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Developmental Disabilities Leadership Forum: Leadership Perspectives in Developmental Disability: An on-line Journal for Consumers, Professionals, Family and Friends
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Volume 4, Issue 1 Date: Spring 2004

Youth with Developmental Disabilities and the Juvenile Justice System


As citizens in a free society, most of us believe in truth and justice that will be equal for all people. That whatever we do will be judged in an impartial and fair manner. For the most part, these tenets hold true, except when you are encountering the juvenile justice system as child, adolescent or young adult with a developmental disability. Many individuals with developmental disability may not be aware of the consequences of their actions. The behaviors of others may be misinterpreted as disrespectful or threatening. Should they experience the full impact of the juvenile justice system? We invite you to read on to explore this issue from a variety of perspectives, and as you do, think about ways we as a society can move the juvenile justice system to be more equitable for those with developmental disability.

Guest Editor
LEND Fellows 2004

LEND Fellows 2004

(Pictured, left to right: Suzanne Peyton, Donna O'Sullivan, Diane Maxson, Michelle Savrann, Kathleen Regan, Iris Thompson, Bob Gilmore, John Anderson Jr.)

This edition of the Journal explores the question: “How are children and adolescents who have been diagnosed with a developmental disability treated within the jurisprudence system?”

Our group of LEND fellows did not arrive at this topic easily. We are a freewheeling group of students who came together from varying disciplines and differing life and professional experiences. We, to a person, had strong opinions about a wide range of topics, held differences in political and ideological frameworks and yet together we formed a group that sought to gain expertise and understanding of the critical issues faced by people with developmental disabilities everyday.

In working together to produce this journal edition we explored a variety of topics reflected in various public policies on the subject of developmental disabilities, and speculated as to where the field might be twenty five years into the future. Ultimately our interest coalesced on the topic of children and adolescents with developmental disabilities and their experiences in the juvenile justice system. We felt that this was a “hot” topic which would generate interest for others as it had for us.

We wanted to learn how children with developmental disabilities come into contact with the legal system; how they and their families experienced the process; and what happens within the three judicial phases of the apprehension of the alleged offender, the court process and the determination of consequences. We wanted to hear from parents. We were anxious to learn a professional insider’s perspective. We wanted to learn from those who could give us an overview of the system as a whole. We talked to a number of people in order to understand the impact of one system in one state of the US on children with developmental disabilities and their families. We hope that this knowledge can be applied in a much broader sense and be helpful to others.

In considering this topic we heard stories of children who had come in contact with the legal system and their lack of preparedness for such an experience. Parents talked of not feeling that the system even recognized children with disabilities. Lawyers talked with passion about the lack of education within the legal system in assisting children with disabilities and their families. We heard from a police officer who stated that considering whether or not an individual had a developmental disability or not was not his mandate. The mandate was to keep the peace, protect society at large, and follow the law precisely. Another officer talked of unspoken practices of recognition of a child with a disability and returning the child home to the parents and not taking any further action. On a situation-by-situation basis, there appeared to be a wide disparity in the way situations were handled.

As a result of this journal experience we are a little wiser, a little more knowledgeable and have a better understanding of the difficulties children with developmental disabilities and their families face when interacting with the juvenile justice system.

We had the privilege of interviewing two judges an educational advocate, parents, several police officers, a private detective and instructor, several district attorneys, defense lawyers specializing in disability cases and professors. We were grateful for the time they took to educate us and we were impressed with their commitment to use their knowledge and experience to influence public policy and to respond to the need for system reform.

It is our hope that we have successfully conveyed in this journal edition all that we have learned from this experience. We believe that increasing the public’s understanding of the experiences of individuals with developmental disabilities face when interacting with the legal system is an important first step in stimulating continued interest and generating ongoing discussions that will ultimately lead to changes in the legal system and corresponding public policy.


LEND fellows 2003-2004

Table of Contents


Whose Job Is It Anyway
Attorney D. Luray Wallace

School Resource Officers: Powerful Allies
LEND Fellow Bob Gilmore

Parents Need to Know: Risks and Strategies in the Juvenile Justice System
Lili Frank Garfinkle

Norfolk District Attorney William R. Keating’s Lifeskills Program:
Norfolk District Attorney William R. Keating

Massachusetts State Police and Developmentally Disabled Youth:
LEND Fellows - Diane Maxson and Iris Thompson

Manifestation Destiny: The School to Prison Pipeline
Attorney Isabel Raskin

LEND Interview with Honorable Jay Blitzman
LEND Fellow Suzanne Peyton

Juvenile Justice and Developmental Disabilities
Simon I. Singer

It Can Happen Here
Debby Geheran

Disabled Youth and the Law
Barbara Silva, Educational Advocate

Beyond Guilt or Innocence
Dennis Debbaudt

Autism and Law Enforcement:
Norfolk District Attorney William R. Keating

About This Issue of Leadership Perspectives
Susan Swanson, Betsy Tannebring and Lee Vorderer

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