul, having walked a long way on his prostheses to get there.

Prosecutors, support agencies and a judge had high hopes a new life at El’Dad would finally end his offending.

“We’ve got to get him out of town — it’s just the only option,” Sansregret told Judge Lee Ann Martin.

Even Dorion was on board.

“This program sounds like a good thing ’cuz it’s out of the city and I know I’ll do good,” he said, his voice a near-monotone. “Last time I was out of the city I was three weeks out… and I got into whisky out there. That’s like seven years ago, but I stayed straight three weeks.”

While the plan remains for him to return to the ranch, the worry is his provincial supports will be cut off if his offending doesn’t stop.

If that happens, Sansregret said, Dorion reverts to a vulnerable homeless addict living under bridges.

And if that happens, she added, the likelihood is he’ll die.


James Turner is a former Winnipeg Free Press justice reporter. He now teaches journalism in the Creative Communications program at Red River College.

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