The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary chief of police is defending two officers' actions following a report condemning the use of handcuffs on a seven-year-old girl.
Wednesday's 20-page report from the province's child and youth advocate describes how police were called to respond to the child at a family violence shelter in St. John's. Two officers were brought on scene, one in uniform and one in plain clothes, along with support from the mental health mobile crisis unit.
Police said the response team officer and the uniformed officer placed the girl in handcuffs to protect others in the room and shelter property, according to the report.
The advocate, Jackie Lake Kavanagh, found that the officer's actions were neither proportional nor responsive to the particular needs and rights of the young girl, who was experiencing a mental health crisis at the time.
RNC Chief Joe Boland said Thursday he was initially shocked to hear that a seven-year-old had been put in handcuffs, but says the officer applied that restraint to avoid physical contact — and said the child accepted being placed in handcuffs as an alternative.
"The child quickly escalated the behaviour, and the officer had to deal with a situation with what was the least amount of physical contact that could be used here to try to gain control of the situation," Boland told The St. John's Morning Show.
"[The officer] suggested to the child handcuffs. The child turned around, put her hands behind her back, and the handcuffs were gently applied. There was no confrontation whatsoever with regards to placing the handcuffs on the child."
Boland said the child also a threw a small object — a crank used to open a window — which hit one of the officers during the response. The call ended with the child leaving with a paramedic and a police escort.
When asked if the use of handcuffs was justified, Boland reiterated police were trying to find a way to approach the situation without physical contact — even consulting with an expert in British Columbia to find the best approach, according to the police chief.
"You have to look at this [like] 'Do you put hands on a child and physically restrain the child? Or was this the better option?' The report came back, and suggested the officer made the appropriate call," he said.
"So in this case here, the decision was made, 'What would be the least intrusive [action] or cause the least amount of physical contact with the child.' And this decision was made."
Dr. Janine Hubbard, a child psychologist based in St. John's, said she was "disturbed and concerned" by how the events were reported by Kavanagh, saying a child in a similar situation to the seven-year-old might be experiencing some kind of trauma already.
"We know there are very, very rare occasions where physical restraint is an appropriate solution for a deregulated child. And that's usually when the child is putting themselves in extreme physical danger or potential for harm," Hubbard said.
"That's immediately going to have an impact on how a child is going to react when they feel threatened, when they feel frightened, when they feel scared. It needs to be handled from a trauma-informed perspective."
Incident highlights need for more training
Hubbard points out that adults de-escalate a child in crisis by setting the emotional tone in the room.
"Providing as calm, quiet and safe an environment as possible. Remembering you have a child who most likely is in a fight or flight response. That means they're not at a stage where they're listening to reasoning … so we need to regulate in other ways," she said.
Hubbard said the incident has highlighted the need for additional police training in mental health and trauma. Boland said that work has already begun within the RNC, with all officers scheduled for trauma-informed training in the fall.
"I don't think that police intervention is the right intervention. I think it was the reason why we created a mental health mobile crisis unit here ... I'd like to see it expanded, quite frankly," he said.
"We have made significant advancements here in trying to deal with a significant problem in our community.... We'll continue to work with our partners in the community to try to enhance our service."