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 Reacts to Startling New Bureau of Justice Statistics on Crimes against People with Cognitive and Other Disabilities

This week, The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released a report on Crime Against Persons with Disabilities, 2009–2012 – Statistical Tables.  Disabilities are classified according to six limitations: hearing, vision, cognitive, ambulatory, self-care, and independent living.  Among persons with disabilities, those with cognitive disabilities experienced the highest rate of violent victimization (63 per 1,000).  Violent crime against persons with disabilities was nearly three times higher than the rate for persons without disabilities.  The rate of serious violent crime—rape or other sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault—against persons with disabilities was nearly four times higher than that for persons without disabilities in 2012.

The Arc, which is running the new National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability with a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, released the following statement on the data:

“This startling data illustrates what we are hearing from self-advocates, parents, caregivers, and others within our chapter network and the disability community – people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are at particular risk of being victims of crimes of all kinds.  It’s a serious problem that we must no longer ignore or treat as a peripheral issue.  In order to effectively address this silent epidemic of unaddressed abuse and victimization among people with disabilities in the U.S., we must have support from all levels of the community – disability advocates, law enforcement, victim advocates, legal professionals, elected leaders, community advocates, and people with disabilities themselves who know all too well the trauma of victimization and the devastation of receiving little or no support.

“The Arc’s new Center on Criminal Justice and Disability aims to be a comprehensive resource to help turn these statistics around so that people with disabilities can lead safer lives in their community and access support and begin to heal when victimization occurs,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Arc’s new National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability is the first national effort of its kind to bring together both victim and suspect/offender issues involving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) under one roof.  The Center launched its new website earlier this week.

The Arc Reacts to Maryland Commission’s Report on Community Inclusion in the Wake of the Robert Ethan Saylor Tragedy

Recently, the state of Maryland’s Commission for Effective Community Inclusion of Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (I/DD) released their initial report.  Created in September by Governor Martin O’Malley, the Commission is charged with bringing to life accurate, effective and comprehensive attitudes, policies, and supports that will guide first responders in their work with people with I/DD.  Representing The Arc on the Commission is Joanna Pierson, Executive Director of The Arc of Frederick County.

The Commission conducted a national review of materials and approaches in the area of I/DD, examined the status of training in Maryland, looked at how community inclusion efforts over the years have impacted people with I/DD, and determined next steps in their process.  Now the Commission is hosting listening sessions across the state that The Arc will participate in.

“The Commission has started an incredibly important dialogue in Maryland about how to bring more awareness to communities across the state about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  Too often, we hear of instances where law enforcement is approaching a situation involving a person with an intellectual or developmental disability from a crisis perspective.  We need to change this approach so that our first responders are first made aware of how to engage people with disabilities so that things don’t escalate into a crisis as they did with Robert Ethan Saylor.  The Arc Maryland is ready to provide this training support with a program that involves people with disabilities, as suggested by the Commission.  We think it is vitally important that any training and awareness brought about by this Commission’s work should be inclusive of all types of intellectual and developmental disabilities so that we can make our state safer and more inclusive for all,” said Kate Fialkowski, Executive Director, The Arc Maryland.

In October, The Arc Maryland conducted an introductory training entitled “Law Enforcement Response to Developmental Disabilities” at the Governor’s Fall Criminal Justice Conference.  In an “Ask Me” format, individuals with developmental disabilities led this training.

At the national level, in October 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.

“Just a few months into this project, and we are already seeing just how great the need is nationally for resources, information, training, and support around this issue. It shouldn’t take another tragedy like the death of Robert Ethan Saylor to bring the kind of focused attention this issue deserves, and we look forward to working with the Commission to make Maryland’s communities safer for everyone,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Arc Calls on Department of Justice to End Tactics and Thoroughly Investigate Allegations that People with Disabilities Were Exploited in Sting Operations

After reading news reports of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agents engaging in entrapment and exploitation designed to prey on the intellectual disability of individuals whom ATF agents sought to engage in their stings, some of whom have been prosecuted for their participation, The Arc is calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to take action.

In a letter sent to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder yesterday, The Arc outlined the following action items to take in the wake of the scandal:

  • Establish an immediate investigation into the ATF practices which led to the news reports;
  • Ensure an immediate halt to all practices which exploit people based on their intellectual and/or developmental disability (I/DD);
  • Require ATF to suspend any ongoing investigations that are targeting people known to have I/DD;
  • Develop and implement a training program for ATF agents nationwide that provides specific information on how to identify persons with I/DD, and establish protocols to ensure they are no longer targeted or sought out as informants due to having a disability;
  • Encourage the Inspector General to escalate the investigation to cover ATF more broadly and bring the investigation to conclusion sooner rather than later; and
  • Petition the courts for equitable redress where people with intellectual disabilities are serving time for crimes initiated or furthered by the actions of ATF agents.

“Without a firm repudiation of the reported behaviors by ATF agents, the public and the disability community, in particular, will lose faith in a department which it trusts to protect its rights, not to entice vulnerable people into legal trouble.  The Arc is committed to working closely with the appropriate federal agencies to inform protocol and training development for ATF agents, and be of assistance on this important matter as needed,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Arc has worked extensively over the years with many staff and officials in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to ensure that the rights of people with I/DD are protected throughout mainstream community life and within the criminal justice system.  We have seen remarkable progress in implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision, particularly in recent years.  DOJ has continued its commitment to these issues, most recently awarding The Arc a grant to create a National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability to bridge the gap between the disability and law enforcement communities, creating access to justice and safer lives for people with I/DD.

Below is the entire letter to Attorney General Holder.

 

The Honorable Eric Holder

Attorney General of the United States

U.S. Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20530-0001

 

December 12, 2013

 

Dear Mr. Attorney General:

The Arc of the United States has worked extensively over the years with many staff and officials in the U.S. Department of Justice to ensure that the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) are protected throughout mainstream community life and within the criminal justice system.  We have known very competent, inspiring, and visionary DOJ employees working over many decades to ensure full participation for people who face significant barriers in everyday life.  We have seen remarkable progress in implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision, particularly in recent years.  We are now looking forward as we begin an exciting new chapter with DOJ start-up funding of a new National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability.

With DOJ’s commitment to the protection of rights of people with disabilities, we were appalled to read news reports of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agents engaging in entrapment and exploitation designed to prey on the intellectual disability of individuals whom ATF agents sought to engage in their stings, some of whom have been prosecuted for their participation.  The targeting and use of people in this way, exploiting their disabilities, flies in the face of the excellent work of the Civil Rights division in pursuing full implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Olmstead decision.  This reported behavior, if true, by a federal department charged with protecting the rights of people with disabilities must not be allowed to continue.

While this information is appalling, unfortunately, it is not surprising to The Arc.  This type of injustice against people with I/DD occurs more often than the general public realizes. Individuals with I/DD are over represented in the criminal justice system and often used by other criminals without I/DD to carry out criminal activity. They typically have limited, if any, understanding about their involvement in a crime or consequences of being involved in a crime.  With few options for or opportunities to build safe relationships, their strong need to be accepted by peers in their own communities can create a unique vulnerability that people without I/DD do not experience.

If the media stories about the ATF are based in truth at all, we believe that the harm done to individuals by agencies of their government is so egregious that the following actions are needed immediately:

  • Establish an immediate investigation into the ATF practices which led to the news reports;
  • Ensure an immediate halt to all practices which exploit people based on their intellectual and/or developmental disability;
  • Require ATF to suspend any ongoing investigations that are targeting people known to have I/DD;
  • Develop and implement a training program for ATF agents nationwide that provides specific information on how to identify persons with I/DD, and establish protocols to ensure they are no longer targeted or sought out as informants due to having a disability;
  • Encourage the Inspector General to escalate the investigation to cover ATF more broadly and bring the investigation to conclusion sooner rather than later; and
  • Petition the courts for equitable redress where people with intellectual disabilities are serving time for crimes initiated or furthered by the actions of ATF agents.

Without a firm repudiation of the reported behaviors by ATF agents, the public and the disability community, in particular, will lose faith in a department which it trusts to protect its rights, not to entice vulnerable people into legal trouble.  The Arc is committed to working closely with the appropriate federal agencies to inform protocol and training development for ATF agents, and be of assistance on this important matter as needed. The goal of The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability is to bridge the gap between the disability and law enforcement communities, creating access to justice and safer lives for people with I/DD.  We stand ready to assist you in addressing these issues.

 

Sincerely,

 

Peter V. Berns

Chief Executive Officer, The Arc

 

cc: Cecilia Munoz, Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council