A 74-year-old retired nurse with mental illness who has been jailed and hospitalized dozens of times in the past six years was released from custody on Friday, and her brother — and the assistant Crown — worry it’s just a matter of time before she’s arrested again.

In the Ontario Court of Justice in Cornwall on Friday afternoon, Barbara Cleary pleaded guilty to assault with a weapon (throwing a cup of liquid at a bartender), breaching probation orders and breaching a release order.

The prosecution and defence recommended a sentence of time already served and two years of probation. But Justice Julien Lalande said he wanted time to review Cleary’s history and ordered a pre-sentence report.

The judge, Crown and defence all agreed she had spent enough time in jail for her crimes — she had been in custody in Ottawa and Napanee since Dec. 7.

So Cleary was released on bail with conditions.

For weeks ahead of Friday’s appearance CBC News had been talking to Cleary by phone from jail. She and her brother Michael Cleary, who has reached the end of his rope after six years of trying to get her help, consented to the release of medical records that show she’s been hospitalized 14 times starting in 2018 for a total of three and a half months.

Criminal records show that in the same time frame, she’s been arrested and charged more than 20 times, only to wind up back in jail, on the street, or in hospital needing care.

WATCH | His sister has been jailed over and over. He says something has to change: 

Michael Cleary on his frustrations with his sister’s mental health care

For six years, Michael Cleary has watched his sister be admitted for psychiatric care 14 times, only for her to decide to end her treatment against medical advice before she’s fully stabilized. He says something has to change.

Nowhere to go

It was unclear where she would go after her release Friday, her defence lawyer Yashar Tahmassebi told the judge. She didn’t qualify for help from the John Howard Society because she has violated court orders too many times in the recent past, noted assistant Crown Elaine Evans.

Before his sister’s court appearance and during breaks, Michael Cleary, 73, was in the courthouse lobby, trying to convince her lawyer that she needed to be in a secure psychiatric facility to continue to stabilize.

He and a friend of his were on the phone, trying to find her a place to stay.

The retirement home he had been trying to get his sister into had stopped returning his calls.

They ended up finding her a different retirement home nearby, but her lawyer said she rejected it. She wanted to stay in Cornwall.

A chance to address court

For the first time in Barbara Cleary’s six years before the courts, her brother was given the chance to speak to the judge about their family’s struggle trying to get her care.

“Somehow this has to stop … this is just going to continue unless she has a stable period,” he told Lalande in an impassioned speech.

“As a family, we are very concerned and we want her to receive the treatment that she needs and rejects.”

His sister didn’t like what he had to say. At one point she mouthed, “You just want me locked up,” several times as he was still speaking.

With her white hair in a ponytail, a white dress shirt and red pants, Barbara Cleary told the judge that for the 50 years she’s lived in Cornwall, she’s always been independent, that this is a journey she wants to continue on her own, and that she’s tired of it, too.

“I don’t want to see a blue and white car for a long time,” she said, referring to police cruisers.

A blue and white parked police cruiser.
A Cornwall Police Service cruiser at the force’s headquarters on Feb. 14, 2024. Cornwall police say they’re dealing with about 20 people in an ongoing basis who have fallen through the cracks of the community’s systems. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

‘Great concern’ she’ll be back in custody soon

Evans told the judge the Crown has “great concern” that Barbara Cleary will be back in bail court on new charges before her next court appearance in late March.

“But at this point, I don’t see that there’s anything else that the criminal justice system can try to do” except release her on bail pending the pre-sentence report, Evans told court.

It comes down to the fact that there are limits to what mental health-care facilities and other organizations can accomplish without Barbara Cleary’s consent, Evans said.

Speaking directly to Barbara Cleary, Justice Lalande implored her to stay out of trouble.

“I want you to know, if I had jurisdiction to make you take the medication, I would be using that jurisdiction,” he told her. “But I can’t force you to take your medication.”

A kind of closure

Outside court, Michael Cleary told CBC the proceeding brought him closure.

“When I was listening to the judge today, I just thought, I’ve done everything possible now. I can’t do anything more. So I have to step back … and take care of myself,” he said.

“From what I’ve seen, she’s ready to hit the streets again … She was in no mood to accept help today.”

Barbara Cleary shuffled out of the courthouse in boots with no laces and a light jacket, and immediately ran into friends from the street.

She took the shoes and warm coat provided by a food bank from her brother, and said her plan was to treat herself to a one-night hotel stay and a hot shower.

A woman in a black jacket outside in late winter.
Barbara Cleary, 74, outside the Cornwall Courthouse on Friday, just after she had been released on bail after pleading guilty to several charges. She said she doesn’t want to be locked up again. (Vincent Trottier/CBC)

She said she’d figure out where to go next later and that she has a lot of friends.

And she seemed sure she could stay well with the two weeks of drugs prescribed by the jail psychiatrist.

“I don’t feel manic, I feel grateful. Grateful that I’m free,” she said. “I’ve been locked up enough all of my life, and I’m not about to go back there.”

More disruptive behaviour

On Monday, a man named Sean George called CBC to say that Barbara Cleary was banging on his apartment door in Cornwall and calling him.

Now his nerves are shot, and he’s worried about what will happen next.

George and Barbara Cleary had been roommates during a period of wellness she had last summer. George said she was open about her struggles with bipolar I disorder, substance use and disruptive behaviour in the community.

He said also that as a Black gay man who understands discrimination, he was motivated to help her.

“I saw that this was somebody who was trying to get better,” George said, so he gave her the chance to stay with him as his roommate.

“It was OK in the first month, and then following that she went off her meds and things just got out of control.”

Now that she’s back out of custody again, George said he’s upset.

“Think of the cost of all of those services because this one person doesn’t want to take her medication,” he said. “This is the impact that this kind of mental health crisis has on the community overall.”

And if someone of colour was behaving the way she has, George said they’d be treated much differently.

“If Barbara was an old Black or native woman, I assure you that society would not care. They would want her locked up [as soon as possible],” he said.

CBC was unable to reach Barbara Cleary after several attempts on Monday.

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