The Arc Weighs In on Dr. Phil Shows on the Case of Kelly Stapleton

Dr. Phil logoWashington, DC – Last week, Dr. Phil aired two shows about the case of Kelly Stapleton, a mother from Michigan who attempted to take the life of her daughter, Issy, who has autism, and herself last year. The Arc released the following statement in response to the reporting done by the Dr. Phil Show.

“Kelly Stapleton’s failed attempt to take the life of her daughter, Issy, must be understood for exactly what it is – a crime of the worst magnitude – and her attempt to take her own life illustrates that likely she was experiencing a significant crisis in her own mental health. The act of a parent to kill or attempt to kill her own child is not a rational act, regardless of whether the child has a disability or how challenging the circumstances, and is never acceptable and offends our deepest values and sensibilities.

“There are, though, other lessons to be learned here. Unfortunately, the horrific story of the Stapletons shows what too many families across the country are facing – a failing system of supports and services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Stapletons were in a challenging situation and seeking help for their daughter so that she could continue to be with her family, attend school, and be a part of her community. If the system – in the end, the school district that rejected Issy’s inclusion for the school year – had not failed them, this family’s reality could have turned out very differently.

“Kelly’s actions are indefensible, and sensationalizing this family’s tragic story only hurts the public’s perception of autism. Issy’s voice, or the voice of a peer on the autism spectrum, should have been heard by the millions who tune in to Dr. Phil. His audience should have had the opportunity to learn from an individual with autism what it’s like to live with autism, and how services and supports can make a huge difference in their daily life. America needs to be woken up to this national crisis – the lack of access to services and supports for people with disabilities is an unacceptable reality and Issy and millions like her deserve much, much better,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Arc Calls on Cuyahoga County Prosecutor to Pursue Ice Bucket Challenge Assault Perpetrators to Fullest Extent of the Law

Washington, DC – As the nation has reacted with outrage to the incident in Bay Village, Ohio where a teenager with autism was doused with urine instead of ice water in a fake Ice Bucket Challenge, The Arc is calling on the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office to charge the five teenagers identified in the case to the fullest extent of the law.

“The perpetrators of this horrific act, who reportedly were neighborhood friends of the victim, need to be held accountable for their behavior.  While some seek to characterize what was done to this teen as an innocent prank, it is anything but.  Call it what it is – it was an assault and abuse.  These kinds of acts are an outright attack on the humanity of people with autism and other intellectual or developmental disabilities in Ohio and nationwide.  There is no possible excuse for this type of assault and the perpetrators should be prosecuted,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

“Unfortunately, people with disabilities experience violence and abuse at high rates, often at the hands of abusers who are known to them.  Many have a strong need to feel accepted and fit in which can, at times, lead them into places and situations with people who they think are their friends, but who are anything but.  When abuse or other violent acts are committed, whether by friends or complete strangers, our legal system must respond.  In this case, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office must send a message that will stop future perpetrators in their tracks – it is not okay to attack a person with a disability,” Berns added.

The Arc has a long history of standing up for the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), and supporting them to do the same, when they find themselves in dangerous situations and in our legal system.  Most recently, last year, The Arc was awarded a two-year grant for $400,000 by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) to develop the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD).  This is the first national effort of its kind to bring together both victim and suspect/offender issues involving people with I/DD under one roof.  NCCJD is a national clearinghouse for research, information, evaluation, training and technical assistance for justice and disability professionals and other advocates that will build their capacity to better identify and meet the needs of people with I/DD, whose disability often goes unrecognized, and who are overrepresented in the nation’s criminal justice system.  Currently, NCCJD is developing training and technical assistance for law enforcement agencies that will support police departments like Bay Village’s force, as well as prosecutor’s offices,  such as the office in Cuyahoga County, to administer justice for people with disabilities.  And The Arc supports people with I/DD to be prepared for situations like these, connect them with other survivors of abuse and bullying, and find a collective voice to stand up against it.

The Arc also runs the Autism NOW Center, an online resource center that helps people weed through the volumes of information found online about autism spectrum disorders and provide high-quality, vetted resources and information to people with autism and other developmental disabilities, their family, friends, colleagues, teachers, employers and others.

“Never should a human have to endure such needless acts of abuse. It is never justified and it is never the victim’s fault for they may not even know why they were treated the way they were, but there are people who do. The ones who do know why this kind of abuse is so wrong are the ones who stand together, like The Arc and our chapters, which stand united to push for these random acts of abuse to be punished by law.   Random acts of kindness make a better person. Be good to those in need and one day the favor will be returned twofold,” Amy Goodman, Co-Director of the Autism NOW Center.

“We cannot stand by and accept this horrific act- the prosecutors know what they must do and they must do it swiftly to send the message that attacks on people with disabilities will not be tolerated and will be punished,” Cindy Norwood, Executive Director, The Arc of Greater Cleveland.

Chapters of The Arc Selected for National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability’s “Pathways to Justice” Training Program

We are pleased to announce that five chapters of The Arc were selected to pilot implementation of The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability’s (NCCJD) “Pathways to Justice” Training Program. Through this program, chapters will help build the capacity of the criminal justice system to effectively identify, serve and protect people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), many of whom have “mild” disabilities that often go unnoticed among criminal justice professionals without appropriate training.

Each chapter will create and/or strengthen their current multidisciplinary team on criminal justice and disability issues (what NCCJD is referring to as “Disability Response Teams”) and gather roughly 50 trainees from law enforcement, victim advocacy and the legal profession for a one-day training on criminal justice issues. The selected chapters are listed below:

“When individuals with I/DD become involved in the criminal justice system as suspects or victims, they often face miscommunication, fear, confusion and prejudice. The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability plays a critical role in improving first response and communication between people with I/DD and the justice system nationally.

“Through NCCJD’s “Pathways to Justice” training program we are tapping into the most powerful resource The Arc possesses – our chapter network. The five chapters selected either have longstanding criminal justice programs or a commitment to building their capacity in providing such training, both of which are invaluable to achieving NCCJD’s overall goals. We look forward to working closely with each chapter and learning from their work. Through this collaborative effort NCCJD will become a national focal point for the collection and dissemination of resources and serve as a bridge between the justice and disability communities,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

Last year, The Arc was awarded a two-year grant for $400,000 by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) to develop the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability.  This is the first national effort of its kind to bring together both victim and suspect/offender issues involving people with I/DD under one roof.  The goal of this project is to create a national clearinghouse for research, information, evaluation, training and technical assistance for justice and disability professionals and other advocates that will build their capacity to better identify and meet the needs of people with I/DD, whose disability often goes unrecognized, and who are overrepresented in the nation’s criminal justice system – both as victims and suspects/offenders

The Arc Responds to U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Hall v. Florida

The Arc released the following statement following news that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Freddie Lee Hall in the case Hall v. Florida, a death penalty case concerning the definition of intellectual disability (ID) that Florida uses in deciding whether an individual with that disability is protected by the Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in the Atkins v. Virginia case that executing inmates with ID is unconstitutional as it violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Hall. The justices stated that Florida cannot rely solely on an IQ score to determine whether an inmate has ID.  Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that IQ tests have a margin of error and those inmates whose scores fall within the margin must be allowed to present other evidence. Additionally, Justice Kennedy modified the 2002 Atkins decision by adopting the term “intellectually disabled” and abandoning “mentally retarded,” which has previously been used by the court in its opinions.

“Today the Supreme Court reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring justice for individuals with intellectual disability. The clarification of the landmark ruling in Atkins v. Virginia will serve as a tool to ensure justice for individuals with intellectual disability who face the death penalty  in states across the country.  Disability advocates and legal experts across the country will look back to this decision for years to come.

“The Arc is committed to fighting for the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and we will continue our legal advocacy work to make sure that the Supreme Court ruling on this issue is followed in jurisdictions across the country,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Hall case centered on whether the state may establish a hardline ceiling on IQ, refusing to consider whether anyone with an obtained IQ above that level may actually have ID, despite the fact that use of such a ceiling undermines the purpose of IQ testing and the professional judgment of the diagnostician, among other things.  In Hall, the Court was asked to address Florida’s decision to draw the line at an IQ of 70.  Based on the professional expertise of two leading professional organizations in the field, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA), it is universally accepted that IQ test scores must be interpreted by taking into account the standard error of measurement that is inherent in IQ tests. That means that any IQ test score is best understood as a range, rather than a single score:  a score of 70, for example, is best understood as indicating that the person’s “true” IQ score is most likely between 65 and 75.

In addition to IQ testing, numerous expert evaluations documented Freddie Lee Hall’s disability.  Before the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins, a Florida trial court found that Hall had ID “all of his life”.  His family recognized his disability in early childhood and teachers repeatedly noted his intellectual disability.

The Arc has participated in a number of cases on this issue before the Supreme Court including Atkins v. Virginia.  The Arc’s amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief was cited by the Justices in support of its ruling that the Constitution protects all defendants with ID. On December 23, 2013, The Arc submitted an amicus brief for the Hall v. Florida case.

Through a two-year grant for $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), The Arc established the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD) which is addressing, among other critical issues, people with ID on death row and the importance of using an accurate definition for ID within courtrooms across America. NCCJD is creating a national clearinghouse for research, information, evaluation, training and technical assistance for justice and disability professionals and other advocates that will build their capacity to better identify and meet the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), whose disability often goes unrecognized. Providing accurate, effective and consistent training for criminal justice professionals is critical to ensuring the safety of people with disabilities.

The Arc Applauds Stay of Execution of Robert Campbell, Vows to Continue Legal Advocacy Efforts

Washington, DC – Today, the state of Texas was scheduled to execute Robert Campbell, a man who has an intellectual disability (ID), which should have ruled out the death penalty per a 2002 Supreme Court ruling, Atkins v. Virginia.  But this evening, a federal appeals court halted his execution, mere hours before he was scheduled to receive a lethal injection. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit delayed his execution to allow more time to pursue his legal team’s argument that he is not eligible for the death penalty due to his ID.

“We are grateful that the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Supreme Court’s ruling, saving Robert Campbell’s life. While we can appreciate justice being served, we were far too close to witnessing a grave miscarriage of justice. There are still many questions surrounding this trial, and we hope to hear answers as to why evidence regarding Mr. Campbell’s IQ was withheld until very recently. In a life or death situation, it is disturbing that all the facts were not being presented.

“As a family-based organization, we have great sympathy for the family and friends of the victim.  However, in the case of a defendant with intellectual disability, the death penalty is not an acceptable or fair sentence. The Arc is committed to fighting for the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and we will continue our legal advocacy work to make sure that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on this issue is followed in jurisdictions across the country,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

Through a two-year grant for $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), The Arc is developing the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability. This project is creating a national clearinghouse for research, information, evaluation, training and technical assistance for justice and disability professionals and other advocates that will build their capacity to better identify and meet the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), whose disability often goes unrecognized. Providing accurate, effective and consistent training for criminal justice professionals is critical.

The Arc Responds to the Scheduled Execution of Robert Campbell

Washington, DC – The Arc released the following statement about the scheduled execution of Robert Campbell, an individual with intellectual disability (ID). Campbell is scheduled to be executed tomorrow (Tuesday, May 13) at 6 pm in Texas, despite evidence showing he has ID. It has been reported that the state of Texas and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice withheld two prior IQ tests within the range for ID, showing an IQ of 68 from a test during elementary school, and 71 from his prison records. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in the Atkins v. Virginia case that executing inmates with ID is unconstitutional because it violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“We are extremely disappointed that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Robert Campbell’s appeal despite clear evidence showing that he has intellectual disability. To ignore experts and cross the line drawn by a more than decade-old Supreme Court ruling shakes the foundation of our legal system for people with intellectual disabilities.  It is unconscionable that key evidence about Mr. Campbell’s IQ was withheld in this life or death situation. The Arc asks the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to take up this case immediately to ensure that Mr. Campbell’s disability is taken into account and justice can truly be served.

“The Arc is committed to fighting for the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and will continue our legal advocacy work to make sure the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on this issue is abided by in jurisdictions across the country,” said Peter V. Berns, CEO of The Arc.

Through a two-year grant for $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), The Arc is developing the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability. This project is creating a national clearinghouse for research, information, evaluation, training and technical assistance for justice and disability professionals and other advocates that will build their capacity to better identify and meet the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), whose disability often goes unrecognized. Providing accurate, effective and consistent training for criminal justice professionals is critical.

What Should Everyone Know About Abuse?

By Nora J. Baladerian, Ph.D.

As I thought about writing this blog, I wondered, “what do I wish that everyone could know about abuse?” My first thought was I would want everyone who is a person with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD) or their loved one, to know that abuse can happen to anyone… everyone. Having a disability is not a protection. Many parents and teachers have told me, “well, no one would abuse my child/the children I teach… because they have disabilities.” Their belief blinds them to the reality that abuse not only does happen to kids and adults with disabilities, but in fact it happens more to people with than without disabilities.

The most recent surveys confirm this. In February 2014, the National Crime Victim Survey noted that among those between ages 12-15, those with disabilities were victimized three times more than their non-disabled peers. The 2012 National Survey on Abuse and Disability (7,289 responses) found that 70% respondents with disabilities reported abuse in their lifetimes. And, of these, 90% said that it happened multiple times, and 46% said it happened too many times to count.

Of course it is important to study the problem of abuse to know the extent of the problem. Then it is time to take the next step:  Help the survivors, and make efforts to reduce the risk of abuse. This means, make plans to reduce the risk that abuse will happen to each child and adult with a disability. It also means to make sure that each crime victim receives the psychological support they will need. Finally, it means that the criminal justice system should be available to individuals with disabilities… which it is not now.

The 2012 National Survey showed that nearly half of crime victims did not report the abuse, and of these most did not report, believing that their report would not result in any legal action against the perpetrator. Those who reported the crimes, 54% found that their reports did not result in any legal action. This shows that the fears of those not reporting were well-founded. And, this points us in a direction for reform. What can be done to ensure equal justice is available for crime victims with disabilities?

I believe these findings give us the information needed to design a plan of action. A written  plan of action has been in place at least since 1997, when the California Think Tank on Abuse and Disability convened in Los Angeles, CA and created a plan for the state. Perhaps now, these ideas can become reality. The most essential pieces of the plan include:

  1. Give every parent/careprovider/conservator a copy of the “Ten Tips on Abuse & Disability” to learn that abuse does happen, and the steps to take if it does. If parents and careproviders do not believe it happens or can happen, they will not protect their children nor be aware of what they should do and say when abuse is revealed to them. Parents are taught many things, but this essential area is ignored. ENOUGH! Every physician, psychologist (or other mental health practitioners), disability services agency, school, etc. should make sure that parents are aware and ready to protect their child. By simply handing them the “Ten Tips,” a one page guide, the parents’ have been given their first step: awareness, information, and resources.
  2. Every agency/organization providing services to crime victims and/or people with disabilities should receive an annual one-day training on abuse issues: incidence and prevalence, perpetrator information, risk-reduction strategies and support for survivors.
  3. Every law enforcement professional (patrol, detective, investigator, captain; prosecutor, judge, etc.) should receive at least one day of training each year on the aspects of interacting with individuals with disabilities, conducting a thorough investigation, knowledge on specialized interviewing skills, and in particular familiarization with the daily life of individuals with disabilities and the programs/ individuals who serve them. Budgets for training have always been identified as a barrier, but another is the interest level and commitment of those in charge of training. We have to continue to knock at the doors of agencies, until such training is a standard part of their training package.
  4. Every medical professional working with people with disabilities (that’s all of them, I think!) and mental health professional should be required to have at least one day training on working effectively with people with disabilities, with a particular awareness of the role abuse plays in their lives. Specialized therapies for crime victims with disabilities should be a part of the training of all trauma specialists and crisis and disaster responders.
  5. Most importantly, all individuals with disabilities should be provided information about abuse, maltreatment and assault. They should be able to understand what it is. They should have a plan designed for them or with them by their parents/carers, so they know what is happening if an assault happens, what to do before, during and after. The parents and carers should also receive education, information and training on what they should do before and after their loved one experiences violence.

I believe that it is my duty, and that of others, to do what we can within our scope of work and life, to ensure the well being of individuals with disabilities. I don’t know why I believe that, exactly, but it has turned out that that is my life’s work. I do not say that should be everyone’s work!!!  But, I think that within each of our job duties, there is something we can do to be a part of the solution.

The Arc of the US, and the Disability and Abuse Project, among others, have committed to develop resources that are easily accessible.  Visiting their sites monthly would be a good idea to stay up to date on availability of resources.

References:

U. S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, (2012)  NCJ240299 Crimes Against Persons with Disabilities,2009-2012.  Statistics Tables. Retrieved on 2/26/14 from http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4884

Baladerian, N., Coleman, T., Stream, J., (2013) Abuse of People with Disabilities Victims and Their Families Speak Out:  A Report on the 2012 National Survey on Abuse of People with Disabilities, retrieved on 4/1/14 from http://www.disabilityandabuse.org/survey

Baladerian, N.,  (2014) from A Risk Reduction Workbook for Parents and Service Providers, Spectrum Institute. Retrieved on 4/4/14 from http://www.disabilityandabuse.org/resources/ten-point-guide-to-abuse-response.pdf

 

Dr. Nora Baladerian is the Director of the Disability, Abuse and Personal Rights Project in Los Angeles, CA; she has worked in the area of abuse of people with disabilities since 1972. She is a former Board Member of the National Committee to Prevent Elder Abuse and Advisory Board Member of the American Bar Association’s Council on Victims. Dr. Baladerian is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Certified Sex Therapist and Board Certified Crisis Responder. She is the Project Coordinator for the Disability and Abuse Project of Spectrum Institute, and from 2000-2006 the Director of the CAN Do! Project, Child Abuse & Neglect Disability Outreach at Arc Riverside.

Celebrating World Down Syndrome Day While Seeking Justice for Individuals with Down Syndrome in Today’s Society

On March 21st, 2014, the world will celebrate the ninth annual World Down Syndrome Day. While people with Down syndrome have made significant strides in education, employment, and independence, there is so much more we can do as a society to ensure people with Down syndrome have the opportunity to enhance their quality of life, realize their life aspirations and become valued members of welcoming communities.

Ethan SaylorThe wrongful death of Ethan Saylor is just one example of the work left to do. Ethan, a 26-year old Frederick man who happened to have Down syndrome, died senselessly in the hands of three off-duty Frederick County Sheriff’s deputies in a movie theater in January 2013. Ethan’s death was tragic and avoidable. NDSS has advocated, alongside the Saylor family, for Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland to ensure that law enforcement, first responders and other public officials all receive the very best training regarding interaction with people with disabilities and for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to conduct an independent investigation into the death of Ethan Saylor. Emma Saylor started a change.org petition, which has gained over 370,000 signatures, calling for Governor O’Malley to investigate the death of her brother Ethan. In September 2013, Governor O’Malley issued an Executive Order establishing the Maryland Commission for Effective Community Inclusion of Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. This is Maryland’s chance to lead the way for other states on these critical issues, and ensure Ethan’s legacy lives on forever.

Just a few weeks ago in Atlanta, Georgia, Judge Christopher McFadden overturned a jury’s guilty verdicts against William Jeffrey Dumas. Dumas was convicted of repeatedly raping a young woman with Down syndrome in October 2010. According to his ruling, McFadden claims that a new trial is necessary because she did not behave like a rape victim. Even as we celebrate World Down Syndrome Day, these moments of blatant discrimination deserve our attention. NDSS condemned the judge’s actions and through an op-ed response demanded that the state of Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission begin proceedings to remove him from office. We can all get involved by supporting a change.org petition calling for McFadden’s removal; and that justice is done with the conviction being reinstated.

Last week in Plaquemine Parish, Louisiana, a mother of a baby, Lucas, who happened to have Down syndrome, was charged with his death after poisoning him—an action that deserves condemnation and for which justice must be sought.

While we can take pause today and celebrate the achievements of people with Down syndrome all around the world, we must be reminded that for us to fully achieve our mission of equality and inclusion, we must ensure that all people with Down syndrome and other disabilities are valued, respected members of their communities. The work and partnership of The Arc’s NCCJD and NDSS is vitally important to making sure people with Down syndrome and other disabilities have the right to a meaningful life in their communities, whether it’s through a career of their choosing, a living arrangement of their liking, recreational activities of their selecting, or just friendships of their electing. We, as the national advocate for people with Down syndrome, want to be sure what happen to Ethan Saylor and other tragic, unfortunate cases never happens again.

National Down Syndrome SocietyNDSS is proud to partner with The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD), a national clearinghouse on criminal justice and disability issues funded by Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice, that provides resources, information and referral, training, technical assistance and evaluation for criminal justice and disability professionals and programs. To that end, NDSS continues to be dedicated to issues that prevent harm, abuse, and victimization of individuals with Down syndrome. Unfortunately, we learn about these tragic, unfortunate, and senseless cases involving individuals with Down syndrome every day; and we seek to advocate on the behalf of these individuals and their families as they seek justice. To that end, NDSS continues to be dedicated to issues that prevent harm, abuse, and victimization of individuals with Down syndrome.

The Arc Supports The Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act

The Arc released the following statement in response to the introduction of S.2054, the Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act, introduced by Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) and co-sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

“The rights of students, many who have a disability, in boot camps and residential programs are too often compromised due to the lack of oversight of these facilities. We applaud Senator Murphy and Senator Harkin for standing up for these teens who have suffered abuse and for their parents who in many cases were not aware that their children were being abused. Ensuring the safety of our children in residential programs should be a top priority. We urge Senators to support this important legislation,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act will help end the abuse of children in boot camps and residential programs by setting minimum standards including prohibiting the withholding of essential food, water, clothing, shelter, or healthcare; prohibiting physical or mental abuse; improving the collection of data; requiring reporting of serious injuries and deaths to the Protection and Advocacy agency in that state or territory; and requiring transparency of these programs so parents can view the records of residential facilities and make the best decisions for their children.

The Arc Urges U.S. Supreme Court to Protect Constitutional Rights of People with Intellectual Disability on Death Row

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Hall v. Florida, a death penalty case concerning the definition of “mental retardation” (or intellectual disability (ID) as it is now called) that Florida uses in deciding whether an individual with that disability is protected by the Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in the Atkins v. Virginia case that executing inmates with ID is unconstitutional as it violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Florida is clearly violating the Supreme Court’s Atkins v. Virginia ruling and the Court must reaffirm its commitment to the rights of people with intellectual disabilities in our criminal justice system. Freddie Lee Hall has an intellectual disability, and Florida’s effort to flaunt the professional standards on IQ testing to end someone’s life needs to be stopped by the highest court in our country. It is immoral and unjust,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Hall case centers on whether the state may establish a hardline ceiling on IQ, refusing to consider whether anyone with an obtained IQ above that level may actually have ID, despite the fact that use of such a ceiling undermines the purpose of IQ testing and the professional judgment of the diagnostician, among other things. In Hall, the Court has been asked to address Florida’s decision to draw the line at an IQ of 70. Based on the professional expertise of two leading professional organizations in the field, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA), it is universally accepted that IQ test scores must be interpreted by taking into account the standard error of measurement that is inherent in IQ tests. That means that any IQ test score is best understood as a range, rather than a single score: a score of 70, for example, is best understood as indicating that the person’s “true” IQ score is most likely between 65 and 75.

In addition to IQ testing, numerous expert evaluations have documented Freddie Lee Hall’s disability. Before the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins, a Florida trial court found that Hall had ID “all of his life”. His family recognized his disability in early childhood and teachers repeatedly noted his intellectual disability. The lower court records also include findings of severe and violent abuse of Hall during his childhood.

The Arc has participated in a number of cases on this issue before the Supreme Court including Atkins v. Virginia. The Arc’s amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief was cited by the Justices in support of its ruling that the Constitution protects all defendants with ID. On December 23, 2013, The Arc submitted an amicus brief for the Hall v. Florida case.

Through a two-year grant for $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), The Arc is developing the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability. This project is creating a national clearinghouse for research, information, evaluation, training and technical assistance for justice and disability professionals and other advocates that will build their capacity to better identify and meet the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, whose disability often goes unrecognized. Providing accurate, effective and consistent training for criminal justice professionals is critical.