Tim McClention was fairly new at driving so the heavy rain that night made him uneasy. He pulled his car to the side of the road and waited for the rain to subside, but by then, one of the car’s wheels had sunk deep into the mud.
McClention, 47, of Lilburn, and a friend were trying to free the vehicle when police approached.
“I assumed they were going to help us,” he said.
They didn’t. What happened next illustrates a growing problem among adults with developmental disabilities, advocates and government officials say. Both McClention, who has a speech impediment due to severe seizures, and his friend were arrested and thrown in jail before the charges were dropped.
McClention said his speech impediment led the officer to believe he was intoxicated.
The disabled experience higher rates of incarceration than the general population, but Georgia-based programs are working at getting those numbers down.
Leigh Ann Davis, program manager for justice initiatives for The Arc, a national nonprofit that advocates for and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said the disabled comprise 2 to 3 percent of the general population, but they represent 4 to 10 percent of the prison population. An even greater percentage of those in juvenile facilities have disabilities.
And there are more dangerous consequences when police encounter the disabled and misinterpret their behaviors.
“It’s concerning because we are seeing more stories where police officers, without intention, are physically harming and even killing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” Davis said.
Eric Jacobson, executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, said when police are unfamiliar with behavior associated with autism, it can lead the officers to react in ways that can worsen the behavior. However, he said, not all police departments and court systems are insensitive to people with developmental disabilities.
“Many departments have had training and recognize the behaviors for what they are and have been able to keep some people from getting into trouble,” he said. “Courts are doing a better job of this as well.”
Some police and courts are doing a better job thanks to training programs launched in recent years by the Georgia Advocacy Office and All About Developmental Disabilities. In October, Davis said, The Arc opened its new National Resource Center on Justice and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, the first national effort to bring together victim and offender issues involving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The center, made possible by a $400,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant, serves as a national clearinghouse for information and training on the topic of people with disabilities as victims, witnesses, suspects or offenders.
Advocates say individuals with developmental disabilities are often feared and misunderstood because of their lack of cognitive and communication skills.
“You just can’t always look at someone and tell he has a disability,” said Crandall Heard, AADD’s justice and developmental disabilities training manager. “You have to engage them, and you have to know how to do that.”
Heard, a former trial lawyer, said because people with developmental disabilities aren’t going to self-identify, he teaches officers what questions to ask so that they are able to recognize individuals early, how to communicate and what services are available to help.
According to Rita Young, AADD’s public policy director, the nonprofit has trained some 2,500 law enforcement and court officials since 2010.
Roswell Police Lt. William Anastasio is a strong advocate for the training and said he’d like to see it instituted across the state. To date, more than 90 percent of his department has gone through it.
“We learned to see the forest before the trees and dig deeper into the story before making an arrest,” Anastasio said. “Before, jail was always an easy option.”
In many instances, he said, officers may think the disabled are being rude, as in the case with McClention, when their action is a quirk of their disability.
“Sometimes jail is the answer, but sometimes there are other resources,” Anastasio said. “I think we’re evolving.”
There is training also for the disabled. Elaine Taylor-Klaus, the co-founder of ImpactADHD.com, trains parents to teach healthy communication skills to children with developmental disabilities.
“When kids don’t have good self-management skills, they don’t know how to handle their frustration or intense emotions,” Taylor-Klaus said. “But since their disability is ‘invisible,’ they often get into trouble before authorities recognize that they are dealing with a person with a disability.”
Not knowing, Young said, has led to “bad consequences.”
Those consequences nearly hit home recently when her son, a large, broad-shouldered 19-year-old who has autism, walked to the SunTrust bank near their home and demanded $20.
A bank employee figured out who he was and tried to reach her, Young said.
“When they couldn’t, they called the police,” she said. “Luckily, bank police de-escalated the situation. The bank employee told him we’re going to get you $20 but let’s go into the conference room and wait for your mom. I was so grateful because it could’ve turned out a lot different.”
ADVICE FOR PARENTS
Talk to your kids about their challenges and disabilities. Help them understand themselves as best as they can.
Set the expectation that your child will learn to self-manage. Start from compassion — it’s hard for him/her. Believe in her/him — and they will, too.
Challenges and disabilities are not to be used as an excuse for poor behavior, and they must be explained to the child in a way that does not make them feel “wrong” for their disability. We want them to understand that something might be harder for them because … xyz … and so they have to learn to manage, handle it, get themselves out of a bad situation.
If your child has a tendency toward violent outbursts, try to teach your child/youth to be their own teaching assistant:
a. Triggers: Help them identify when they are starting to get triggered by recognizing what triggers them.
b. Avoidance: Once they know what triggers them — avoid it whenever possible.
c. Identify “safe words” to use when they’re getting overwhelmed and can’t function effectively — like maybe “I need help now” or “Please don’t hurt me” or something that demonstrates vulnerability.
Source: Elaine Taylor-Klaus, co-founder of ImpactADHD.com