Serena's deadly dilemma: Justice, mental health systems unable to cope with broken souls

4 Jun 2013

Edmonton Journal


Serena's deadly dilemma

Justice, mental health systems unable to cope with broken souls

Serena Nicotine was 12 when she drowned a three-year-old in a hotel pool.

She was 15 when she killed for the second time. This time, her victim
was a 58-year-old care worker who ran the halfway house in North
Battleford where Nicotine had been placed. The woman was stabbed 15
times with a kitchen knife, and beaten with a cast iron pan.

Nicotine was sent, not to prison, but to the Regional Psychiatric Centre
in Saskatoon. There, aged 17, she took a nurse hostage with a large
serrated knife. The standoff lasted three hours. The next year, she took
a female correctional officer hostage, torturing her with lit
cigarettes and broken scissors.

Today, Nicotine is 31. She has spent more than half her life in jail,
inflicting her rage on fellow inmates and prison staff. She has attacked
people with an ingenious array of makeshift weapons, including a shard
of glass from a broken TV, a ballpoint pen, a sock stuffed with
deodorant and soap. When she was transferred to the Edmonton Institution
for Women, the facility had to create a new security protocol to deal
with her.

She's just been charged again, for an alleged hostage taking at the
Edmonton Court House last month. The alleged weapon was a pair of
eyeglasses. Nicotine was at the courthouse facing charges in relation to
an alleged incident Feb. 21,
at the Edmonton Institution for Women, in which two inmates were taken
hostage. Is Nicotine a monster? A mentally ill victim of her childhood?

A metaphor for Canada's failed relationship with its aboriginal
community, a scourging symbol of social injustice, and post-colonial
sins come back to haunt us? The answer is complicated. The abuse and
neglect Nicotine suffered began before she was born. She has been
diagnosed with severe fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. She grew up in
poverty in a family where extreme violence was commonplace. Her uncles
introduced her to booze, drugs and crime while she was still a child.
The prenatal damage that alcohol did to her developing brain, and the
extraordinary violence she witnessed and experienced as a child,
profoundly shaped her personality and neurology. She often strikes out
at people who try help her, as though she wants to hurt them before they
can hurt her.

But there are plenty of people with FASD, or attachment disorder, or terrible childhoods. Most don't become killers.

Nicotine isn't psychotic or delusional. She understands the difference
between right and wrong. Her criminal history doesn't suggest she
explodes in sudden rages when she loses control. Her assaults tend to be
planned. Nicotine, who can apparently be disarmingly charming, also
appears to have an extraordinary gift for manipulating others.

No punishment the courts impose for the assaults she commits in prison are a deterrent, since she feels she has nothing to lose.

The truth is that neither our criminal justice system nor our mental
health-care system is equipped to deal with people like Nicotine, whose
brains and souls are broken.

Our justice system stands on our belief in free will, wherein we punish
people who freely choose to do wrong. Our mental health-care system is
about treating people who are ill. Neither paradigm fits those who can't
be cured with counselling or medication, but whose free will is
constrained by the way their brains were shaped and programmed.

It almost doesn't matter what diagnosis or label we give Nicotine,
whether we see her as a sick and pitiable child trapped in a woman's
body, a cold-blooded psychopath, or a scapegoat for larger social

Whatever chemical or psychological forces made her what she is, she represents a deadly risk to those around her.

Whether the Crown goes so far as to have her declared a dangerous
offender, it's hard to imagine a scenario where she could safely return
to the community. It may seem unspeakably cruel to lock up a teenage
girl and never set her free. Yet given the unspeakable cruelties she has
inflicted on others, it's hard to imagine another option.

Still, her bleak fate is also our shared shame. She was damned before
she was born, a victim not just of her family's failings, but of our
national inability to cope with the crisis of addiction, poverty and
racial exclusion that enslaves too much of Canada's aboriginal
community. Justice for Nicotine's victims demands she be kept
incarcerated. Justice for Serena demands we recognize the true
consequences of child abuse and neglect, and the price our failure to
protect our children costs us all.