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Published on August 1st, 2017 | from CAMH

What happens when you are at the centre of a media storm

Reflections on mental health in the news
By Sean O’Malley, Senior Media Relations Specialist

Remember Francie?

She is the young woman with Down Syndrome whose condition was crudely mocked by two Toronto police officers who were giving her mother a ticket for allegedly running a red light. The officers were speaking privately in their cruiser, but when Francie’s parents challenged the ticket in court and sought disclosure from the Crown, the dashcam audio was made public.

One day later, Francie’s house was surrounded by television news trucks.

“I came home and oh my God, it was overwhelming,” says Francie’s mother Pam.

“It was strange,” says Francie.

Before they knew it, there they were on their front porch, holding a nationally televised news conference.

In my former career as a television journalist I saw many people like Francie who were suddenly thrust into the public eye. I have seen that kind of media glare do strange things to those people. Some simply tried to disappear from view and regain their anonymity as soon as possible. Others became intoxicated by the attention, only to feel oddly abandoned when they realized that their 15 minutes of fame were up. Most of the time, once all those TV trucks leave, they don’t come back. I have seen people like Francie treated sympathetically at first in the media, only to be turned on the next time they try to bring attention to the injustice that beckoned the media to them in the first place.

I wanted to know what it felt like for Francie and Pam to go through the white heat of that, and what the lingering after-effects of that experience have been.

Francie has a lot of connections to CAMH. Her sister worked here as a research assistant. Francie has worked as a paid actor in educational videos for the CAMH-affiliated Health Care Access Research and Developmental Disabilities Program (H-CARDD). One of the abiding ironies of Francie’s story is that one of those videos was about how important it was for professionals (in that case health care professionals) to treat people with developmental disabilities with respect.

So one recent warm July night, I sat down with them at their Etobicoke home.

Over coffee and a cheese and meat tray, they talked about how dizzying the experience has been and continues to be. Pam recited in granular detail the sequence of events – from the moment their car was pulled over, to their unrequited demand for a public apology from the officers, to their preparations for the next step, a disciplinary hearing in August for the officers. Pam, Francie and a coterie of Francie’s friends with developmental disabilities plan to attend.

Pam said that for the first two weeks after she and Francie heard what the officers had said, Francie, 29, was not herself. Perpetually sunny, Francie’s daily mantra, “I love my life,” was not being spoken. Even more atypical, she was not ready to forgive and forget.

“It upset her more than we realized– that hit us hard,” says Pam.

It has taken a toll on the whole family. Francie’s father has lost 30 pounds. As the father of a young woman with a developmental disability myself, I could relate to his feelings of impotent rage and demand for justice for Francie (who goes by Francia at home). Yet I wondered if there were times when they felt like letting it all go and moving on from their quest for a public apology that may never come.

For Francie though, it’s not just about her. She talked about how devastated her friends were the first time she saw them after the news broke. One of them left in tears. For Francie, it’s about standing up for the dignity of everyone who has a developmental disability.

While the family continues to feel embittered about their experience, their brush with fame has also brought some delightful surprises that they were eager to share. The outpouring of support from friends and strangers. The private house call by Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders, who has a son with autism. The random encounters with police officers, one of whom recognized her on the street, pulled over in his cruiser, and showed her a picture of his five-year-old daughter with Down Syndrome on his cell phone. They spent their Canada Day weekend in Kingston at the invitation of a police officer there who was so moved by Francie’s story, he invited the family to stay at his home. He took her on a guided tour of the Kingston Police headquarters. A portrait photographer in his spare time, he made Francie the subject of a pastoral photo shoot.

 

And those H-CARDD education videos Francie starred in? Forty-eight hours after her story went public, one of them had gone from a few hundred views to over 20,000.

Francie showed me the Kingston photo album with pride, along with a baseball hat, jean jacket patches and other Kingston police swag.

“We just want something good to come out of this ugly situation,” said Pam as we sat beside each other on the living room couch looking at photos of Francie.

“I look gorgeous,” Francie says. “I love my life.”

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