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Justice Minister Peter MacKay is shown in Ottawa on Nov. 25, 2013.SEAN KILPATRICK/The Canadian Press

A Nova Scotia group that speaks for people with intellectual disabilities is calling for a meeting with federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay, saying federal laws must be changed to stop the criminalization of people with special needs.

Cindy Carruthers, co-ordinator for People First Nova Scotia, told a news conference Monday that people with cognitive impairment are too often being charged for aggressive behaviour that should be dealt with outside the criminal justice system.

"These crisis situations can be minimized and perhaps even eliminated with appropriate housing, effective staff ... and good programs," said Carruthers, who has worked in the field for 20 years. "There should be more effective responses when someone loses control other than calling the police."

A spokeswoman for MacKay did not specifically say whether MacKay would meet with the group.

"We are constantly reviewing the Criminal Code to ensure it remains relevant to Canadians," Paloma Aguilar said in an e-mail. "Our government is always open to suggestions on means to make the federal justice system more responsive and efficient."

The province's Community Services Department responded with an e-mailed statement pointing out that each care-giving facility in the province develops its own policies on when to call police.

"Police are only called as a last resort in situations of imminent danger when other less intrusive interventions fail and the person exhibiting the aggressive behaviour is a threat to themselves or other residents, staff or bystanders," the statement said.

A spokesman for Nova Scotia Justice Minister Lena Diab issued a statement saying anyone who feels they are in danger has the right to call police.

"Once police are called to a situation, they are trained to be sensitive to people's needs and abilities and to assess carefully whether charges should be laid," the statement said.

Carruthers said unless the federal laws are changed, Nova Scotians can expect to see another case similar to that of Ashley Smith, the mentally ill New Brunswick teenager who died in a federal prison when she strangled herself in her cell, prompting a public inquiry.

Smith was transferred between institutions 17 times in the 11 months before she died at the age of 19. Her parents say she never received the psychological help she needed.

Victor Murphy, a paramedic from Truro, N.S., spoke at the news conference about his 34-year-old daughter Amanda, who will be sentenced next month for assaulting a worker at a group home in Antigonish even though she has the mental capacity of an eight-year-old.

"I'm kind of disappointed in the staff that they would ... file assault charges rather than work something out," he said, adding that his daughter is epileptic, bipolar and has an attention deficit disorder.

"Amanda is just a child, but now she's being treated as a criminal. Quite honestly, she can't help what she does. ... She's a woman trapped in a child's body."

Another parent, Brenda Hardiman, said she and other parents of children with intellectual disabilities will be staging a series of protests across Nova Scotia on Feb. 2, with tentative plans for rallies in Halifax, New Minas, Truro, Windsor and Yarmouth.

"We do not criminally charge, convict and incarcerate people with Alzheimer's or someone that experiences epileptic seizures," she said, adding that Nova Scotia's mental health court hasn't helped with her daughter's case.

"We're hoping that the premier and Peter MacKay will take a lead on this and take a good look at it. It's just morally wrong."

Hardiman met with Premier Stephen McNeil last week after the Truro woman launched a campaign to draw attention to her daughter's plight.

Nichele Benn, 26, was charged with assault and assault with a weapon after she allegedly bit and hit an employee at the Quest Regional Rehabilitation Centre in Halifax on Dec. 12. Benn, who lives at the centre, has epilepsy, cerebral palsy and an organic brain disorder that her family says causes her to have aggressive behaviour.

Hardiman said Benn previously lived with a couple in a home in rural Nova Scotia, but when that arrangement ended several years ago there wasn't an appropriate, small group home available for her.

McNeil made no commitments after meeting with Hardiman, but he said the Community Services Department would take a closer look at the case.

This content appears as provided to The Globe by the originating wire service. It has not been edited by Globe staff.

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