TORONTO – Ontario’s premier vowed Thursday to get answers on how a patient detained at a mental health hospital for killing his roommate managed to flee, calling the man a “nutcase,” as two organizations involved launched internal reviews.
Zhebin Cong, who was found not criminally responsible for the death of his roommate, had been on an unaccompanied trip into the community from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health on July 3 when he failed to return, the hospital said.
CAMH said it reported the 47-year-old’s disappearance later that day to police, who issued a notice asking for the public’s help in finding the man nearly two weeks later. Police say Cong has fled the country and they are working with international law enforcement agencies to track him down.
Toronto police have said CAMH told them Cong presented a low risk to public safety, but the Ontario Review Board, which evaluates the status and assesses the risk of anyone found not criminally responsible, found in its most recent decision in April that he continued to pose a significant threat to public safety.
Premier Doug Ford phoned in to a talk radio show Thursday on NewsTalk1010 to say he’s “disgusted.”
“What is the family thinking of the poor victim that got chopped up with a meat cleaver by this nutcase and then they let him loose out on the streets,” he said.
Ford said he would be speaking with Toronto police, the review board and CAMH.
“Someone’s going to be answering because if you’re calling this low risk, what is high risk?” he said. “These crazy, crazy people that want to go around chopping people up, they’re out on the streets.”
Ford sent letters Thursday to CAMH, the police and federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, urging them to conduct reviews. The first two organizations have already said they are doing so.
“It is vital that your government act to restore the public’s trust in the procedures in place to ensure that this never happens again,” Ford wrote to Goodale. “Mr. Cong should not have been able to leave the country while detained at CAMH.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory called on the provincial government to launch an independent review.
“I believe such a review could work with CAMH and the Ontario Review Board to address issues related to Mr. Cong’s disappearance from the facility and the city, but there are other questions which go well beyond that and which require answers if the public is to be confident that this kind of thing won’t happen again,” Tory said in a statement.
He said important questions include when the police were notified, what they were told, did Cong have a passport, and how did he manage to leave the country given his status.
Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said she wasn’t ruling out such a review, but would wait for CAMH and police to conduct theirs first before deciding.
A spokesman for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale didn’t answer a question on whether the federal government was looking into how Cong left the country.
“The recent passage of our Entry/Exit legislation will require airlines to share their passenger manifests in advance, enabling law enforcement to better respond to the outbound movement of known high-risk travellers before their actual departure,” Scott Bardsley said in a statement.
WATCH: John Tory says there appears to be ‘number of shortcomings in the system’ over missing CAMH patient
CAMH said it is doing an internal review and is reassessing all existing passes and privileges for patients, especially those who have unsupervised access to the community.
President and CEO Catherine Zahn said in response to the premier’s comments that the hospital takes the incident extremely seriously.
“The mental health system has moved from resignation to recovery, and from institutionalization to integration,” she said in a statement.
“Nevertheless, it is clear that there is still work to do to address misperceptions surrounding mental illness, as well as the prejudice and discrimination faced by those who live with mental disorders.”
The CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association called the premier’s language unfortunate.
“We understand the concerns about the safety of all of our citizens and I share the premier’s concern on that front, but we’re in the business of breaking down stigma and raising the narrative of how we talk about mental illness as a society,” said Camille Quenneville.
“So that kind of language is very disappointing. It makes it much more difficult for individuals who are struggling to step forward and seek the help that they need…There are many, many people who have a diagnosis of schizophrenia who lead healthy, productive lives. I don’t want the public to believe that that diagnosis is automatically going to lead to violent behaviour.”
Jones, when asked about Ford’s comments, said “emotions are high right now.”
“The individual in question, frankly, did a very heinous crime so the community is concerned,” she said. “What the premier was communicating was the strong emotion that people feel about ensuring their safety is protected.”
Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said Thursday that in addition to investigating how Cong fled – including checking if he received help to leave the country – the force is doing an internal review to look at their own processes, training and communication with community agencies.
“I can clearly say there were some gaps,” he said. “The fact that this was reported to us on July 3rd and then…it’s 11 days before it goes out to the public. That definitely causes some issues for us to have a look at. That’s the first thing I’m going to do.”
Records from the Ontario Review Board show Cong killed his roommate with a meat cleaver in 2014 and was found non-criminally responsible on a charge of second-degree murder as a result of his mental illness.
Cong was an in-patient at the secured forensic unit of CAMH and deals with schizophrenia, the records show.
He was granted a pass to the community by medical officials that allowed him to leave the hospital for a fixed purpose on the condition that he return at a fixed time.
In its April decision, the board found Cong’s condition had slightly improved with ongoing anti-psychotic medication, but that he did not fully understand his mental illness, its symptoms and his risk of relapse and violence.
Review boards – independent tribunals made up of at least five people, including at least one psychiatrist – conduct annual reviews of people found NCR and can order that the person remain detained in a hospital, with varying levels of privileges, release the person on a conditional discharge or order an absolute discharge, based on risk.
The review board system lets NCR people into the community – once they’re deemed ready – for short periods of time under close supervision to see how well they can cope. If they do well, they can be granted more privileges at subsequent hearings, step by step. If they don’t fare well, the review board pulls the reins of supervision a little tighter.
— With files from Shawn Jeffords