STELLA SIDELINED: RNC BRASS SHUT DOWN COMMUNITY WORK WITH MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT DOG
Source: CBC (Extract)
Posted: February 22, 2023
Last spring, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary’s therapy dog was invited into a St. John’s courtroom. The black and white Portuguese water dog sat at the feet of the complainant in a sexual assault case and waited while the judge read his verdict.
“It was commented that it was as if Stella knew what was about to happen or perhaps she sensed the tension building in the room. After the verdict was read, the victim was very upset, and Stella comforted [redacted], licking the tears off [redacted]’s face,” wrote an employee with victim services to the RNC last June.
“The victim was very happy to have Stella with [redacted] on such a difficult day.”
Despite that apparent success, people who made requests for the RNC’s trained police support dog between the end of July and mid-January were rejected or simply sent a generic emailed response. Community-based requests were unable to be accommodated.
Internal emails and documents obtained by CBC News through access-to-information requests show that dozens of community outreach or victim services requests were denied over that six-month period. However, three public relations photo ops were approved at the request of RNC leadership.
Behind the scenes, questions were being raised about where the dog was and what was happening with the program.
Now the man who donated Stella — and has privately backed multiple RNC initiatives — says he warned the justice minister that mental health programming was on shaky ground. Neither the RNC nor the minister is talking.
In July 2020, the RNC announced it was adding 17-week-old puppy Stella to its ranks.
The goal was for the dog to provide support for “officers, victims and survivors of violence, those struggling with their mental health, and those who simply require some comfort,” the force announced in a press release at the time.
“We also recognize the needs within our organization as it relates to operational stress injury, and critical incident stress. It is paramount that we provide a response to these issues and allow our community to engage in this response to promote the well-being of our community as a whole.”
Stella selected for mental health award
Among those Stella was supposed to help was her handler, Krista Fagan, who is a survivor of domestic violence and has post-traumatic stress disorder from her work as a constable.
Stella was trained by a retired RNC staff sergeant and, along with Fagan, went just about everywhere in the community to prepare her for work. In 2021, Fagan and Stella were selected as the Canadian Mental Health Association Newfoundland and Labrador leadership award recipients.
Steve Crocker, justice minister at the time, touted the service dog’s success when the duo was invited to the House of Assembly in October 2020.
“She will work with victims and survivors of violence and those struggling with a mental illness, provide reassurance to calm witnesses testifying during court procedures, and help those who simply require some comfort during difficult times — including her fellow officers of the RNC,” Crocker said in the legislature.
Mental health, community events denied
However, years later, that work has been curtailed.
Emails and handwritten notes from the last six months indicate Stella and her handler were available; they just weren’t being used outside of the RNC. It appears their only assignments were to stay at RNC headquarters and other detachments and conduct visits for employee wellness.
In handwritten notes — obtained by CBC News through access-to-information requests — Fagan appeared to be frustrated with the lack of progress.
“Teach children the DARE [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] program but told to leave Stella at HQ,” Fagan wrote in a note in January.
“Advised they were missing the mark on not having Stella present. She is trained to be in schools and is great with kids. More possibility of getting disclosure from kids and builds police rapport.”
A request from Eastern Health to attend a suicide awareness picnic was denied. So were requests from Choices for Youth, social workers and other local groups, some of which work directly with people Stella was trained to help.
Vale asked that Stella and Fagan attend the Voisey’s Bay mine in remote Labrador to help employee wellness, on the company’s dime. That too was denied.
However, Stella and her handler were asked to do a photo shoot with The Newfoundland Herald for a back-to-school edition of the since-discontinued magazine.
“Please have this organized ASAP. I want to know when the interview is taking place,” wrote Chief Patrick Roche in an email.
They were also asked to attend Tim Hortons Smile Cookie Day and do a photo op for the Growlers sports organization. The documents show those two requests came from Deputy Chief Colin McNeil.
On Aug. 5, 2022, Fagan’s supervisor wrote victim services, a division of the provincial Justice Department that helps victims navigate the court system, to say Stella and Fagan’s weekly meetings with staff there were put on hold.
The victim services employee continued to follow up, expressing disappointment at the visits having been halted.
“It is evident that the need for Stella and Krista to continue working with us does exist,” said Melissa Bruce, victim services program supervisor.
“We have had some very happy moments in the otherwise very dark place we sometimes are in our work with clients; not to mention the collateral benefit of employee health and wellness here too.”
Fagan’s supervisor said they too wanted to continue the partnership.
“In the short time we’ve collaborated the benefits are clear, and I am looking forward to the continuation of the same in the near future,” wrote Sam Burke, then director of the RNC’s employee health, safety and training division.
‘Where is Stella?’
Around that same time, social media posts from the beloved Portuguese water dog slowly tapered off. The RNC does not appear to have ever publicly addressed why.
People started taking notice.
“I am one of many who is wondering why RNC support dog Stella and Const. Krista Fagan have not been on social media lately?” someone wrote in an email, which the deputy minister of justice forwarded to Chief Roche.
“Stella and Const. Fagan went through intense training to get Stella certified as the province’s first support dog.… She and Const. Fagan have been a source of comfort and compassion to me since my life-altering illness.”
In an email dated Aug. 6, 2022, a unknown person emailed the justice minister expressing discontent with the RNC and its progress of mental health initiatives.
“Seems like anything Chief Joe Boland implemented for mental health support is being cancelled. I don’t know Chief Roche [redacted] I feel he is on a destructive mandate regarding mental health supports.”
Hogan assured the writer that the police dog service program had not been scrapped.
“I have spoken with [Roche] on this issue and the Stella support program has not been cancelled,” Hogan said.
“Thank you for your email and expressing your concerns regarding mental health. I can assure you it is something that the RNC and the Department of Justice continue to work on for staff and employees.”
The police dog program was funded by a private donor.
Everything was paid for by Jim Hynes, a business owner and philanthropist. Documents provided to CBC News show Hynes has donated over $342,000 on RNC initiatives since 2015. A large portion of those donations was for Stella.
In an interview, Hynes wanted to make one thing clear: it isn’t about the money. He doesn’t want any of it back. He doesn’t want any grand gesture of thanks.
“Supporting the officer is supporting the community, and it got off to a fantastic start and it was probably one of the most proudest things [I’ve] ever done in my life,” said Hynes in an interview this month.
“Stella was an olive branch to the community.”
Hynes said he wants his investments to be used for their intended purpose: to help the general public and RNC members who are struggling with mental health problems.
Hynes, who owns Sea-Force Technologies, began donating to the canine unit under former chief Bill Janes and expanded his donations under Janes’s successor, Joe Boland. He equipped dogs with night vision, GPS trackers and clothing. He built each handler kennels for their homes.
In 2020, Hynes paid for Stella, her training, branding materials like stickers, and a vehicle. He later signed a memorandum of understanding with the RNC and Newfoundland Pony Society to pay for two ponies indefinitely for the equine therapy program. He is now boarding one of the ponies on his dime, after the RNC shelved that program.
But beginning in 2021, Hynes said he was told by members of the mounted unit and police dog services they were instructed to cut off contact with him. And the force would not accept a donation he had previously agreed to, for Stella’s therapy dog certification in Columbus, Ohio.
Hynes said he contacted Justice Minister John Hogan in the fall of 2021 to express his concern. He subsequently had an in-person meeting the following year.
“I told him that I was concerned about Stella because in a conversation I had with Chief Roche he referred to Stella as the RNC mascot,” Hynes said.
“That was very uncalled for. That officer [Fagan] was injured. That little dog made her smile and made her happy. She whispered in my ear the first time I met her, she said, ‘You saved my life.'”
Hynes said he was later told he was too involved in the operations of the RNC — something he denies.
“I don’t have or never did [have] any operational involvement. I was interested in the community,” Hynes said.
“I’m just a guy who wanted to make a difference in the community.”
Interview requests denied
Trained police therapy dogs are not a new concept.
The York Regional Police Service added two therapy dogs to their force. The Ottawa Police Service uses a Labrador-retriever mix whose sole mission is to help soothe victims and witnesses of crime and trauma.
Roche declined an interview with CBC News. The RNC did not respond to a list of questions.
Hogan similarly declined an interview but provided an emailed statement.
“We support the RNC in delivering and enhancing policing services that it provides to communities,” Hogan’s statement noted.
“Through the working group established in response to the independent RNC workplace review, we acknowledge there is a lot of important work ongoing and more work to do to address findings in the report, including the adequacy of wellness supports for both police officers and civilian employees.”
The Department of Justice and Public Safety said in a statement that the RNC determines staffing and organizational requirements based on police operational needs.
It adds that the government, including the minister, does not give operational direction to police, who have independent authority to determine operations.
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