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Policing the Justice System

Ray Walker, a 28-year-old man who was deaf and had an intellectual disability, had been missing for seven days from the group home where he lived. Eventually his body was discovered in a closet that had been nailed shut by the owner of the home. The residence’s license was revoked for two years. The owner, though convicted of murder, was given only a light sentence.

Nora Baladerian, PhD, wants to prevent such short shrift for people with disabilities within the legal system. The West Los Angeles psychologist has noticed that police officers, lawyers and first responders often hold the same misconceptions and stereotypes about people with disabilities that many laypeople have, and these biases can affect the treatment people with disabilities receive if they are accused of a crime or are crime victims.

Law enforcement officers, Baladerian says, often don’t respond at all in a case involving a person with an intellectual disability because they assume the person will be unable to respond to questioning or will not be a reliable witness. “If it isn’t blue eyes, blonde hair and apple pie, they sometimes don’t conduct a complete or comprehensive or even very nice interview,” she says. “The case often goes absolutely nowhere.”

Indeed, national crime statistics support Baladerian’s observations. According to the National Organization for Victim Assistance and the U.S. Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime, many survivors of crime who have disabilities have never participated in the criminal justice process, even those who have been repeatedly and brutally victimized. These agencies report that many crimes against people with disabilities are never reported to police, and of those that lead to an investigation and an arrest, very few are prosecuted. When going through the criminal justice process, survivors of crime who have disabilities are less likely to come into contact with a crime victim advocate, and when victim services are provided they may be inappropriate due to inadequate training of service providers. These problems are especially troubling in light of evidence that adults and children with disabilities are more frequently targeted for criminal acts than average citizens. Joan Petersilia, researcher and professor of criminology at the University of California­Irvine, estimates that people with developmental disabilities have a 4 to 10 times higher risk of becoming crime victims than people without a disability, and children with any type of disability are twice as likely as children without disabilities to be physically or sexually abused.

Now, through the establishment of the Disability, Abuse and Personal Rights Project and its Web-based training program—one of the few of its kind—Baladerian provides guidance to law enforcement and social work professionals across the country to help correct these unwitting differences in legal treatment.

Baladerian points to stereotypes as the primary instigator of discrepancies in legal treatment. Boys or men with intellectual disabilities are often stereotyped as being dangerous or sex-crazed and may become the targets of unfair prosecution. On the flip side, people who appear to be different—who have been burned, have had amputations or use wheelchairs or other assistive devices—are often stereotyped as having less capability than they actually possess and are assumed to be unable or unlikely to participate in the multiple steps of bringing perpetrators to justice.

In one case Baladerian was involved with, a 12-year-old boy with an intellectual disability was delivering newspapers in his neighborhood. He stopped to rest outside one home, and a two-year-old came out. The boy innocently patted the little girl’s backside. Within a few moments, the toddler’s mother called the police and accused the boy of rape; he was eventually placed in an institutional setting two hours away from his home.

“The fact of the matter is that young adults with intellectual or psychiatric disabilities cannot engage in normal affectionate behaviors without risking arrest,” Baladerian laments. “If that child hadn’t had an intellectual disability he never would have been removed from his home, removed from his paper route, removed from his family.”

She notes that the situation is similar when a person with a disability is the victim, rather than the accused. Police officers and others involved in examining a case often don’t take seriously a person with a disability who claims to have experienced a crime. Sometimes such officials believe the victim won’t accurately remember details of the crime, but more often people with disabilities are accused of completely making up an incident of abuse or crime, particularly in cases of sexual abuse.

Baladerian thinks the very idea is ridiculous. “This child who has had no sexual contact has made up a very detailed story of sexual abuse from a fund of knowledge he doesn’t have? How does that work?” She says students with disabilities are often less starved for attention—because of opportunities like one-on-one tutoring and special education programs—than students without disabilities. If anything, there’s less motivation to make up stories of abuse or criminal activity.

“It’s those kinds of myths and stereotypes that don’t make any sense. In our training, I go through and examine some of them. Once you pull the myths apart, you have a cleaner psychological slate to do your interaction: adjudication, an interview, an investigation or even a treatment session.”

However, the battle doesn’t stop once law enforcement officials are comfortable interacting with people with disabilities. Survivors of crime may face other barriers to reporting information and getting help. Abuse by a worker in a group facility may never be reported because the person engaging in abusive behaviors is the very person with the power to restrict a victim’s contact with the outside world—by denying phone calls, for example, or turning away visitors. Also, the segregation and isolation of institutional settings can prevent people from learning about available services and resources and discovering the rights they have by law. Additionally, architectural barriers in buildings and public transportation systems often prevent survivors of crime who have limited mobility from visiting criminal justice agencies or victim assistance programs.

Baladerian urges police officers and lawyers who meet with a crime survivor to go a step further after the interview and make sure the person has a way to provide additional information he or she may remember later. Ordinarily, crime survivors are given a card and encouraged to call, but that is not always possible for people who rely on assistance from others or live in an institutional setting. Baladerian tells those she trains to call the person a week or two after the interview, rather than waiting to be contacted. She suggests multiple visits, three or four at least ....Continued in ABILITY Magazine


by Noelle Kelly


ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Paul Sorvino issue include Letter from the Editor — Alternative Medicine; Senator Grassley — A Good Deal for Seniors; Headlines — AFB, IBM and Technology Innovators; Humor — Why I’m Still Single; Media Access Awards — Disability in the Media; Employment — Your Boss is Not Your Mother; Asthma — What Everyone Should Know; Raisin’ the Roof! — ABILITY Build in Hawaii; Alternative Medicine — Laserpuncture; Recipes — Tasty Salads; The First Cut is the Deepest — Self-Injury; Events and Conferences... subscribe

More excerpts from the Paul Sorvino issue:

Paul Sorvino — Speaks About Goodfellas, Good Works and Good Breathing

Jamaica Travel — Accessible Travel

Policing the Justice System — A Call to Action

Aida Turturro — Tips for Diabetes

Employment — Your Boss is Not Your Mother

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