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ONTARIO PARENTS SAY NEW LAWS POSE THREAT TO SON'S TREATMENT

A new set of laws extending government control over persons with mental disabilities has come under attack as a government-knows-best approach that will cause more harm than good.

One couple has already gone to court to try to stop the Consent to Treatment Act and the Substitute Decisions Act, which go into effect next Monday, from being applied to their son.

Last week, the parents of 26-year-old Brian Singer asked Justice John White of the Ontario Divisional Court to allow their mentally disabled son to continue getting low-level electric shock treatment in the Southwestern Regional Center for the developmentally handicapped.

Though the treatments have proven effective, the Singers fear the new law will prevent such controversial therapies unless their son asks for them, which he is unable to do.

Though physically fit, Brian Singer "has been developmentally handicapped since childhood. He has no verbal skills and demonstrates autistic behavior," his mother, Brenda of Richmond Hill, said in her petition.

Before receiving "faradic stimulation" -- a low-amperage electric shock of less than one second on the fatty tissue of a limb -- Brian Singer was self-abusive, his mother said.

While in another medical center, "he would slap and punch himself, pull out his hair and bang his head on the nearest object or on his knee" whenever he was not tied in a straitjacket, she explained.

But within a few days of receiving the shock therapy in 1986, he was out of the straitjacket and could "ride his tricycle outside, swim and attend programs. He seemed happy, no longer the tearful, unhappy, frustrated and self-abusive person he was before the treatments," she added.

Despite this success story, under the new laws, parents or guardians no longer will be able to act on behalf of their loved ones without a signed, legal agreement. If a mental diability prevents a person from making an informed decision about treatment, the new Public Guardian and Trustee's Office will become the person's advocate.

Unable to have the new law delayed or current treatments continued under a "grandfather" clause, the Singers went to court.

Wednesday, the day after Justice White ruled in favor of the Singers, -- pending a decision on the constitutionality of the new law -- another application was made to continue shock therapy.

The current Public Trustee's Office was asked to approve continued shock treatment for another man whose behavior without it is "far more life threatening than Brian's," according to Dr. F.J. Barrera, the physician treating both men.

Judith Leon, executive director of the advocacy group Senior Link, said the new law allows "a stranger, with their own set of values, to determine what's best for someone, rather than leaving those decisions to the family."

Several years ago, she said, the Public Trustee's Office became involved in writing a will for an elderly woman with a cognitive disease.

The trustee told her husband "they were going to remove her engagement ring because by selling it and investing the money, it would give more profit to the estate than by leaving it on her finger, since she was no longer aware of it anyway," Ms. Leon said. That sent the husband into "a total panic."

Like the Singers, Ms. Leon fears "common sense" will be replaced by a "total nightmare" of bureaucracy.

Senior Link, she explained, often has to gently coax elderly people into improving their cleanliness habits or moving into a nursing home for their own good.

"Under the new law, we could become the villains because we're not doing what the senior wants -- which is nothing," she said.

Paddy Kamen, spokesman for the Advocacy Commission, said the commission will work with families, not against them. The main concerns, he added, would be such issues as sprinklers in seniors' homes, over-medication and the use of restraints in health-care facilities.

Arthur Fish, a lawyer who represents psychiatric patients and the families of persons with mental disabilities, said the new laws' bureaucracies and added regulations only will complicate the over-stressed mental-health system.

By trying to be all things to all people, he said, the new agency may end up spending too much time instituting policy and too little time dealing with real abuse.

For every case where a mental- health worker "was doing something questionable, I have seen maybe 100 where they have broken their backs trying to protect the person's dignity and rights. We should have targeted real abuse and neglect and left the rest alone," he added.

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