Sunday, February 10, 2008

The life and death of Tiffany Pinckney

Tiffany Pinckney died on April 2, 2005, in a filthy windowless basement under a fancy four-bedroom home in a well-off neighbourhood in Mississauga, Ontario. She was autistic. She died of starvation at the age of 23, having been neglected to death. She was skin and bones, when she died. She was found to have brain damage (Central Pontine Myelinolysis) consistent with malnutrition and deprivation of or inadequate provision of water.

I didn't hear about her until she had been dead for several months. At the end of July, 2005, after an extensive investigation, police laid charges against Tiffany's older sister Allison Cox and her husband Orlando Klass. Reports of these charges (failure to provide the necessities of life; criminal negligence causing death) were the first mentions of the death of Tiffany Pinckney in the media.

It was in Ms Cox and Mr Klass' basement that Tiffany died. It's possible that she died while Ms Cox, who had been Tiffany's legal guardian for seven years, attended a birthday party with her children.

In June, 2007, Mr Klass pleaded guilty to the charge of criminal negligence causing death. He did not go to jail. He was sentenced to two years of house arrest. Meanwhile, Ms Cox was additionally charged with manslaughter in Tiffany's death.

Here is a bit about the life and death of Tiffany Pinckney. The information comes from media reports about her death in 2005 (from the National Post and the Toronto Star, among others), and media reports in October and November, 2007, about the trial of Allison Cox (from the Toronto Star and the Missisauga News).

Tiffany Pinckney was born in the U.S. and lived there with her mother until the early 1990s, when they moved to Canada.

Tiffany was born with a heart defect, and was diagnosed as "mentally challenged" when she was four. She was diagnosed autistic when she was 10 (which would be circa 1992).

When Tiffany was 16, in 1998, her mother died of cancer. Ms Cox became Tiffany's legal guardian and principal caregiver.

The first reports I read about Tiffany's death (e.g., in the Toronto Star, July 27, 2005) suggested that she had been neglected for a long time--possibly more than seven years. This would be the entire time she was under the care of Ms Cox. Some of the reported testimony at Ms Cox's trial was consistent with this.

For example, a teacher at the school Tiffany attended until 2003 (when she would have been 21) testified about Tiffany's poor condition (weight loss, obvious lack of care, "she did not look well") going back to her teens. The same testimony suggested that at this school, Tiffany was loved. She "loved music." She was considered "lots of fun" and "great." She was "excited and happy" taking the bus to school but "upset" returning home to the care of Ms Cox (all from the Toronto Star, October 12, 2007).

There was also testimony from various sources that Ms Cox persistently refused offers of assistance and services in caring for Tiffany. Also, Tiffany was not taken to see a doctor in the last five years of her life.

But neither those who witnessed Tiffany's deterioration at school, nor those whose services were refused, did anything to ensure that Tiffany was getting at least the minimum of necessary care. One of Tiffany's teachers testified that if Tiffany had been 3 years old, she "would have called the Children's Aid Society" (also from the Toronto Star, October 12, 2007). But this teacher did not do anything and nor did anyone else.

In August of 2004, Tiffany was moved by Ms Cox to a four bedroom home, described in the National Post as being on a street "lined with two-storey homes and well-kept lawns."

Here, Tiffany was kept in an unfinished windowless basement room with bare walls. She slept on a deflated air mattress on plywood or pressboard. There was no toilet in the basement. There was no running water. No source of food. Neighbours reported being totally unware that Tiffany existed.

There was a lock, on the door down to the basement. And this door had been reinforced by the addition of weather stripping. So Tiffany was both locked and sealed into the basement.

Upstairs, there was a lock on the refrigerator.

She died of starvation over a long period of time, losing more than 100 pounds. When she died, she weighed 84 pounds and was described as "skeletal." There was expert testimony that adequate provision of food and water could have saved her life.

At her death, she was caked in dirt, urine and feces, as was the room she lived in, where the stench was reported as being appalling. She looked exactly how any person locked and sealed into a basement for many months and denied access to food, water, a toilet, the light of day, etc., might be expected to look.

It is hard to imagine how much Tiffany must have suffered.

On February 2, 2008, Ms Cox was convicted of manslaughter by Judge Joseph Fragomeni. She has been free on bail since her original arrest, and will remain free until she is sentenced in May, 2008.

While I have been writing about Tiffany Pinckney sporadically since 2005, it has taken me a long time to write this short and totally inadequate post about her life and death.

In trying to write this, I've often stopped and wondered if Tiffany had ever, in the months she was dying, sealed and locked in the basement, tried to escape. Maybe she had been neglected for too long, was too sick and weak. Maybe she had been, as many autistics are, successfully discouraged from any behaviours involved in escaping. Also I am thinking of her when she was younger and not yet dying, getting "upset" on the bus going home, after enjoying her day at school. It seems to me that she was communicating something important. Possibly, she communicated this important thing many, many times and when this made no difference (perhaps she was considered to be misbehaving) she stopped. I've often stopped and wondered whether she would be alive if someone, anyone, had listened.