It was a tragic event.

On Wednesday, July 24, 2013 around 8:00 am, members of the Winnipeg Police Service responded to #3 Coleridge Park Drive in response to a “check the well-being call” after receiving a troubling 911 call.

Upon arrival, Police located the lifeless bodies of Anna (2) & Nicholas (3 months) in the bathtub of the residence.  The children were transported to the hospital in critical condition and could not be revived.

The children’s mother, Lisa Gibson (32) was nowhere to be found.  Her husband, Brian Gibson had left the home earlier that morning to go to work.

Over twenty (20) Police Units, including K9, Underwater Search & Rescue, Harbour Patrol and members of the Fire Department participated in a desperate search to find the young mother.

On July 27, 2013 at 9:30 am, Police recovered the deceased body of Lisa Gibson from the fast flowing waters of the Red River.  An autopsy was conducted but no details were released regarding her cause of death.  Nor were any details released regarding her children’s cause of death.  (There is little doubt that Lisa and her children all died as a result of drowning.)

After the tragic incident, much was written regarding Lisa Gibson’s fragile emotional state and the fact that she may have suffered from postpartum depression and/or postpartum psychosis.

Media reports and public sentiment appeared to be overwhelmingly sympathetic and supportive towards Gibson who was largely viewed as a victim in the tragedy.  That sympathetic attitude seemed to be shared by the Winnipeg Police Service who have yet to include the names of the Gibson children in their Homicide statistics for 2013.

That reluctance troubles me and strikes me as being highly unusual.

The official party line is the “investigation is ongoing,” and as such, the children have not been classified as victim’s of Homicide.

I ask you, does that make any sense?

There are four (4) categories that every death falls into;

  • Accidental
  • Natural
  • Suicide
  • Homicide

We know the Gibson children didn’t die of natural causes, accident or suicide so why the reluctance to call it what it is?

Is the stigma attached to Postpartum Depression & Psychosis so incredibly disturbing to us that we can’t be honest and admit that this form of mental illness is so serious that it could drive a middle class young mother to murder her own defenceless children.

Is the stigma attached to this form of mental illness so disturbing that not even the Police Force wants to acknowledge the truth.

The recent murder of Phillepp Amos caused me to wonder just how long this denial will continue.  In reporting the case the Winnipeg Free Press published a story calling Amos’ killing the 19th murder for 2013.  Within hours, that number was changed and the murder was reported as the 17th killing in Winnipeg this year.

I wondered about the conversation that prompted that change.

It was an interview I heard on CJOB that really opened my eyes to the magnitude of the stigma attached to this form of mental illness.  When asked to comment on the tragedy Premier Greg Selinger said, “Just a horrible situation to see a young family like that decimated by suicide and….loss of children.”

It was the awkward way the words came out of Selinger’s mouth that struck me.  The Gibson children weren’t “lost” I thought, they were murdered by a mother suffering from a serious form of mental illness.  Why not tell it like it is?  Why the need for a politically correct sugar-coating?

If Lisa Gibson had not taken her life I have little doubt she would have been found not criminally responsible for the deaths of her children.

Stigma is a negative stereotype.

The Canadian Mental Health Association tells us the stigma attached to mental health conditions can be so pervasive that people who suspect they might have a mental health condition are unwilling to seek help for fear of what others may think.

In my opinion, the failure of the Premier and the Police Service to acknowledge the Gibson children were murdered is a failure in leadership and a failure to confront the truth.  This failure only adds to the stigma of this serious form of mental illness.

Let us engage in the difficult conversation and confront mental health issues like postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis.

Let us learn from tragedy and look at the needs of our community vs the resources available to us.

Let us not pretend the Gibson children weren’t murdered.

Let us honour their memory and mourn their loss as victims of Homicide.

There is no shame in that.

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  1. James G Jewell

    I think you and I both know the Gibson children did not die as a result of an accidental drowning.

    If that’s what you truly believe that is up to you.

    I’m quite certain that after two months of investigation there is very little left to speculate about but for whatever reason the WPS isn’t confirming what everyone already knows.

    That’s why I wrote the story.

    The Police should tell it like it is.

    PS: It won’t be the investigators that merit the benefit of the doubt…

  2. Is it not possible that under her altered state of consciousness Lisa went to give her children a bath. A regular action for a mom to want to do no matter how ill. But because of her serious mental illness she couldn’t safely do that
    Say she wandered away for a time or went into a catatonic state or made the water too hot or…or…and the children drowned. Is it not possible that the bereft woman would walk into the river after accidentally killing her children. I guess what I’m saying is to try to rule out the accident followed by suicide scenario would take some further investigation. For now I’ll give the investigators the benefit of the doubt.

  3. James G Jewell

    Excellant analysis….thank you sharing your insights!

  4. It doesn’t matter who investigates the tragic deaths of Lisa Gibson and her children. In the end, the changes necessary to keep our children and their family’s safe in the healthcare system are not likely to happen.

    While the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority tosses the investigative task like a hot potato to the Chief Medical Examiner, the police will continue a criminal investigation and report their findings to the Crown Attorney. The Crown may or may not charge someone with negligence.  The Manitoba College of Physicians & Surgeons will look into it.  So will the insurance companies, and all the various lawyers and litigators. There’s a good chance there will be a judicial inquiry.  Witnesses will be called, sworn testimony will be given, fingers pointed, tears will be shed.   And the media will be there in droves, conducting its own enquiries and serving up every crumb. Investigations galore.   At the end of the day, we’ll probably have someone to blame and a long list of exactly what needs to be done to make sure this never, ever happens again.  An awful lot of money will be spent.  The deck chairs will be studiously rearranged.  But the wave that hit us from starboard yesterday will hit us from port tomorrow, and it will, happen again.  

    It’s always a big deal when babies die, especially because of healthcare breakdowns.  Twelve babies died at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg in 1994.  Justice Murray Sinclair conducted a deep and searching judicial inquiry and in 2001 delivered an insightful, probing report, seminal in the field of patient safety. It recognized the systemic nature of the failures that contributed to the deaths of these children.  We set forth with new marching orders: ‘never again’ and an institutional duty to learn and grow in the wake of this and similar tragedy.  Critical Incident legislation was passed to ensure thorough and meaningful retrospective analysis.  Extraordinary protection through privilege was extended by the law, giving investigators access to every bit of information they might need.  Most importantly, the healthcare providers were offered full anonymity and immunity as they provided their testimony.  They were now free to share their stories without fear of sanction.  The proceedings of these investigations could not be shared with any other investigation.  We would finally get the truth we needed.  And the carnage would stop.  The new legislation was passed in 2006.  Seven years later, babies, their mothers, fathers and grandparents are still dying at a rate that makes preventable healthcare error the third leading cause of death for Canadians.  The 2013 Canadian Pediatric Adverse Events study states that roughly one in every ten children in pediatric care experiences an adverse event, a rate slightly higher than the adult population. The Critical Incident investigations are conducted, but the tools of privilege designed to make them effective have turned into another layer of camouflage. Without transparency, the system resists meaningful change.  The recommendations Critical Incident investigations produce are the subject of internal negotiation, and as they can legally compel no action, in the end largely ineffectual.  They are just another source of unfunded mandates, mostly untracked and not matters of public record.

    The entire model, unfortunately, is wholly  dependent on the capacity of the healthcare system for rigorous self examination and reform.  That’s analogous to the notion that an airline (or perhaps railroad company?) could do a good job of investigating its own accidents and then implementing recommendations based on its own internal findings that will prevent future similar incidents.  There is no evidence to suggest that the WRHA, or for that matter, any other institution, public or private, possesses that capacity.  The vested self interests of the organizations and individuals, coupled with a lack of legislative reach, make it practically speaking, impossible.

    We don’t trust police forces, mining companies, airlines, railroads or nuclear power plant operators to investigate, regulate or oversee themselves.  And with good reason.  We inherently understand the frailties in our individual or organizational capacity to dig deeply into difficult issues, soul search and effect change, especially across an industry, despite the best of intentions.  Why do we continue to expect our healthcare system to possess a capacity that exists nowhere else in the institutions that provide critical services to our society?  It is time for an independent, third party investigative and regulatory agency, with the capacity to mandate change to oversee our healthcare system, with safety expertise and its practice the highest priority.  Healthcare providers are wonderful, caring people who deliver the miracles of modern medicine.  They do so with unbelievable skill, but safety expertise in complex systems is not a core competency the industry yet possesses.  Healthcare, as it exists, is one of the most dangerous of human endeavors. More than one hundred people die every day across the country experiencing preventable errors in the provision of healthcare. In order to become one of the safest, extraordinary and courageous changes will be necessary by our legislators that will break down the hierarchies that currently depend on name, blame and shame to keep us safe.

    I’m proud that the community, by and large, recognizes the deaths of Lisa Gibson and her children as the outcome of illness, and not simply criminal behaviour.  But it’s time to stop the perpetual cycle of investigative Whack-A-Mole.  Scapegoats and one-at-a time fixes won’t keep our babies safe.  We can’t just keep reacting.  Proactive safety measures are necessary. We need more this time than a ride on the merry go round of tears.  Or there will be many more piles of teddy bears in our future.

  5. Hard to determine “fairness” when childbirth is a precipitant. Perhaps there is less victim- blaming when we contrast post-partum mental illness with other mental illnesses. Maybe we are reluctant to blame a murdered children for precipitating the illness that lead to both their mother’s illness and their own deaths. But we do want to assign blame.

    There seems to be more acceptance that post-partum mental illness could happen to anybody (well, anybody who gives birth, anyway). We like to think that there is some identifiable cause of mental illness that we can avoid, some flaw that we do not possess, some way in which we can be assured that it cannot happen to us.

    It can. And in rare circumstances, every one of us could be capable of murder. That is why we need to be educated and aware. Early intervention and support might save your life, or the life of someone you love, or the life of a stranger you believe to be something other than he/she is. Believe it.

  6. James G Jewell

    Excellent points…thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  7. I wonder if the WPS, the media or the citizens of Winnipeg would speak any differently on the matter if the husband/father of the murdered children would’ve been identified as the primary suspect and also said to be afflicted with a form of mental illness? I am under the firm belief there is an unfair “gender sympathy” game going on here.

    In fact, Lisa Gibson, mentally ill or not, did murder her children

  8. Another very thought provoking articles James. Indeed it was a very tragic event which illicited an immense emotional response from the community.

    I couldn’t help but feel the same way as you in the days following the murder of the children. In referring to their deaths as “a loss” as opposed to being murdered, are we devaluing the lives of children who deserved a long and happy life? Or are we concerned that in calling it murder that we are stigmatizing Lisa Gibson and any women who may be experiencing her condition. There is reluctance to acknowledge that post-partum conditions can lead to murder as it has too often.

    The political correct ideology gets in the way of our society acknowledging the seriousness of post-partum conditions. I would assess this response as coming more from of a women’s advocacy perspective than from a mental health stand point. I say this due to the contrasting view taken in the reporting of these murders as opposed to the murder of Timothy McLean by a mentally ill Vince Li. In that case no one took issue with calling it what it was, a murder.

  9. James G Jewell

    Brilliant….thank you for commenting.

  10. We are a society that experiences a great deal of discomfort about the realities of both mental illness and death (regardless of the cause). Sickness and death are inescapable realities of the human condition, neither of which is alleviated by denial (although denial is part of a normal grieving process).

    If you review the obituaries on any given day, you will be surprised at how few people die in our community. They pass on (sometimes after courageous or lengthy battles), succumb, leave, they are taken from us, they get lost, go home or to eternal peace or into the Lord’s hands, and sometimes there is no verb…just peacefully or tragically and we have to say goodbye. It makes it emotionally less difficult for survivors.

    Perhaps our unwillingness to acknowledge the brutal truths mask our greatest fears: that sickness and death are within and around us all. That the human condition is not all sweetness and light. We are complicated and interconnected, and sometimes that is a very scary thought.

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