I am a Public Health Nurse and the mother of a son with Asperger’s. I read the article in the West Central Tribune on April 19, 2012 and appreciate the efforts made by the Counties and Commissioner Harlan Madsen to fill the gaps in services to disabled people because they do not “fit the mold”. Our son is one of those individuals that fell through the cracks after graduating from high school. He is not severely disabled physically but people with Asperger’s have disabilities that leave them just as “vulnerable.”
The courts assigned my husband and me to be his legal guardians after he turned 18 years old. The guardianship papers read that he is an “incapacitated person” that “lacks sufficient understanding or capacity to make or communicate responsible decisions” and “demonstrated behavioral deficits evidencing inability to meet his needs for medical care, nutrition, clothing, shelter, or safety.” Our son also meets the strict guidelines to receive Social Security Benefits related to his mental health needs. So why doesn’t he meet the criteria to receive any type of service after graduating high school that could teach independent living skills and to enable him to go off social security? This could be accomplished in a day program just for Asperger kids that have special needs apart from other disabled individuals. This would also allow them to live at home while preparing them for their future.
These kids do not need to be in a group home like the majority of the those offered today for long term care of the seriously disabled, who will most likely spend the rest of their lives in that type of care setting. The Commissioner and counties are right on when they voice concern to the state about filling a gap in services for people with disabilities.
Young people with Asperger’s are not prepared to live independently after high school, but with some guidance and a little extra help they can learn the skills needed to be productive hard working individuals in our community. High school does not teach these kids the social skills they need or prepare them for the job market. People with Asperger’s tend to be immature in relation to their peers and need time to “catch up” mentally. With the growing rate of kids diagnosed with Aspergers today, (1 out of 88) it is time to make the needed changes in our health care services and meet the needs of this growing population.
Recently I had a discussion with a Medical Doctor from ACMC regarding the issues these kids face. He stated he was asked by a group of community leaders, “why the facility near the YMC was not filled to capacity, when it was first built?” And they wanted to know, “where are all the people with mental health needs ending up?” Sadly, he reported many are “filling our prisons”. Ann Stehn, who oversees the Kandiyohi county public health and family services department, states that counties are “ramping up” efforts to bring “mental health professionals into the jail to provide treatment,” however, “jail is not a therapeutic setting”, and makes a good point in saying “that’s not what our jails are intended to do” but also added the fact that there are “no other place for them to go.”
Governor Dayton signed a law protecting vulnerable adults the same day I read the article about counties “ramping up” efforts to bring mental health professionals into the jail. The new bill signed makes intentional abuse and neglect of vulnerable adults a felony. The abuse or neglect includes depriving a vulnerable adult of food, shelter, supervision, clothing or health care. Great bodily harm would carry up to 10 years in prison, up to $10,000 fine or both, while substantial bodily harm would bring five years in prison and/or up to $5,000 in fines. How many vulnerable adults do you think are filling our prisons today?
I know for sure one is; and that is my son. Prior to his incarceration he had no criminal history. He was active in Special Olympics all through high school and served as team captain in basketball and track. He was proud of his gold medals from state tournaments and we were very proud of him. He attended a school in Starbuck, MN for kids with autism. He did not mind the hour bus ride to school and back each day because he had found a place that he belonged. His grades went from failing to A’s and B’s and when I asked him what made the difference, he stated, “They know how to teach me mom.” His self esteem soared and his goals became lofty. He had found a purpose for his life and he wanted to be a security guard.
After Chase graduated from high school we were sickened to discover there were no services to help him in his continued growth and development. Other kids his age were working or went to college. He did not have the skills to work nor was he prepared to go to College. My husband and I were faced with some difficult decisions. Does one of us quit our job? And stay home and ensure our son’s safety? We looked into PCA services. He was able to do most of his own personal cares with reminders and some supervision so he did not fit the criteria for that program.
With reservations and considerable worry we gave into allowing our son to live in a small apartment. One that had security doors that locked and was close enough to our home that we could check on him frequently. His greatest trial during that time was the lack of structure in his day to day living. It was overwhelming to all of us, but there was no perfect answer to our situation. Chase was a good kid and if we could keep him away from trouble he should be fine. We helped Chase with his grocery shopping and laundry. Chase did not have a driver’s license. He needed more then what we could provide, but we did the best we could for him. We just prayed no one would take advantage of him. Asperger kids have a difficult time differentiating good from bad when it comes to people. They are so trusting. They think “everyone” is their friend.
On the 23rd of April 2011, our son introduced us to his “new friend.” We needed to be Chase’s eyes and ears when it came to signs of trouble in his life. So we immediately told his friend (whom we thought was higher functioning than Chase) that we were Chase’s guardians. We told him what that meant and that we were responsible for helping our son make good decisions. His friend Andrew said he understood. We thought he seemed genuine in his friendship to Chase. We learned later this new friend had a long criminal history and that he told our son upon meeting us, not to tell us his “real” last name. Within in a two week time period our nightmare began to unfold. The first thing we noticed was Andrew wrote on Facebook that he got a new apartment (with no mention of our son); he began wearing our son’s shoes and clothes and when I asked Chase about this he said “they share everything.” I asked what Andrew shared with him and he had no reply. Chase began asking for more money than usual. Andrew shaved our son’s hair off and pierced his ears and told Chase they were “brothers now”, we asked Andrew to leave Chase’s apartment, but every time we returned he was there. He somehow convinced our son that he was “going to take care of him.” The TV and X Box went missing and it was not long after that our keys to our son’s apartment disappeared. We realized this total stranger had taken over not only our son’s life but his apartment as well. We could no longer “drop in” unexpectedly without our keys. It happened so fast. This kid had some kind of hold on our son and we did not know why. We later learned he had been threatening Chase with a gun. Andrew’s father came to our house and said his son stole his gun. All we knew was that we needed help and decided to call the police. It wasn’t soon enough because that day we heard on the radio that our son had been arrested. It was May 3rd 2011.
I was in shock. Our son’s picture was on the news that night. I will never forget the broad cast as they described our son as a man. He’s not a man! He is a child in a man’s body. He looked so young, even though he was nineteen years old. At that moment we knew our lives, our son’s life, and the lives of many other people had been critically altered.
Although Andrew was found guilty to nearly all of the crimes, our son was sentenced to 36 months in prison as an accomplice. His mental health issues were irrelevant to the court system. It did not matter that this was his first time in serious trouble, he was found guilty by association. And that is not the only thing, to makes matters worse it was the same judge that sentenced him to prison that had signed the guardianship papers stating our son was a vulnerable adult.
All I could think of was how wrong this all seemed. The judge asked before he sentenced our son to prison if anyone had any other ideas as to where he could be sent besides prison and no one could think of any other place. There is nowhere for vulnerable adults to go if they get into trouble? They do not belong in prison. They are vulnerable, gullible, naïve, and incapable of taking care of themselves. They do not have criminal minds. I pleaded with the prosecuting attorney, Shawn Baker and stated that “Chase does not belong in prison”. It did not matter; there was “no other place for him to go.”
I faxed the guardianship papers to the prison before our son arrived to serve his time. It was all I could do to help Chase. I hoped someone would read them and care about our son’s safety. The case manager for Chase at the prison called me after he arrived and said, “In the history of the prison they have only had possibly two other cases of a vulnerable adult being sentenced to prison.” I’m guessing there have been many prisoners that were vulnerable but did not have the documentation to prove it. She went on to say, “He doesn’t belong here”, and stated “what he needs is independent living skills, not a prison. They placed him by the guards’ desk in a cell by himself so that they could keep an eye on him. The case manager told me upon our next conversation she would transfer him to a minimum security if at all possible and told me that Chase was doing alright. She said the older prisoners were watching after him and making sure no one “messed with him.” I thanked her from the bottom of my heart. She cared.
We visit Chase weekly and try to keep his spirits up. They started him on an antidepressant this last week. He tells us stories about what it’s like in prison. He described it as hell. He said that every morning when he wakes up he waits for the guard to come to his cell and tell him to pack his stuff because he was going home and that there had been a mistake. He reassures us that he is doing fine when he sees the worry on our faces. We listen to his stories about the other prisoners he has met, a boy who is serving a life sentence for killing his whole family, another person that hit his mother in the head with a hatchet and killed her, the rapist, the chimo’s (child molesters) that no one likes. He has told us that there are bi-sexual people there too, but not to worry, he is getting use to them starting at him when he is in the shower. And he told us that every time we visit him he is strip searched before he can go back to his cell, but he does not want us to stop coming to see him. He has been given a nick name too, they call him Smiley.
I can’t help wondering what our son will be like when he gets out of prison. Will he be the same sweet person? Will he be hardened and uncaring and someone we do not know any more? Will he be emotionally distraught? Or suffer from some post traumatic stress? I know one thing for sure; he will never be the same person that left.
Through this experience I will continue to be an advocate for my son. Although physically I cannot be there to protect him, and God knows I would have taken his place in a heartbeat, I can be there in prayer and in words through letters. And there is one more thing I can do for my son, and that is to be a voice for him and others like him that are “falling through the cracks.” I can tell his story for him and hope that someone will listen and his time will not be served in vain. I hope that maybe, just maybe, God did have his hand in this horrific event and something good will come out of it for those still suffering in our prisons with mental illnesses and disabilities … and better yet maybe, just maybe someone will listen and help to make changes in our health care system to provide services to the vulnerable adults in our communities that are “falling through the cracks” so they do not end up in jail. Too many times after high school these kids end up on the streets unsupervised and that makes them easy targets for those looking to manipulate and take advantage of other people more vulnerable. To me “those people” who take advantage of vulnerable adults are the “real criminals.”