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

Disabled Youth and the Law

by Barbara Silva, Educational Advocate

As an educational advocate I have worked with hundreds of families who have children with disabilities. Sometimes the children are involved with the police or in court proceedings. It often seems that the court and the police are not fully aware of the impact that a disability can have on behavior. While not excusing or ignoring criminal behavior, perhaps we need to consider earlier positive interventions when it comes to disabled youth.

In the following stories I have tried to describe the events that led to criminal prosecution of two students with disabilities. The family of a disabled child invests a lot of time and caring to maintain the child in the home and to make them a valued member of the community. It frequently seems that the community does not respond in kind when a problem arises. This is heartbreaking for the families and can be a disaster for the student.

Annís Story
Ann is a young lady with a diagnosis of depression and mild MR. Along with her education team she decided that she would remain in school until she turned 22. During this time she continued to take classes in the high school, begin taking some introductory classes at the local community college and worked under a high school work-study program. The agencies involved with this young lady were the Institute for Community Inclusion at Boston Childrenís Hospital (ICI), the Department of Mental Retardation (DME), the Department of Social Services (DSS), Lutheran Social Services, and the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Center (MRC). She was a well- behaved, happy young lady who was generally seen as able to access local services and perhaps gain a certificate in a culinary program at the local college. She was on an individualized education plan (IEP) that identified one academic class in the morning and work-study. The IEP also identified the need for close supervision and transition linkages to DMR and MRC after graduation.

In the high school work-study program she was first employed at a local department store as a cashier. It soon became apparent that she needed to have more supervision, especially during her break time. The department store wanted her to work an increasing number of hours, which began to interfere with her classes. With the teamís support, she gave the department store notice and obtained a second job at a supermarket.

Unfortunately, seven months before her graduation she began to make questionable choices in her friendships, her behavior declined and she was hospitalized briefly in a psychiatric facility. She was arrested at the work-study program and charged with theft. She had stolen over $2000. The foster parent had become aware that some money was missing at work and felt that perhaps Ann was incorrectly counting out the change to the customers. She asked the store to remove Ann from any work that entailed handling money. The store managers, however, continued to give Ann the key to the cash drawer. Security eventually caught her in the thefts and she was arrested at work. At the time of Annís arrest her foster parent wanted to know where was the supervision on the job site? Where was the oversight of her supervision by the school?

After the incident, Ann and her foster parent went to the school to speak with the work-study teacher. The teacher was informed of the incident and spoke to Ann about making poor choices at work and in life. The foster parent asked why there wasnít more supervision at the work site. The teacher explained that she did go to the store a couple of times at the beginning of the work study program and Ann seemed to be doing well. The teacher didnít feel that continuing to go to the store on a regular basis was necessary.

Ann does not completely understand the ramifications of her actions. She has gone to court and has been ordered to repay the money. At this time, Ann is repaying the money and working at a job that does not entail handling money.

Larryís Story
Larry has mild MR and there is the question of additional diagnoses of Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Intermittent Explosive Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Larry was 20 years old at the time of his arrest. He was out of control during a behavioral outburst and broke the windshield on his motherís car. His mother called the police and although she does not speak fluent English she tried to communicate that her son had disability and that she wanted him brought to the crisis center for evaluation. She gave the police his pills so that her son would have them at the crisis center. She waited at home to hear from the crisis center.

The next day she called the crisis center. They had no record of her son being brought in to the center. She called all the local hospitals. They had no record of her son being admitted either. She enlisted the help of family members and began to look for her son. Finally she received a call that he was locked up at the police station.

The police had arrested Larry. She went down and bailed him out of jail. She asked for the pills back but the police did not have them. When she got her son home she noticed that his head was bruised. She took pictures of the bruises behind his ears and on the side of his face. She accompanied him to court. She had to request a translator to understand the proceedings. Larry was put on probation. He now resides in a group DMR home in the community.

Larry had a history of violent and assaultive behavior towards the family and the community. Treatment planning at the local area DMR office identified that when Larry was in an aggressive violent episode, the family was to call 911 to ensure their own safety. On other occasions when the police had been summoned by the family to the home, Larry had been brought to the local crisis center. The family does not understand why he was taken to the police station this particular time.

At the motherís request, I filed a report of suspected abuse of a disabled person because of the bruising on his face and neck when the mother picked him up from the police station. The Disabled Persons Protection Commission screened out the incident, as it did not meet the criteria of abuse. A disposition letter was sent by DMR stating that they determined no further follow up action was necessary.

As a professional in the field of advocacy, I believe that we need more education for the community to help people learn about the strengths and weaknesses of those with disabilities. The courts and the police need to be trained to make decisions that will support those with disabilities in maintaining themselves as contributing and accepted members in society and not criminalize our most vulnerable members.

We need to develop a consistent and comprehensive approach to handling youth with disabilities who are involved with the police and in the courts.

Barbara Silva, Educational AdvocateBarbara Silva taught Head Start for 15 years and is a certified teacher in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Ms. Silva is the parent of three young adults, one with a disability. She is the founder of a non-profit advocacy agency and actively engaged as an educational consultant. Ms. Silva is very involved in her community, on several executive boards and committees. Her hobbies are dancing, sewing, gardening and spending time with her granddaughter.

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