July 14, 2011
“He was always so active,” said Marina Alfyorova of her son, Gleb. “I can’t imagine him locked in one room.”SUPPLIED PHOTO
Gleb Alfyorov thought he was going to a hospital for help.
So did the judge who ordered a 30-day psychiatric evaluation of the Pickering teen.
“I want you to be with a team of specialists — nurses and doctors who can meet with you and talk with you about things,” Judge Susan MacLean told the troubled 16-year-old who had been convicted of breaking his older sister’s nose.
That night, a police cruiser dropped Gleb at Syl Apps Youth Centre in Oakville, a jail which was not set up to assess or treat him.
Gleb was strip-searched, interviewed and directed to cell 12. A stunning series of miscommunications kept him from receiving help.
Twenty-nine days later, he hanged himself from a ceiling grate in his cell with his black shoelaces. It was five days after his 17th birthday.
Gleb’s death is the focus of an inquest that resumes next week.
His story and the Ashley Smith case reveal a justice system that is failing mentally ill youth. Smith, also the subject of an ongoing inquest, killed herself in a Kitchener prison after being bounced from one institution to another.
Gleb’s mother, Marina, said in an interview at her Pickering home that she thought the justice system would put him in a safe and secure place where he could be “made normal” again.
“Nobody cared,” said his mother. “They just locked him up.”
The inquest, which has heard 19 days of testimony from social workers, nurses, doctors, lawyers and jail staff, has not heard from Marina. She told the Star she wants her son’s story told so that he would “not be forgotten.”
Gleb was born with bright blue eyes and blond hair on May 8, 1991, in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan.
Toward the end of his life, he described his childhood to a social worker as “pure awesomeness.”
Back home he was in a gifted program at school and excelled at math. He was an altar boy at church.
But the “soft soul” who gave away “hundreds of kisses” gradually disappeared after the family immigrated to Canada when Gleb was 11, settling in Pickering.
The parents separated. In his early teens, Gleb started drinking and smoking marijuana. He insisted people refer to him by the name “Russian.” He wore baggy jeans and oversized T-shirts that hung off his bony shoulders. He became fascinated with decorative knives and swords.
At 15, he used one to hold up a convenience store.
Soon after, he was expelled from high school. In an ill-conceived prank, he tried to clip the hair of a student sitting in front of him. The student turned suddenly and the scissors cut his arm.
Those two incidents propelled him into the court system, which put him on probation. In Ashley Smith’s case, she was first jailed in New Brunswick for throwing crabapples at a postman.
The inquest has heard contrasting descriptions of Gleb from the social workers, doctors, nurses, lawyers and jail staff who had contact with him during his four months in custody.
Some say he was cooperative, others uncooperative. One worker said he was polite; a psychologist said he was psychotic. He was a victim, said a youth service manager, while a social worker called him a bully. Academically gifted, one report said; challenged was the description in another.
His mental illness was clear to most.
Gleb told a youth counsellor at Durham Family Court Clinic that he was “chosen to save the planet from the universe” because machines were masquerading as men. The teen said he could tell them apart and talk telepathically.
A few months later, in January 2008, he was arrested and charged with beating up his older sister. He broke her nose. In court, Gleb insisted on pleading guilty and waived his right to a lawyer.
Judge Kofi Barnes in Oshawa accepted the plea but ordered a report to assess Gleb’s mental state and aid the court in sentencing.
Gleb was sent to Brookside Youth Centre, a jail in Cobourg, that January to await the assessment and sentencing. The assessment, which can be performed relatively quickly, is not the intensive 30-day psychiatric evaluation a judge would later order to see if Gleb was criminally responsible for his actions.
At Brookside, Gleb was escorted to Martin House, reputed to hold the most troublesome youth.
“It was designated like a jail,” Ralph Hull, a psychiatrist, told the inquest. It was not uncommon for youth to be “handcuffed to the bed or have two staff with them.”
Following complaints from other youth, the provincial advocate for children and youth toured Brookside and its solitary confinement unit five months after Gleb’s death. In a report, the conditions were described as “depressing, dark and inhumane.” Bugs, bodily excretions and generally filthy conditions were noted throughout the cells.
At Brookside, jail staff immediately began referring to Gleb’s behaviour as “bizarre.”
Gleb said he wanted help “to straighten out his thinking.” He requested antidepressants and was put on a low dosage of Celexa.
The inquest heard that during a family visit, Gleb turned to his father, Andrey, and said: “I love you but I don’t want to see you here anymore.” Gleb stood up, looked as though he was about to cry and left the room.
A psychologist at Brookside met Gleb twice. The second time Gleb kicked the table, lifting it off the ground. In a memo, the psychologist, John Satterberg, advised staff that at the “slightest deviation from acceptable behaviour,” Gleb should be taken to solitary confinement.
Records and testimony at the inquest show that Gleb was put in solitary for making “strange noises” at night (another youth said it was like “a spirit comes out of him”), for fighting another youth who had jumped him in court and for not eating breakfast.
“He was always so active, jumping around, playing basketball, hip-hop dancing,” his mother said in an interview. “I can’t imagine him locked in one room.”
The snapshot assessment of Gleb was coordinated by a social worker who, at the inquest, said she was not sure if she was qualified to do such a report. With input from a psychiatrist and a psychologist, the social worker wrote that the court should consider Gleb’s “significant mental health issues when sentencing.” She also recommended that the court consider sending Gleb to a secure treatment facility to evaluate and treat his “very serious mental health and very serious substance abuse issues.”
On April 2, Gleb appeared before Judge Barnes, who had ordered the snapshot assessment.
Standing in court, the teen spoke for himself: “Sir, it’s a very simple case,” he said. “I have assaulted my sister and I have pled guilty to it. Can I please get out on time served?”
The judge was sympathetic.
“I understand your frustration,” he said.
Gleb was restless, erratic.
“All right,” the judge said. “I’m not going to do it today, but this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to give you a chance to say what you want to say.”
“Okay,” Gleb said. “It’s a bit weird, though, the defence, I must say. It involves a lot of schizophrenic s—t. Like, all of you are schizophrenic, and all of you know it. And I’m the God of all the gods, and all of you know it. I stand in front of you in these handcuffs and all of you know it. And I deserve to be outside, just like everybody else in this courtroom. Now, why am I stuck inside and not doing anything? Why am I stuck inside in Brookside where people spit in the food?”
Judge Barnes said he had “very serious concerns” about Gleb’s mental state and in a later hearing noted Gleb was saying things that “make me wonder how he is going to survive in a correctional institution.”
The Crown agreed another, more in-depth assessment was in order. This assessment would determine if Gleb was criminally responsible for assaulting his sister.
The idea of another month in jail weighed on Gleb. He would miss his 17th birthday, and his mother’s birthday. He tried to find a lawyer to help him simply serve his sentence but became frustrated and gave up.
He arrived again in court on April 14, 2008, his face stained with tears. Judge Barnes was busy on another case. Judge Susan MacLean was in court and asked how he was feeling. “I was crying about my mom,” he said.
A friendly duty counsel, Jeffrey Ludlow, volunteered to help find a hospital that could perform the fuller psychiatric assessment.
Ludlow found a facility that could provide a psychiatrist but not a bed.
He also spoke with Richard Meen, the psychiatrist who reviewed Gleb for the snapshot assessment. Meen was the clinical director at Syl Apps, a privately run but government-funded youth jail that also had a small, secure, hospital-like setting where it treated mentally ill kids.
“At least he’ll be in a hospital setting and not in a jail,” MacLean said.
Gleb was out of options but he agreed a hospital sounded better than staying at Brookside.
Gleb awoke April 15 at Syl Apps, not in the hospital-like wing but in the larger secure-custody detention side, sharing a unit with youth who were serving time after being convicted of crimes.
Ludlow, the lawyer who coordinated the transfer, later told the inquest that at the time he did not realize the facility even had a jail.
When the cell door opened, Gleb saw a group of women (jail guards, as it turned out) in the main office. With a goofy grin he asked if they wanted to have an orgy. The guards pushed panic buttons and male staff came running.
Gleb was put on a “sexual aggression plan” and escorted at all times by two male guards. A daily tracking log was to be created to monitor his behaviour. It was rarely used.
Gleb seldom left his cell and staff infrequently went in.
Though the staff at Syl Apps included a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a doctor, a nurse, an art therapist, recreation workers, social workers and youth service officers, few interacted with him, the inquest heard.
One who did, Dr. Jennifer Felsher, later told the inquest she had no idea why Gleb was at Syl Apps.
Her supervisor, Richard Meen, who had earlier worked on the sentencing assessment, also told the inquest he was in the dark, thinking Gleb was at Syl Apps for a second snapshot assessment. It wasn’t until after Gleb’s death that Meen, in preparation for the inquest, learned he was there for an assessment of criminal responsibility.
The inquest heard Meen received at least two documents, a court order and a letter from the Crown attorney, explaining why Gleb was at Syl Apps. Meen said they were “missed as to their import.”
Inside cell 12, Gleb ate every meal alone. He wrote disjointed messages on his wall in pencil about hate and suffering. At night he screamed out, “Rescue me!”
Jurors at the inquest asked Meen why he did not complete the assessment. Meen said he was travelling across Ontario giving speeches on preventing youth suicides and working with a native community in northern Ontario to reduce its suicide rate among young people. Meen said he did not believe Gleb to be at risk of suicide.
The inquest heard that Syl Apps staff blamed the boy for being “uncooperative” and the province for taking too long to send over additional funds to pay for the evaluation. The inquest was told the $3,500 for the assessment was approved April 24.
With time running out on the 30 days allotted to complete the assessment, Syl Apps asked for an extension. A social worker wrote a letter on May 13, the day Gleb was sent back to court.
With no evaluation done, MacLean told Gleb he would have to go back to Syl Apps for another month.
“If I have mental issues, why am I in jail?” he asked. “I just want to go home and I just want to be with my family.”
The judge said she could not deal with the matter and told the teen to return the next day.
Gleb’s mother told the Star she showed up in Oshawa court to see her son but a Russian interpreter said Gleb was “not on the list.”
She went home and wrote a note in her diary: “Thinking about kids. What happened. What I’ve done wrong as a parent.”
Police returned Gleb to Syl Apps sometime after 8:30 p.m.
He was last seen on a video monitor entering cell 12 with a plate of microwaved spaghetti.
Jail staff were supposed to make sure Gleb’s laced sneakers were placed outside his door before it locked at 9 p.m. — a standard suicide prevention measure. Guards were supposed to look in on him every 15 minutes.
Fifty-six minutes passed before a guard checked and found him dangling from shoelaces fed through a metal cage that covered the ceiling smoke detector.
On May 14, 2008, just after lunch, Gleb Alfyorov finally arrived at a hospital.
He was rolled into the autopsy room in the basement of Hamilton General. Zipped inside a white body bag.