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Volume 4 , Issue 1 Date: Spring 2004 Topic: Youth with Developmental Disabilities and the Juvenile Justice System

It Can Happen Here

by Debby Geheran

The call came shortly after 2a.m. “This is the Wellesley Police. Your daughter has been arrested.” Awakened and assuming Stephanie was in her bed; my response was disbelief, confusion, fury. She had been found “trespassing” two blocks from home on the grounds of the local elementary school. My response to the call was an outraged, Congratulations, you have just arrested an autistic Girl Scout.”

So began our odyssey with the law enforcement and criminal justice system. Nowhere is the clash between the lack of understanding of the characteristics of our children and our children’s differences in perception more potentially traumatic and even dangerous. For the most part, officials in the jurisprudence system appear not to even know what they do not know. We experienced this first hand, two years ago, when our daughter, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), decided to take a walk to deal with anxiety and sleep difficulties. Her usual route took her on school grounds, which the police patrolled routinely at night to prevent unruly teens from vandalism.

Stephanie had been found by a police officer in the field near the school, carrying her music in her backpack. My daughter, who finds unexpectedly encountering a peer a difficult social situation to negotiate, was faced with law enforcement officers whose mission was far from social. Stephanie said that she told police that she lived around the corner and was going home. She thought this was an adequate response so, when asked for her identity, she was not forthcoming. When asked to search her pack, she asked for a warrant. Stephanie just wanted to flee from an unfamiliar, moreover, threatening situation.

It appears that the police, accustomed to looking for trouble, perhaps, behaved in a way that created such a situation. Neither the officer nor her backup asked Steph, at just after 1 a.m., if she were okay. Stephanie perceived the police attitude as “hostile, rude and threatening”. They, in turn, described her as “loud and verbal” and stated in the police report that “her tumultuous and highly agitated behavior began to escalate.” She was advised that she was under arrest for trespassing and did not follow repeated instructions to put her hands behind her back. The three officers felt that this “conduct created a hazard” to them. The officers, according to the police report, “escorted her to the ground” to arrest her. From Stephanie’s perspective, three officers wrestled her to the ground, handcuffed her and forced her into a vehicle. She said that she cried and told them they hurt her leg.

Stephanie was then put through the further humiliation of being fingerprinted and photographed. At the station, my husband, Jim, privately advised law enforcement officials that his daughter was on the autism spectrum and that they had, perhaps, behaved in an aggressive manner, which would have threatened Stephanie and to which she would not be able to appropriately respond. He wanted the charges--- trespassing, disorderly person and resisting arrest--- dropped. Jim was told to discuss this issue with the judge at Juvenile Court. Jim brought a hysterical, distraught, traumatized child home. She cried incessantly and claimed that she would never trust the police again.

Armed with an attorney familiar with AS, a letter of explanation about AS by expert psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Rosenn, and a character reference from Steph’s Girl Scout leader, we entered the new ordeal of an indifferent court system. No official appeared to have heard of Asperger’s Syndrome. If the Court had read the letter of explanation, it was not readily apparent. (Dr. Rosenn wrote that he hoped that Steph’s “unfortunate behavior…be seen as a manifestation of her neurological disorder.” He offered, “She simply did not understand the context of the police’s initial enquiry, and misunderstood their intention. Physical confrontation with individuals with Asperger’s disorder almost always leads to panic and behavioral escalations.”)

Stephanie was thrust into a system where she was required to stand along in a large, formal courtroom. The judge sat up on a dais at the far end of the room. This is an intimidating environment for anyone. For an Asperger’s individual, it is absolutely frightening. Stephanie behaved appropriately until the judge reminded her that, on probation, she should not get into any more trouble. For Steph, who saw herself as a victim and not a troublemaker, this was enough to push her over the edge. She responded with very inappropriate language. Everyone in the room tensed as the judge, unknowingly adding fuel to the fire, advised my daughter that she had the power to throw her in jail for contempt.

A second, equally stressful, court appearance resulted in Stephanie having to write a letter of apology to the Wellesley Police Department. I could contain myself no longer and, against our attorney’s advice, tried to explain to the new judge the nature of my child’s disability and the difficulty of this request. He amended that the letter be a “goal” which she could work toward with her school social worker. The amendment was never written in the paperwork so, within the year, the probation department wanted a letter. The social worker sent a letter to the court advising that Stephanie, despite attempts, was unable to write such an apology, as she appeared to be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the police incident.

Immediately after Stephanie’s arrest, I met with Wellesley’s Chief of Police. While understanding that law enforcement professionals were not required to diagnose individuals, I was concerned about their threatening approach to a child who might have needed help. (I am constantly reminded of Dr. Rosenn’s quote regarding children with AS, “If you sound a little annoyed, he thinks you’re furious. If you are furious, he thinks he’s in danger. Survival instincts take over. He’ll hit you because he thinks you’re going to hit him, even if you never have before.”) I also thought that once the police realized that they were dealing with a person with a Developmental Disability, someone who misreads the actions and social cues of others and has sensory sensitivities; they would surely have a new perspective on the matter and work toward resolution with the least amount of further trauma to Stephanie. The Chief insisted that procedure had been followed and, even if they had known of Stephanie’s AS, they would have responded no differently. I had encountered a brick wall-----they were going to admit no possibility of error.

In an attempt to salvage something from this nightmarish situation, I requested that the Wellesley Police be educated about Asperger’s. They did agree and I was told that I could make arrangements with Deputy Police Chief Bill Brooks. Our house was also “red-flagged” by police to help avoid future misunderstandings. Dania Jekel, Director of the Asperger’s Association of New England (AANE), did role call training at the Wellesley Police Department. She recalled that her presentations on AS were not only well received but positively eye-opening. Wellesley Police subsequently hosted training by Dennis Debbaudt, author of Autism, Advocates, and Law Enforcement Professionals, for Wellesley and the surrounding communities. Deputy Chief Brooks has become a key supporter of such police trainings. In an interview, following training, in The Wellesley Townsman regarding the incident with Stephanie, “Brooks said that one of the chief characteristics of AS - a tendency for people with the syndrome to appear unresponsive and difficult - makes it more likely that AS sufferers will have a bad experience with the police.”

Deputy Chief Brooks also, after gaining understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorders, arranged for an officer to meet me at the final court appearance to assure the Judge that the police were satisfied to drop the case---without a letter of apology. The judge also noted that he had received a note, pertaining to AS, from another Juvenile Court Judge. Our former attorney, a champion of the disabled, had been offered a judgeship!

Prior to a police training session, I happened to tell Stephanie’s story to Dennis Debbaudt. I was pleased that I had, at least, made some inroads into police training in our community, despite the emotional and financial trauma to Stephanie and our family. He very pointedly asked what I had done to prepare my daughter for encounters with law enforcement. I had done nothing! It became immediately apparent that while the police have a responsibility to train their own to deal with the diverse citizenry they serve, we have a responsibility to prepare our children for all the expected and unexpected encounters in daily life.

Deb and Steph Geheran Debby is the parent of three children: Stephanie, Jessica, and Matthew. Her professional background is in clinical psychology with a B.A. from Vassar College and an M.A. from Fordham University. Actively involved in Scouting for the past two decades. Debby is currently a co-leader of the middle school/high school Girl Scout Troop of Wellesley, MA. She is also a committee member of the Autism and Law Enforcement Education Coalition. An active member of the Asperger’s Association of New England, Debby is currently on the planning committee for the annual AANE dinner and auction. She invites all interested readers to become involved in this important event. To learn more please visit:

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