Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Thursday that someone will be held responsible for the disappearance of a patient from a Toronto mental-health facility and that some people detained after being found not criminally responsible for violent acts should never be released.
“You can’t let guys like this loose,” Mr. Ford told radio host Jerry Agar. “You throw away the key.” The Premier also referred to the patient as a “nutcase” and “crazy,” terms that advocates say stigmatize mental illness.
Mr. Ford made the comments as police and hospital officials promised to review the circumstances that allowed Zhebin Cong, a patient at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health who was found not criminally responsible (NCR) for murder in 2016, to flee the country on an international flight, the same day he failed to return to the facility while on an unsupervised day pass.
Mr. Ford sent a letter to Toronto Police Services Board chair Andrew Pringle on Thursday asking why the public was not immediately notified when Mr. Cong went missing on July 3 and about the potential risk posed to public safety. The police did not publicly release details of the case until July 14 and say they did not realize he left the country until July 16, nearly two weeks after he failed to return to the facility.
Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders announced Thursday that the force will be conducting two investigations – a full review into Mr. Cong’s disappearance and an internal department review.
“We will review if he [Cong] received assistance, money, or a passport from anyone who may have facilitated him leaving the country,” Chief Saunders wrote in a statement. “We are working with Canadian and international law enforcement agencies. We will be seeking a Canada wide warrant to aid in taking him in to custody if and when he returns to Canada.”
Mr. Ford said he would also press CAMH and the Ontario Review Board, which manages the cases of patients found NCR, to determine who “dropped the ball.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory called on the provincial government to launch an independent review into the incident. “I believe such a review could work with CAMH and the Ontario Review Board to address issues related to Mr. Cong’s disappearance from the facility and the city," Mr. Tory said in a statement on Thursday, “but there are other questions which go well beyond that and which require answers if the public is to be confident that this kind of thing won’t happen again.”
On Wednesday, CAMH announced that it would start a review on all patient passes and privileges, with a special focus on those who have been granted unsupervised access in the community. The announcement came two weeks after Mr. Cong’s disappearance. The hospital also plans to increase security in its forensic units.
The incident highlights the challenges of managing the rights of NCR patients with the need to maintain community safety.
Hours after Mr. Ford’s radio interview, CAMH chief executive officer Catherine Zahn said “it is clear that there is still work to do to address misperceptions surrounding mental illness, as well as the prejudice and discrimination faced by those who live with mental disorders.”
Camille Quenneville, CEO of the Ontario branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, called the Premier’s comments “disappointing.”
“I suspect the Premier, on reflection, understands the inappropriateness of that language,” she said. “I would expect that he likely regrets using those names.”
Mr. Cong, 48, has been detained at CAMH since 2016 after killing another boarder in his rooming house. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and found NCR. Violence by people with schizophrenia or other mental illnesses is rare.
In Canada, patients who are deemed NCR are detained in psychiatric facilities for an indeterminate period where they receive treatment, with the ultimate goal of helping them re-integrate into society. Patients can earn privileges, such as day passes for supervised or unsupervised community access, based on their progress in treatment. An independent tribunal, known in Ontario as the Ontario Review Board (ORB), sets the parameters of supervision and management for people found NCR.
There are approximately 1,600 patients in Ontario whose cases are being managed by the ORB and many of them are living in the community.
Only two forensic patients at CAMH have ever been charged with a crime while AWOL, including a man who robbed a convenience store and a bakery while he was missing from the facility this past June.
While it’s unclear where Mr. Cong went, he had long expressed a desire to return to his home country of China to live with his mother. His command of the English language is poor and he showed little interest in integrating into life in Canada, according to ORB decisions.
Forensic patients at CAMH are allowed access to computers, money and phones. It’s not clear whether Mr. Cong had a passport in his possession at the facility.
A May, 2019, decision from the ORB noted the challenges involved in helping Mr. Cong move into the community. According to the decision, Mr. Cong was doing well in treatment and was not showing any signs of mental illness. He had been given the permission to live in a CAMH-approved accommodation in the community. But Mr. Cong had not obtained a permanent-residency card or signed the housing application form. The decision noted that without a permanent-residency card, Mr. Cong may be deported to China. The decision said Mr. Cong was “surprised” and “anxious” about the fact that he could only move into the community if CAMH approved his housing.
With reports from Matthew Lapierre and The Canadian Press