10/04/2011 03:36 EDT | Updated 12/04/2011 05:12 EST

Worker charged with assault at Nova Scotia home for people with disabilities

A licensed practical nurse has been charged with assaulting a resident of a Cape Breton special care home that is already under scrutiny after the Nova Scotia government launched a review of the facility earlier this year.

Desiree Vassallo, a spokeswoman for the Cape Breton Regional Police, says Donald Donovan of Glace Bay, N.S., has been charged with assault after an alleged incident in August at the Braemore Home in Sydney.

Donovan, 54, is scheduled to be in court Dec. 19. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Mary MacNeil, the legal guardian of the resident, says she was told by police that the charge relates to an alleged assault of her 60-year-old sister, Paulette Nicholson.

MacNeil said she felt a sense of relief once she heard charges were laid.

"I felt like it's been a long, long time," MacNeil said in an interview from her home in Sydney.

She said her sister has been in the home for 49 years after she suffered brain damage at the age of 11.

The Department of Community Services conducted its own investigation into the alleged assault and another incident involving Nicholson last year where the woman fell down stairs.

MacNeil received a letter from the department — a copy of which she provided to The Canadian Press — which said both incidents constituted abuse under the province's Protection of Persons in Care Act.

Provincial Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse said in an interview Tuesday that Nicholson was slapped by a Braemore staff worker in the August incident.

She said in the earlier incident on Dec. 27, 2010, Nicholson fell down stairs at the home and injured herself after her wheelchair brakes became unlocked.

MacNeil said Nicholson has the intellectual capabilities of a one-year-old and has some mobility problems. She said Nicholson has fallen down stairs in the past.

"She's not aggressive but she throws herself," she said.

MacNeil said the wheelchair Nicholson was using was not one recommended by the home's occupational therapist.

Debra MacPherson, Braemore's executive director, declined an interview request. But in an email she said the home has taken steps to improve care.

"In response to this incident and to help prevent a similar accident from occurring in the future, we have reviewed and strengthened our process around equipment acquisitions," she said.

According to the Community Services Department letter, Braemore has been directed to ensure that equipment ordered by the occupational therapist is checked by the therapist. The therapist has also been directed to check all recommended equipment already in use at the home.

Earlier this year, Peterson-Rafuse announced an independent review of Braemore after a 20-year-old autistic man was locked alone in a constantly lit room for periods of time over a 15-day stretch last fall. Braemore apologized.

Peterson-Rafuse says the fact that an allegation of assault arose after the review was launched is troubling.

"To hear that happened is concerning," she said in a phone interview.

MacPherson declined to comment on the criminal charge, but in her email said the home responded immediately to the alleged incident and appropriate actions were taken, though she did not elaborate.

MacPherson said Donovan is no longer employed at the home.

MacNeil said she feels the province has to do more to ensure people with intellectual disabilities and mobility problems have a safe environment as they age.

She said she believes her sister would be safer and happier in a single-floor group home, but nothing is available.