Amanda Henry was out grocery shopping when she got a message on her phone from a Toronto police officer. Her children, the officer said, were in good health, but she needed to get back to her apartment right away.
In a panic and fearing that something was wrong, the single mother of five rushed home that day in October 2016 to find the police officer in her apartment with two of her daughters, then aged 11 and 9. The officer believed there was a law that children under 12 couldn’t be left alone, according to what he later told a police oversight body.
What happened next at her building led to a substantiated complaint about police misconduct and a lawsuit in which Henry, a federal civil servant and daughter of a former Toronto police officer, alleges she was racially profiled, discriminated against, wrongfully detained and assaulted in what police say was a well-being check on her kids.
Henry, who is Black, Muslim and wears a hijab, believes the encounter — which would involve three additional officers in her home — “was a form of Islamophobia because of how Muslims have been and continue to be portrayed in the media. This was only compounded by the fact I am a young Black woman,” she told the Star, as is similarly alleged in her lawsuit.
Her suit states she was “detained and arrested because she is a young Black Muslim woman and for no other lawful reasons.”
The suit names four police officers and the Toronto Police Services Board as defendants. Henry is seeking $1.1 million in damages for pain, suffering and mental distress, and for alleged human rights code and charter breaches.
Toronto police and the police board would not comment for this story, citing the fact that the case is before the courts. In a statement of defence filed on behalf of the officers and the board, police deny Henry’s allegations, which have not been proven in court.
While police laid out a sequence of events in their defence document that has similarities to Henry’s, police deny they were negligent “or engaged in any kind of wrongful or malicious behaviour or negligent infliction of mental distress, discrimination, malfeasance of public office, abuse of power” and any violation of Henry’s rights, their statement of defence states.
“The Defendants at all times acted properly, lawfully, and within the scope of their duties.”
The following account of what happened that day is based on allegations in Henry’s statement of claim, an interview with her, a police version of events from the statement of defence and a 40-page investigative report prepared by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), a civilian oversight agency.
The OIPRD report includes summaries of interviews with Henry, witnesses and police. The OIPRD found all three of Henry’s allegations — that police had no lawful reason to enter her apartment, no lawful reason to detain her and used excessive force — to be substantiated in its investigation, meaning there was enough evidence to recommend three misconduct charges against the first officer on scene.
The recommended misconduct case was never prosecuted. Police would not discuss what happened, as is standard unless charges end up before the police tribunal. Henry’s lawyer, Dave Shellnutt, told the Star “the police complaint system failed her.”
Asked about what happened with the complaint, a spokesperson for the police board noted that the Police Services Act mandates “that we ‘shall preserve secrecy’ with respect to such information except in limited enumerated circumstances.”
The Star emailed the officer in late September, seeking comment on the allegations and the OIPRD report, and received an out of office reply instructing that messages for him could also be left at his division. The Star did so, and asked that police corporate communications attempt to confirm that the officer knew of this story. While a supervisor was aware, police could not confirm the officer was.
A different lawyer who helped Henry with the complaint process told the Star the complaint didn’t proceed due to time limits being exceeded.
Hence, the lawsuit, said Shellnutt.
“We want to send a message that this kind of aggressive and intimidating policing is not good for the community, and it’s not good for relationships between the police and the community and we need to make an example out of cases like these,” Shellnutt said of the allegations.
There have been many times — too many to count, she said — that Amanda Henry, 34, has been pulled over by police “for really ridiculous reasons,” including one time for driving for too long a period with a spare tire, she said in an interview with the Star. The stops started when she was around 20, she said, and continued over many years.
Each time, she would mention that her father is a former Toronto police officer, and that was a “saving grace” in each encounter, which otherwise, she feels, “could have gone quite differently.”
On Oct. 25, 2016, her father would become a witness by phone to what happened in Henry’s North York apartment, within Toronto police 33 Division, and was later interviewed by the OIPRD in its investigation.
A document server had dropped by her apartment earlier that day to find the two girls there, and a supervisor called police. An officer — the Star is not naming him because he could not be reached for comment — arrived to “check on the well-being of the unattended children,” police say in their statement of defence.
That officer believed there was a law that children under 12 could not be left alone, and was not familiar with the guidelines around leaving children alone. That, plus the fact that he had no grounds to enter the apartment, the OIPRD investigation found, is where the trouble began.
When Henry left her daughters for a medical appointment and to get groceries, she knew that in Ontario there is no law that sets out a minimum age at which a child can be left unattended for short periods. It’s a judgment call, based on the maturity and confidence of the children.
“One 11-year-old may feel comfortable being left alone, and knows what to do in case of an emergency, while another … may feel nervous and unsure of himself,” reads a “Home Alone” guide for parents prepared by the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto.
Henry told the Star she also knew directly from the children’s aid society about such things, since the society was automatically in her life because she had her first child at age 15, and a worker had given her “approval” to leave her 11-year-old in charge.
When Henry arrived home, the officer was in the apartment and having a telephone conversation with a children’s aid society worker, and, according to her account in the OIPRD report, immediately asked her if she was the mother and had she had been drinking.
“I just thought that was really an odd question to be greeted at the door with,” Henry, who does not drink and is visibly identifiable as Muslim, told the Star. The officer continued to talk on the phone and stayed in the apartment.
According to the OIPRD report, the worker told the officer that, “in his opinion, a child under 12 … should not be left unattended” and “opened a file to be further investigated” by the society.
The officer told the OIPRD that he had also looked in the fridge and “observed there was no food.”
Henry’s son, then 16, arrived home and headed off to play video games.
Henry got on the phone with her father, and told the officer of her father’s background. At one point, Henry told the Star and the OIPRD, she was told she was not under arrest, and her father, listening in on everything, told her she could just leave.
The officer started asking questions and Henry, told the Star she knew “I didn’t need to answer the questions if there was no investigation happening, and I asked the officer to leave the apartment. He obliged and he left, so I thought that was it. So my girls and I started to head out of the apartment. I locked the door and I started to head down the hallway.”
Henry told the OIPRD the same sequence of events, as noted in the report.
The officer told the OIPRD he ended the call with the children’s aid society by telling the worker he would call back once he got the names and ages of the girls.
There are no provisions in what was then called the Ontario Child and Family Services Act or “relevant policies that indicate a police officer who is reporting a case of child protection should attempt to obtain information on behalf” of a children’s aid society “or initiate an investigation,” the OIPRD report states, in concluding the officer had no “lawful authority” to enter the apartment.
At this point, according to the police statement of defence, the officer knew there had been “prior (children’s aid) involvement with the family but was unaware of the details” and was “concerned” by Henry’s “lack of co-operation.”
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Once in the hallway, Henry and her girls headed for the stairwell and the officer followed and according to Henry’s lawsuit, “repeatedly demanded that they identify themselves.”
Henry told the OIPRD she advised the officer that she “didn’t have time for this” but, if it was really necessary, she would “meet him at the police station and she would provide those details.”
The officer told the OIPRD that he told Henry that “you cannot leave until you have identified yourself because I don’t know who you are and you’re taking these kids away. It’s my duty as a police officer to ensure the well-being and safety of the children.”
According to Henry’s suit, the officer “then violently grabbed and pulled Ms. Henry forcibly by the right arm and refused to let her go.”
In the statement of defence, police say the officer “placed a hand on her arm” and tried to prevent her from leaving. Police say she was not under arrest, but rather was “subject to an investigative detention.” The officer also told the OIPRD he did not pull Henry’s arm.
“Any injuries that (Henry) may have sustained resulting from the reasonable force used were solely caused by (Henry’s) own actions towards the officers,” police allege in their statement of defence.
The OIRPD investigation found there was “physical force applied,” that Henry had been “unlawfully arrested” and that the force used was “not authorized” and “excessive.”
Henry suffered a torn rotator cuff in her right shoulder, which was confirmed by her doctor, the OIPRD report notes.
She was not handcuffed, nor charged with any offence. But she was now told she was under arrest, “for no reason and without warning … in front of her children,” her suit states.
Henry, still on the phone with her father and relaying what was happening, returned to the apartment with the children. Meanwhile a police supervisor arrived, and when Henry tried to close the door, the supervisor put his foot in the door, she told the Star and the OIPRD.
The supervisor, a sergeant, told the OIPRD Henry was “hostile” toward police, “excited” and asked him if she was under arrest. He told her she was not and assured her that “everything was going to be OK.”
Two more officers arrived. They all, according to Henry’s lawsuit, entered “her home without consent.”
The officers “proceeded to harass, stalk, and intimidate Ms. Henry and her children,” states her statement of claim. Police, in the statement of defence, say the officers’ actions were not “oppressive, highhanded, extreme, harsh, vindictive, reprehensible, malicious, nor did they offend any sense of decency.”
She sent the girls to their rooms and decided to clean the hallway, and all four officers followed her, she told the OIPRD.
“I asked them why they were following me, why all four needed to follow me, and they’re, like, ‘We need to speak to the girls,’” she told the Star.
She decided at that point that it was best to co-operate. She brought the girls into the living room, and while the police supervisor spoke with her in the kitchen, the other officers spoke to the girls.
Henry told the OIPRD the police supervisor also believed there was a law about leaving children under 12 unattended. A short while later, the officers with her children told Henry they “they got what they came for.”
The sergeant told the OIPRD he apologized, and tried to shake Henry’s hand before police left but she was having none of it. The four officers left.
Her girls were left traumatized by the arrest, said Henry. One of them started to have behavioural problems at school and now has a social worker assigned, said Henry.
As for herself, her shoulder requires ongoing physiotherapy and rehab, and she continues to get mental health help, she said. She also avoids contact with police.
Aside from the damages she seeks, Henry would like police to “become familiar with the law and not continue to infringe on citizen rights. I don’t want them to feel like they’re above the law.”
In Ontario, some children’s aid societies offer guidelines around age minimums for leaving children alone.
It is common for parents, particularly those who are single and working, to make these judgment calls on leaving children home alone, and using transit on their own.
Treisha Hylton, an assistant professor at Ryerson University’s School of Child and Youth Care, said studies have shown parents leave their kids unsupervised a lot, but who gets reported depends quite often on race and stereotypes around parenting competence.