Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Life and Death of Ashely Smith

Ashley Smith: A child the system let down and her adopters are profiting from her tragic life of abuse. 

My Life

My life I no longer love
I’d rather be set free above
Get it over with while the time is right
Late some rainy night
Turn black as the sky and as cold as the sea
Say goodbye to Ashley
Miss me but don’t be sad
I’m not sad I’m happy and glad
I’m free, where I want to be
No more caged up Ashley

Wishing I were free
Free like a bird.

Ashley Smith, 18 years old
October 1, 2006
New Brunswick Youth Centre

Ashley Smith was born on January 29, 1988. She was adopted when she was 5 days old. She developed normally, reaching all expected milestones. Up until the time she was in grade 5, there were no significant problems with Ashley.  In grade 5, at approximately 10 years of age, she began developing behaviour problems at school.  She was disruptive and talked excessively. 

At 13, "Ashley began exhibiting disruptive and oppositional behaviour, disrespect towards adults in general (both school personnel and visitors) as well as problematic issues in her relationship with her peers."

Her "defiant" behavior led to her being suspended from school numerous time when she was 14. the detailed report of these events indicate no effort to help this child through therapy or to deal with the root cause of her anger - perhaps feelings of abandonment common to adoptees???

"Documents on file reveal that progressively, the relationship between Ashley and her parents was becoming very strained, namely after Ashley started running high monthly long distance charges, in excess of $1,000 at times.  She would also spend a lot of time on the internet, chatting with others or accessing inappropriate and highly questionable material. "

Ashley was found dead in her prison cell at the age of 19 having died of self-strangulation after being beaten and severely abused by prison staff - having been imprisoned at just FOURTEEN YEARS OF AGE for "assault and disturbance in a public place" following an apple throwing, she was later transferred to an adult facility, despite doctors having diagnosed her as having a serious personality disorder.

Her death is classified as accidental, not suicide. She had choked herself previously and her jailers chalked it up to "attention seeking" behavior.

She had been transferred between federal institutions 17 times in her three years of incarnation. Most of her final 11 months she was kept in segregation and often on suicide watch dressed in a highly restrictive gown.

Ashley Smith:  A Report of the New Brunswick Ombudsman and Child and Youth Advocate on the services provided to a youth involved in the youth criminal justice system

Published by: Office of the Ombudsman & Child and Youth Advocate Province of New Brunswick:

The psychiatric assessment states under “diagnostic impression”, “learning disorder, ADHD, borderline personality disorder”, although depression was ruled out.  In an addendum, the assessing psychiatrist added “narcissistic personality traits”.  The recommendations from the psychological assessment were: for the parents to receive sessions on how to deal with an “oppositional defiant youth’, for all partners to work together in dealing with Ashley’s behaviour (the parents, the school, the community), for Ashley to receive individual counselling from her local mental health centre, for further monitoring and assessment “for the presence of interpersonally imbalance personality disorder or trait and a cyclic mood disorder, to ensure she’s receiving appropriate treatment”, and that she receive follow-up on the medication regime prescribed by the psychiatrist at the Pierre Caissie Centre.  
But, things got worse for Smith when she was transferred to the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon in December 2006, where she was beaten.

AND...her adoptive parents sued and were awarded $11 Million Dollars in a wrongful death lawsuit against the Correctional Service of Canada.

The particular circumstances of Ashley’s experiences within the provincial and federal
correctional systems may have easily gone unnoticed had it not been for her tragic death. 
In fact, it quickly became obvious that her personal experience in the correctional system
is like that of other young men and women involved in the youth criminal justice system,
experiencing a personal struggle with mental illness and severe behaviour disorders.

Her plight along with that of her parents in attempting to obtain the best possible services
and treatment for their daughter was unfortunately not an unfamiliar one for my Office. 
It is a circumstance shared by other parents in this province.  The unanswered question
remains for them as it does for me and many other New Brunswickers: why are youths
suffering from mental illness and severe behavioural disorders being sent to jail?  How
are their needs addressed in that setting?  What must be done to change this situation and
its tragic outcomes?  
 Ashley Smith: A child the system let down and her adopters are profiting from her tragic life of abuse.

Why should THEY profit from this? What about her natural mother???  Why was Ashely adopted to begin with?  Were her mother's right terminated voluntarily, through coercion, or was it a 'frceable" involuntarily state termination of rights? Was there just cause?

The majority of news reports on this case don't even mention that she was adopted at all. It's considered of no significance when it may in fact be THE MOST significant fact in her brief life and death,

These questions remain unanswered...never if her life began when she was adopted and her adopters are the victims here!

Rest in peace sweet angel...and thanks to Mary Ann Mullen for bringing this to my attention.


Susie said...

This is so very sad and tragic. I'm sick at the thought of Ashley's natural mother ~ does she know what happened to her daughter? Will she ever know? How much were her aparents at fault for Ashley being jailed at such a young age? How could they benefit from her death in jail if they were at fault for her being abandoned to jail?

I pray that the words in her poem are true ~ that she is happy, glad, and free from the heartbreak of her life on earth. May she be surrounded only by complete love and peace.

Jess said...

They weren't awarded $11 million—they settled for an undisclosed amount out of court. Nobody knows how much it is or what they will do with the money.

I did a piece on Ashley over a year ago when my blog was still up. You can find the CBC documentary about her here: At the time I mentioned that Ashley was adopted and that this was never analyzed as a factor in her distress.

However, I think it's reaching to suggest that the adoptive parents were seeking to profit from the abuse she suffered at the hands of the Canadian justice system. By your logic, then, only the natural parents of children should ever be able to bring a wrongful death lawsuit when the system fails children. Does this make any sense given the facts of the case?

The Canadian justice system was on trial here, as the timeline of Ashley's death clearly shows, not the mother or father. Her emerging mental illness, for which her mother sought treatment as early as 2002, was difficult to label—mostly because practitioners are uneasy about labeling young people with serious personality disorders when they are young teens. Still, a diagnosis of BPD is pretty consistent with symptoms emerging during puberty and BPD itself has a strong genetic component, as well as an environmental one. Other mental illness freqently co-occur with BPD, so that is not unexpected. According to Ashley (see the timeline), she was frustrated and horrified by her own thought processes but appeared not to blame her parents for her rages or suffering.

Ashley Smith was screwed by a system that failed to diagnose and treat her serious mental condition, and by a correctional system that turned a bad situation into a fatal one. I think it's fine to ask how adoption affected Ashley and contributed to her suffering; I don't think it's accurate or fair to suggest that adoption was the most significant factor in her death or, as your reader opined, that her a-parents were “at fault” for her early run-ins with the law. By all accounts they stuck by her and continued to seek treatment for her, including early assessment, youth workers, alternative highschool, consultation with a neurologist, residental treatment, and so forth—all before she ever went to jail.

Mirah Riben said...

In answer to your question: I do not think ANY parent who basically abandons their child to the system like this should profit from their child's abuse.

I believe her parents failed her as much as the system.

This CHILD never belonged in the prison system at all and her parents had an obligation to obtain legal counsel to fight that tooth and nail. Did they? Would they have if she were their biological child? Wouldn't you if it were your child? If they did not fight to get her out of where she was they have her blood on their hands too, IMO.

Has Ashey's natural mother been sought out? Does she know what happened to her child? Or do the powers that be think she relinquished the right to know or assume she never wanted her child anyhow so why bother?

Is it even known if she was removed by the state or voluntarily relinquished?

Mirah Riben said...

AND...before you conclude that adoption was not such a significant factor, look at some stats about adoptees being over-represented in ALL types of facilities from special ed to mental hospitals to prisons. And look at the fact that adoption is a risk-factor for suicide.

Just the simple fact that she lacked an accurate up-to-date family medical history by virtue of being adopted put her at greater risk. Does anyone know her mother or father's mental health? Her NATURAL mother and father...the ones whose DNA she had.

Anonymous said...

"before you conclude that adoption was not such a significant factor,"

Seems to me Jess didn't reach for any such conclusion

"look at some stats about adoptees being over-represented in ALL types of facilities from special ed to mental hospitals to prisons. And look at the fact that adoption is a risk-factor for suicide. "

That's an argument for open records, better pre-adoption education for paps and better post-adoption support for adoptive families.
There is no evidence to show that Ashley's adoptive parents did anything other than their best under the circumstances.

I too would like to hear your answer to the question of whether you think only the natural parents of children should ever be able to bring a wrongful death lawsuit when the system fails children.

Jess said...

About the natural mom . . . I also wondered in my old post if she knew any of this awful story. Ashley's picture has been circulated for years, others as well, and the date of her birthday and adoption are a matter of public record. To my knowledge she has never come forward, and one would presuppose that under the circumstances she might, and that Coralee and Herb might welcome her. After all, these are people running out of options living on a farm on the outskirts of Moncton, not some downtown city centre where there's better access to mental health treatment. We don't know how they would have felt about this or what they would have done so there's no use blaming them.

What I do know: BPD is an overwhelming and difficult to treat disease. Living with someone with BPD is occasionally impossible.

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