What started as a routine check for wellness call turned out to be one of the most tragic events in Prince Rupert’s history.
Inside one of the first rooms entered by Constables Bryce Gladdish and Guillame Belanger after forcing their way into the home was 16-year-old Robert Robinson, lying on his mattress with a blanket, his arms over his chest looking “peaceful, as if asleep”. What officers could not have known until later was that Robbie’s body contained more than 100 times the therapeutic level of Lorazepam, the active ingredient in prescription drug Ativan, resulting in a lethal overdose.
After clearing more rooms on the main floor, the two officers entered the dining room. It was there that they discovered 40-year-old Angie Robinson, Robert’s mother, hanging from a beam, a chair kicked out below her in an otherwise tidy room. A note later found inside a jacket hanging in the entry door confirmed Angie had taken her own life.
What led a loving mother to take the life of her son, who suffered from severe autism, before taking her own life? And what could be done to prevent another family from having to endure the tragedy similar to that of the Robinson family?
Domestic violence, child security, addiction and the level of service available for families raising children with special needs all became the focus of a four-day coroner’s inquest held at the Prince Rupert Courthouse last week.
Life with Robbie
Despite the challenges life put in his path, many of those who spoke about young Robbie Robinson had nothing but positive things to say.
“He had a great sense of humour, liked to laugh, liked to listen to music, was happy and was fun to be around,” recalled Christine Danroth, a teacher at Charles Hays Secondary School who worked with Robbie in the life skills class.
But Robbie’s autism manifested itself in some behavioural challenges. The jury heard repeatedly that one of the ways Robbie would self-regulate his behaviour was to headbutt the wall or other objects around him. At school, administration had let teachers and staff know to give him room when those episodes of headbutting occurred.
“The first time I observed him headbutting, it was hard to watch. The first time he was on a bus on the way home, headbutting the window, and it was hard to watch because of the sound and the concern the window would break. The second time he was in behind the school and was headbutting concrete barricades and the sound was difficult to take,” recalled Charles Hays vice-principal Kevin Leach.
While Robbie could often be calmed down at the school or by taking an escorted walk, and he often would take Adivan himself if it was offered by staff, there were times when he could not be calmed. In those instances, Angie would be called to the school and Robbie would be sent home.
“In November 2009, she called and was concerned about his behaviour. He had goose bumps from headbutting at school and came home and dumped out laundry detergent and made a mess in other rooms … She was worried she would hurt him and didn’t know where to turn … at school there were four people looking after Robbie, but at home there was only one: Mom,” behavioural consultant Miriam Allen said.
The headbutting damaged the drywall in the Robinson home on several occasions and, in at least one instance near his 16th birthday, Robbie’s headbutting required police intervention.
“Robbie was out for a walk and a taxi driver on Sixth Ave. East called the RCMP. He had to make a quick stop, his windshield was heabutted by Robbie, breaking the window,” recalled Cpl. Josh Brownlee.
As well as headbutting, Leach noted Robbie’s days varied with what happened at home as he was “nocturnal” and would often stay awake for much of the night. He was also not toilet trained until 12 years of age.
But it was more than his behaviour that was a challenge. Robbie grew quickly, so much so that he was transferred from Conrad Elementary to the high school early in order to give him more room and additional life skills lessons. With his size came concerns about handling him. Robbie’s father, Robert Mutch, testified he was beginning to have difficulty controlling him and, on March 21, 2014, three RCMP officers were called to the Prince Rupert Regional Hospital to restrain the young man, including Const. Gladdish.
“Robbie was very strong. It required all three officers for 15 minutes to restrain him. Myself, on the right side, was only able to restrain his head and his right arm … Robbie also had a high level of energy and was able to resist the entire time. Normally people would get exhausted in that time frame, but Robbie did not,” said Const. Gladdish, saying he “felt sorry” for Angie at that moment and that the incident “made me think over the next couple of weeks of what it must be like for her”.
“I felt very sorry for Angie …. we were able to restrain him without harm only because we had three officers. If I was by myself, we would have fought and either he or I would have been hurt.”
That incident took place 11 days before Robbie’s body was discovered and is something Cpl. Josh Brownlee said stuck with Angie.
“That came up again and again in the investigation as a breaking point,” he said.
“The note left on the scene refers to ‘losing the war’ that night.”
At the same time as Angie was raising Robbie, she was involved in what Cpl. Brownlee called “a domestic relationship gone sour” with Robert Mutch.
Police were called to the house 14 times over the course of two years, many related to domestic disturbances. One police report, stemming from an incident on July 5, 2013, included allegations that Mutch had trapped Robinson under his weight and held his hand over her mouth. As a result, child protection worker Veronica Beynon was referred to the house.
“Angie said the police blew that out of proportion, She said it was 4 a.m. and Robert had come home and had been drinking and Angie was upset by that. She said she started yelling and Robert put his hand over her mouth and told her to be quiet or she would wake up Robbie. She said she got upset and called 911,” Beynon told the jury, adding Angie told her she had a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol in the home.
“She said when Robert drank he liked to argue with her. She downplayed the incident from what the RCMP had reported.”
Months after that, RCMP allege Mutch broke into the house by prying a padlock off the garage door. In that case, Angie declined to press charges or give a statement. However, Beynon testified she received four child protection referrals in 2013. However, no protection order was issued in relation to Robbie and the previous five referrals dating back to 2006 – including following a suicide attempt by Angie in February 2011 – were not presented as they were considered closed cases.
“On all occasions I spoke to her, she came across as a very strong woman who knew what she wanted in her home … not once did I get the impression she was scared or felt vulnerable at all,” said Beynon.
The jury was also told Angie had declined the offer for service from the North Coast Transition Society as the teenage Robbie would not be able to go with her and there was no transition service available for young men with special needs in Prince Rupert.
On the night Angie and Robert’s bodies were discovered, Cpl. Brownlee said RCMP found Mutch downtown and that he acknowledged the relationship was strained.
“He kept saying he understood what Angie had done, that she was under a lot of pressure, and was very candid that he contributed to that pressure. He admitted being an alcoholic who would drink and send text messages, texts that were cruel,” he said, alluding to 264 messages being sent in one night.
“When there is a child with high needs being cared for by one or both parents, there is significantly more pressure … I never appreciated the degree to which the pressure is debilitating and to the extent with which parents need to compromise their ability to work in order to care for a child.”
With so much happening in her life, Angie found solace in regular respite care for Robbie at a licenced facility in Terrace as there was no respite care available in Prince Rupert.
“Respite seemed to be the biggest assistance for the family. Respite is typically booked a month in advance and some families are organized enough to book a month in advance while others are not, but I booked an entire year of respite for her because I wanted to guarantee she had that available,” said Children and Youth with Special Needs social worker Cecile Fifi.
Stressing the importance of respite, when the number of guaranteed days was lowered from 10-14 days per month for other children with special needs to eight, Fifi worked to ensure Robbie and Angie still had 10 days per month available.
But as Robbie grew, the respite home in Terrace began to have concerns about hosting the large teen.
“For Robbie, he would break windows with his headbutting and that became a threat … he started to run up to other children, particularly those in wheelchairs, grab the back of the chair and headbutt the chair so the chair would come up,” said respite home supervisor Lisa Law, noting it was a concern for more than just children.
“He became a very large boy and started to push past staff and other children to get outside or get snacks … he just got too big and it became a safety concern.”
When those concerns were articulated to the Ministry of Children and Family Development in June, 2013, the decision was made to revoke Robbie’s respite access.
“I had a responsibility for the health and safety of the children in the respite home and made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend access to the respite home for Robbie, in consultation with my team leader,” said Terrace-based Fifi, who said Angie was put on the waitlist for individual respite care.
“We talked about her coping with Robbie and she said it was difficult because respite gave her the break she needed and then Robbie would come home. Now it was difficult because he was home all the time,” added Beynon.
While Angie was able to hire someone to help care for Robbie during the summer months, Beynon said it did not work out as well as Angie had hoped due to behavioural challenges, including Robbie taking off or refusing to put on his shoes or becoming agitated during walks.
“She was allotting two hours, but in 20 minutes the worker would be coming home,” she said.
Dating back to the first reference of difficulty coping with Robbie in 2009, Angie made it known that the services in Prince Rupert were simply inadequate.
Prior to April 3, the social worker for Children and Youth with Special Needs was based in Terrace, access to the respite home proved difficult due to distance and winter road conditions and the behavioural consultant was based in Kitimat and would “rarely come in the winter” and come “once per month” in the summer – with each trip taking more than $500 out of an allotted $6,000 fund provided to parents of children with autism.
“While [Robbie] was restrained I spoke with Angie who talked about the difficulty she was experiencing … she did not know what she could do any more to help Robbie or make it easier for herself … she had been asking the Ministry for help, but there was not additional help offered,” Const. Gladdish told the jury of the March 21 hospital incident.
“I know that, at times, it was difficult for them to get care because the level of service in the community is a challenge …. I know receiving respite care was a challenge,” said Leach.
Others acknowledged that, although they were not told so directly by Angie, there is insufficient services here on the North Coast.
“In the North it is a challenge to find workers … it is a challenge for parents to know where workers are in the community and who is available for work,” said social worker Fifi.
“In the Lower Mainland you could access that support just by driving to the location, but in Prince Rupert you would have to pay for airfare and accommodation, which is covered by funding but that is then $1,200 you can’t spend on other resources or equipment,” said Allen.
The lack of available services for young Robbie brought Danroth, his former teacher, to tears on the stand.
“I do know that there were limitations around where Robbie could go, but I am confident we could have found somewhere for him. I still wonder if we could have found somewhere for him locally,” she said before breaking down in the courtroom.
“There is 24-hour care available and I think if we could have made people more comfortable and helped people understand Robbie … I think there is somewhere in the province that could have taken him and done a good job for him.”
While nobody disputed that services were lacking for youth, with Community Living BC not offering services to people under the age of 19, both Fifi and Beynon said Angie was not as receptive to some support as one would expect.
“We tried to set her up with a parent support worker to provide support if she had an appointment or to help if she needed it … but it just seemed to be support Angie didn’t want,” said Fifi.
“I asked her if she wanted support for domestic violence and she said no. I talked to her about the women’s shelter and victim services and she declined. She said she could protect herself and her son and did that by calling the police,” said Beynon.
As well, Beynon noted Angie made it abundantly clear that her long-term plan included having Robbie in her care, even planning to move down south once her older son was established in post-secondary school.
Since the bodies of Angie and Robbie Robinson were discovered on April 3, 2014, the Ministry of Children and Family Development have made a number of changes, Beynon confirmed while being questioned by ministry counsel.
In 2014 all workers were given domestic violence training, something that had not been available before, and training was carried out to increase collaboration between child protection social workers and Children and Youth with Special Needs social workers. A new program has been put in place to screen referrals for domestic violence backgrounds and a child protection consultant has been put in place in the Prince Rupert office.
But the jury in the inquest felt more could be done and, after a full day of deliberations, released a list of 24 recommendations aimed at preventing another similar incident. These recommendations include increased training for child safety workers who work with children who have special needs, a review of the $6,000 funding cap for children with autism over the age of 6, increased assessment for caregivers of children with special needs to ensure they can provide adequate support and providing free autism training for parents. The jury also noted their concerns around the lack of support services in northern areas such as Prince Rupert and asked the Ministry of Children and Family Development to ensure training in rural and remote areas does not come from the $6,000 in funding and that the cost of transportation and availability are part of the ministry’s plan for children with special needs.
Based on the evidence provided and the events of April 3, 2014, one can only hope those recommendations can ensure another family never has to endure the tragic tale of Angie and Robbie Robinson.