Ontario police chiefs are moving to seal off sensitive mental-health information from being disclosed when their forces provide background checks for job seekers or would-be volunteers.
The change is part of new guidelines to be unveiled Monday by the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police to address the patchwork of procedures used by forces across the province.
Police verifications are common for people applying to be security guards, truck drivers, warehouse employees or casino workers. Schools, nursing homes and other organizations dealing with vulnerable people also use police checks to screen job seekers or volunteers.
While not binding, members of more than 50 forces, including the Ontario Provincial Police, have started training to use the new guidelines, said the chairwoman of the panel that drafted them, Susan Cardwell. She is records manager of the Durham Regional Police.
Police forces in British Columbia and Manitoba are preparing similar initiatives but Ontario is the first to draft consistent, province-wide guidelines, she said.
Most of Ontario's police chiefs want to adopt the new guidelines for their forces to end bureaucratic confusion and avoid lawsuits, said Ryan Fritsch, legal counsel for the Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office.
Mr. Fritsch's organization, an arm's-length agency of the Ontario Ministry of Health, was among the groups consulted in the writing of the new guidelines.
People with mental illnesses often have non-criminal contacts with the police, such as someone attempting suicide, a patient requiring an escort to a hospital, a neighbour calling 9-1-1 to report a person in distress.
Patients and advocates have long complained that such incidents are recorded into police databanks and can end up released to third parties.
Mr. Fritsch said his office receives calls about the problem almost every day. "Often our clients say they won't even apply for a job because they know their mental-health record will be released. It has a chilling effect,"
The impact of the disclosure of those records goes even beyond job hunting.
Five years ago, Lois Kamenitz, a 64-year-old Torontonian, attempted suicide by ingesting pills. Her partner called 9-1-1 when she found her unconscious.
Unbeknownst to them, the incident was entered into the Toronto police database and transmitted to the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC), the RCMP-run national database.
When Ms. Kamenitz tried to board a flight to the U.S. last fall, American border officials denied her access because she had a CPIC file.
"The police aren't thinking about the long-term consequences of releasing that information … the implications on someone's life, their careers, their relationships, are enormous," Ms. Kamenitz said in an interview.
She said she was willing to speak publicly because she wanted to fight the perception that people with mental illnesses who come into contact with police are inherently dangerous. "We need to break down that stereotype."
Forces across Canada don't have uniform ways of dealing with information about a person's mental health.
For example, Halifax regional police says it only discloses incidents in which the person was convicted in court, whereas police in Calgary will also release mental-health information if recent and relevant, according to data collected by Volunteer Canada.
The Toronto police says it doesn't disclose information relating to a person's mental health unless specifically requested by the potential employer, and with the consent of the applicant.
The new Ontario guidelines creates three levels of record checks with different degrees of disclosure. Mental-health data will not be explicitly disclosed any more.
Under the new guidelines, when a person applies for a position dealing with vulnerable people (children, the elderly or disabled), violent incidents that didn't result in a criminal case will be disclosed, without specifying whether it stemmed from a mental illness.