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Posts tagged Autism

Institutionalized sadism

(Via Atomic Nerds 2009-02-08, flip flopping joy 2009-03-03, and NPR.)

See if you can figure out what all of these cases have in common.

Trigger warning. The stories below involve verbal descriptions, and a news video below includes repeated displays of silent but very graphic footage, of extreme physical violence by adult teachers and male police officers against young men, young women, and girls under their authority.

In Idaho, an eight-year-old girl who has been labeled with Asperger’s Syndrome was taken out of a class Christmas party at her government-run school, because she was wearing a hoodie with cow ears and a tail, which she refused to take off on the arbitrary orders of her teacher. For this minor dress code violation, she was stuck in a separate room and intervened with by a pair of teachers. While she was under their power, she peacefully tried to walk out of the room through an open door, so the adult teachers physically grabbed her and forced her down into four point restraint; when she screamed and tried to get out of the painful hold they had put her in, the teachers then called in the county government’s police, who came in, grabbed this 54-pound girl, handcuffed her, marched her out to a police car, and took her to a juvie prison, for battering the teachers who were physically restraining her when all she wanted was to be left the hell alone. This sustained assault by several different adults, some of them heavily armed, on an upset child, which has left her with bruises, is dignified as a scuffle by the newspapers:

The mother of an 8-year-old autistic girl who was arrested after a scuffle with her teachers said it was horrifying to watch her daughter be led away in handcuffs from her northern Idaho elementary school.

Police in Bonner County, Idaho, charged the girl, Evelyn Towry, with battery after the arrest Friday at Kootenai Elementary School.

Even though prosecutors dismissed the case Tuesday, the family is considering legal action against the school. They say their daughter was physically restrained to the point of causing bruises and is now tormented by memories of the incident.

… Towry said Evelyn, who loves Spongebob Squarepants, told her she was put in a separate classroom away from the party, but when she tried to leave, the teachers told her to stay put. Evelyn did not listen, Towry said, and the adults physically restrained her.

She reacted in a violent way to the physical restraint, Towry said.

Towry said her daughter demonstrated for her how she was held down by her arms and legs. And Towry videotaped the thumb-sized bruises she says were left on Evelyn’s legs from the incident.

She said I was very scared, Towry said. She told me she was being hurt.

Dick Cvitanich, superintendent of the Lake Pend Oreille School District, which includes the school where Evelyn was a student, said the school called police because there was escalating behavior that resulted in what we perceived to be an assault on staff.

No doubt; but who, in this situation, was doing the escalating?

Teachers and the principal wished to pursue charges because they felt there were ongoing problems and this was the only way to resolve it, Lakewold said.

But Towry said her daughter thinks she got into so much trouble simply because she didn’t want to take off her cow costume.

When asked what she likes best about school, Evelyn responded quickly and emphatically.

Nothing, she said. I don’t like school.

— Sarah Netter, ABC News (2009-01-04): Parents Consider Legal Action After Autistic Girl, 8, Arrested at School

Meanwhile, in Occupied Seattle, a 15 year old black girl was taken to a government jail by the county government’s cops after she and a friend went on a joyride in her friend’s mother’s car. While under their power, according to the cops, she got quote-unquote real lippy over how they were treating her, and went so far as to call them some unkind names. Then, when she was being locked in a cell, the cops ordered her to take off her shoes; she kicked off one of the shoes towards the heaily armed cop who was about to lock her securely in a room she couldn’t escape from. Instead, he decided to take this escalating behavior as assaulting a police officer, which is of course a perfect opportunity for intervention — in this case, rushing the 15 year old girl, kicking her in the gut, slamming her against the wall of her cell, pulling her back by her hair, slamming her to the ground, pinning her down, and smashing her repeatedly with his fist while she was physically restrained by himself and his gang brother.

Meanwhile, in Texas, at the Corpus Christi State School [sic] — it is actually a government-run institution where about 360 people, ranging in age from 18 to 77 years old, are legally committed, temporarily or permanently, with or without their consent, for being labeled as mentally retarded, especially if they severe behavioral and/or emotional problems — about a dozen workers are under investigation after cell phone videos surfaced in which they rousted up some of the young men under their power, late at night, surrounded them, shoved them, kicked them, and goaded them into fighting each other for the entertainment of the trained, professional staff.

At a state institution for people with mental retardation in Texas, six staff members have been charged with taking part in staging what have been called human cockfights, using residents with mental retardation. . . .

The fights became known only because one of the workers lost his cell phone. It was found and turned over to an off-duty police officer. The phone had videos of more than a year of staged late-night fights, some as recent as this past January.

— Joseph Shapiro, NPR Morning Edition (2009-03-18): Abuse At Texas Institutions Is Beyond ‘Fight Club’

The criminal charges stem from allegations this week that Corpus Christi state school employees forced disabled residents into orchestrated, late-night fights over the course of more than a year. They were caught after they captured at least 20 of the episodes on a cellphone camera, one turned over to police.

Five of the suspects – Timothy Dixon, 30; Jesse Salazar, 25; Guadalupe Delarosa, 21; Vince Johnson, 21; and Dangelo Riley, 22 – are charged with injury to a disabled person, a third-degree felony. Their bail has been set at $30,000. A sixth suspect, 21-year-old Stephanie Garza, is charged with a state jail felony for allegedly failing to intervene in the fight clubs. Her bail is set at $15,000.

Arrest warrants obtained by The Dallas Morning News allege five of the employees encouraged, filmed or narrated the fights – which were documented in dozens of still images and 20 videos taken over six months in 2008. Riley is allegedly seen kicking a resident during a fight, while Dixon, who appears from the warrants to be the phone’s owner, is accused of doing much of the filming and narration. Four of the videos show residents sustaining injuries.

— Emily Ramshaw, The Dallas Morning News (2009-03-13): State school worker linked to fight club scandal arrested; 5 others sought

Texas authorities are outraged. But they would like us to know that this is an Isolated Incident:

He said he hasn’t heard of fight club scenarios at any other state schools.

I haven’t heard any other allegations yet, he said. So far, these circumstances, these staffers, appear to have been the exception.

— Emily Ramshaw, The Dallas Morning News (2009-03-12): Texas officials make surprise visits to state schools after Corpus Christi fight videos surface

Right — an exception. Just like the literally hundreds of other exceptions that we were discussing here less than a year ago, which The Dallas Morning News, among others, have documented at Texas state mental institutions in the last 4 years — the use of physical threats, headlocks, chokeholds, tackling, dragging, beating, raping, to please the whims of Mental Health staffers or to dominate and control the patients unwillingly forced to endure their care. Meanwhile, at Corpus Christi alone in 2008 alone, there were nearly 1,000 allegations of abuse, neglect or mistreatment in 2008; 60 reports were confirmed by the administrators. 60 confirmed reports is bad enough, but what’s worse is how many of those unconfirmed reports must surely be the result of the usual institutional cover-ups and white-washes. How much do you think you could get away with if all your coworkers could be counted on to get your back, and if reports of abuse by your victims could be waved off as literally the product of insanity or feeble-mindedness?

Several of the stories about this horrible case have gone straight for the agonized hand-wringing:

The accusations have raised questions about how workers trained and hired to care for some of the most vulnerable people in society could instead treat them with cruelty.

— Joseph Shapiro, NPR Morning Edition (2009-03-18): Abuse At Texas Institutions Is Beyond ‘Fight Club’

AUSTIN – Cellphone videos of Corpus Christi State School employees forcing mentally disabled residents into late-night prize fights have left Texas families and advocates for people with disabilities in search of answers – not just about security but about human nature.

How can one human being treat another in such a wicked way? Experts disagree on the roots of such abuse. It might be a byproduct of the stressful situations people are in. It could also be innate sadism.

— Emily Ramshaw, The Dallas Morning News (2009-03-14): Forced fights at Corpus Christi State School raise disturbing questions

We are also told that maybe it’s a lack of education; maybe there’s something about the impersonal nature of large institutions; maybe it’s all peer pressure. But really, once the hand-wringing about human nature and peer pressure and all the rest is gotten out of the way, one explanation is always put forward, by those who have access to the media, as a matter of unquestionable consensus: obviously, Experts tell us, it’s the lack of training, the poor pay, and the lax supervision of the personnel who are put in the position of de facto prison guards for hundreds of institutionalized people. This is used as an entre into asserting the alleged need for more tax money, more prison guards, more Expert training — and insisting that these state institutions don’t have enough privileges and money from the state government; that they need even more money to hire and pay the very people who have turned their institutions into dangerous hellholes. E.g.:

But they [Experts] concur that the formula at Texas’ 13 institutions for the disabled – young, inexperienced and underpaid workers in charge of the state’s most vulnerable residents – lays the groundwork for disaster.

Left alone, human beings will engage in the most surprising kinds of misconduct and adjust their mentality to fit, said David Crump, a University of Houston Law Center professor who specializes in the psychology of evil behavior. We should expect this unless we take concrete and meaningful steps to prevent it.

Of course, if you’ve read this far, you’ll have no trouble believing that people are capable of all kinds of cruelty. But if you’ve read this far, you’ll also know that this kind of non-explanation is the worst sort of hogwash. People don’t, as a rule, pin and handcuff random little girls on the street; they don’t beat the living hell out of customers at their workplace who cop an attitude; they don’t run into college dorms late at night to intimidate and goad groggy students into fights for the purpose of bloodsport. Nobody but a lunatic does this sort of thing to people who can choose to interact with them or not to interact with them, or in social contexts where they are dealing with equals who have a right to make their own decisions about what’s for their own good and who can expect to be taken seriously if they complain about ill-treatment.

These horrors do happen, and people do them, over and over again, and they are perfectly predictable — but they are perfectly predictable only in a very specific social and political context. The NPR story acts surprised that in government institutions like jails and schools and mental wards — institutions that people are forced into, against their will, when they have been marginalized by their age or their psychiatric labels or by the socio-legal processes of criminalization — the people who, as the legally-designated enforcers of the government institution’s prerogatives, enjoy unaccountable power to restrain and order around the most vulnerable people in society, might abuse that power with this kind of cruelty. But in fact this is only surprising if you forget the fact that the people under their care have been made vulnerable, legally vulnerable, precisely in order to make the institution go on running with or without their consent, and if you forget everything you ever knew about how people act when they enjoy unaccountable power over victims who cannot leave, even if they pose absolutely no physical threat to anybody, and who will not be taken seriously if they should protest. This only looks like a surprise if, in short, you go on imagining that this sort of violence is an abuse of the systems of government institutionalization, rather than part and parcel of what these institutions represent. These things happen over and over again, not at random but specifically in nonconsensual government institutions, in the dedicated facilities of social marginalization and segregation under the auspices of State power. They happen not because of peer pressure or intrinsic sadism but because of power pressure and institutionalized sadism — and we hear about them, in every state of the Union and on every day of the week, one more Outrage after another, but without the dots connected, indeed with the dots carefully left un-connected, because of the enduring, and grotesque, faith that with just enough nonconsensual funding, with just enough careful training and professional dedication, you can somehow make a nonconsensual government institution run the right way, and you can somehow maintain the conditions of a prison camp without the violence that prison guards always exercise. In fact, these institutions are already running the right way, in a manner of speaking — this is Situation Normal. And there is only one thing that will ever change it — abolishing the conditions that nurture and sustain it.

The reality is that what is needed is not more money, or more guards, or better training, or even a culture change. A culture change would be a step forward, but the real solution that is needed is something that goes far deeper: a solution that strikes at the root from which that culture and these conditions grow. What is really needed is a power change, so that psychiatric wards are no longer artificially packed by court order, so that patients can leave and seek help through other means if conditions become unbearable, and so that supposed patients are no longer treated against their will and held down at the mercy of their helper-captors. If you make a hospital into a prison camp, then it should be no surprise when the hospital caregivers start acting like prison camp guards. The only thing to do — the only thing you can do that will not just recreate the same problem in a superficially different form — is to respect the will of patients, to treat violence against them as a real crime worthy of punishment, to repeal the laws that privilege and protect their captors, and to break open the doors and tear off the straitjackets that hold them back from living their lives as human beings, rather than as objects of pity and coercion.

— GT 2008-05-05: Texas psychoprisons

See also:

Shiva on “abuse” and “misdiagnosis”

Besides availing itself of my favorite quotation from Edmund Burke, this recent post by Shiva at Biodiverse Resistance is also pretty much right on from beginning to end. Thus:

The headline of this recent BBC story is Stroke victim was misdiagnosed as mad. While reading it was pretty scary (especially as temporary aphasia can also occur in autism, and in fact i experienced it (albeit only for a few very brief periods) in my teens), it follows a certain pattern that annoys me: in describing the horrible treatment that Steve Hall experienced when misdiagnosed, it implicitly suggests that the same treatment would be appropriate and acceptable if he actually was mad.

It reminded me of this case of a woman who was put in a men’s prison because she was percieved to be a transsexual woman (and, therefore, in the eyes of the police who arrested her, really a man) – and of similar cases i’ve heard of where gender-ambiguous-looking women have been refused entry to women’s toilets or other single-sex spaces where they were thought to be MTF transsexuals. As nodesignation says:

The police don’t question the practice of regularly placing trans women in situations where they will be raped. They only lament that they accidentally subjected a non-trans woman to the violence that they regularly subject trans women to. I would assume that as this story gains traction the emphasis will be about how horrible that a woman who was not trans received such mistreatment. That much is clear already from the fact that there are so few stories on trans women receiving this mistreatment despite being its being a regular occurance.

It’s not the inherent wrongness of the treatment that is discussed, it is the supposed horrible mistake of subjecting someone to that treatment when that person actually turned out to be not a member of the category of people that it’s considered acceptable to do this sort of thing to. No thought is given to why it’s supposedly acceptable to do it to people who are in that category, despite the fact that, in both cases, the reporting of the incident blatantly begs the question: if it was horrible and inhuman and inacceptable to do this to one person by mistake, what is it to do it to a whole Othered class of people deliberately?

It was, and in some places still is, common for autistic people (particularly those who don’t fit certain aspects of the commoner autism stereotypes) to be misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, leading to institutionalisation, forced drugging, etc. Similarly, many non-verbal autistic people (who are/were nonetheless capable of communication through other means) are or were misdiagnosed as mentally retarded, again leading to institutionalisation and other abuses justified by the fact of their supposed incapacity for rational thought or communication. On autism message boards and other communities, these cases tend to be talked about primarily in terms of the horribleness of the misdiagnosis, often with comments to the effect that I/you/ze should never have been treated like that, because I’m/you’re/ze’s autistic, not schizophrenic/mentally retarded/whatever, or seeing the case similarly to someone who was acquitted of a crime after new evidence proved them not guilty, as if to be found to be autistic rather than some other diagnostic category after all is what makes all the difference. Even if the people making these sort of comments don’t realise it, they’re implying that it would be OK to do all those things to someone who actually is schizophrenic or mentally retarded.

Whether or not we want to adopt an overarching political/philosophical label like anarchist, however, all of us who fight, with actions or words, for any oppressed groups and against oppression need to actively oppose the hypocrisy of outrage at people being mistakenly treated like they are members of a supposedly OK to exclude, abuse or oppress category, when the real outrage should be that such a category even exists. The thing itself is the abuse…

— Shiva @ Biodiverse Resistance (2008-01-03): The Thing Itself Is The Abuse

Read the whole thing.

Peace Officers

(Thanks to Marian Douglas for shining light on this.)

We already knew that Florida cops were willing to electrify a 6 year old boy and a 12 year old girl with a 50,000 volt blast from a taser. The 6 year old was distraught and threatening to hurt himself (after all, why hurt yourself when you can have a cop immobilize you with pain?); the 12 year old’s crime was playing hooky and maybe being a little tipsy, and the incredibly dangerous imminent threat she posed was that she ran away from the cop and so might have been able to skip school. Back when it happened, I mentioned that the main reaction from the police brass was to review the decision to equip cops with tasers–as if the equipment were the primary problem here. I also mentioned that we might be better served by scrutinizing the paramilitary police culture that we have, in which peace officers are trained to take control of every situation at all times, by any means necessary, and where any notion of proportionality between the possible harm and the violence used to maintain control is routinely chucked out the window in the name of law and order and winning the war on crime.

I hate being proven right.

It doesn’t take fancy electric tasers for Florida cops to be overbearing, brutal assholes. They can do it the old-fashioned way: for example, by sending three adult officers to pin a five year old girl’s arms behind her back and handcuff her.

A lawyer has threatened to sue police officers who handcuffed an allegedly uncontrollable five-year-old after she acted up at a Florida kindergarten.

The officers were called by the school after a teacher and assistant principal failed to calm down the little girl.

The incident was caught on a video camera which was rolling in the classroom as part of a self-improvement exercise at the St Petersburg school.

A lawyer for the girl’s mother said the episode was ncomprehensible.

The video, made public by the lawyer this week, shows the unfolding of the violent tantrum, which started when the little girl refused to take part in a maths lesson.

She then ripped some papers off a bulletin board and lashed out at staff trying to calm her down.

After calling her mother and learning she would not be able to pick up the child for at least one more hour, the teachers resorted to calling the police.

Three officers rushed to the scene and handcuffed the girl, by that time apparently calm, after pinning her arms behind her back.

The footage showed her in distress after being handcuffed.

— BBC 2005-04-23: U.S. police handcuff five-year-old

One of the minor consolations of subjecting schoolchildren to a school police state is that the surveillance has left a video record of the handcuffing.

So a kindergardner is uncontrollable and this justifies calling the cops, and then (even though she wasn’t doing anything anymore, just in case she got any ideas) hand-cuffing her as she screams.

By the way, this is not the first time that this has happened

Trayvon McRae is 6 years old.

After throwing a tantrum in music class, and kicking and hitting a St. Petersburg police officer who was taking him home, this kindergartener was handcuffed and arrested on a charge of battery on a law enforcement officer. Both of his wrists fit neatly into a single cuff.

Mikey Rao was 8 when he got arrested.

He didn’t want to go to the principal’s office, so he ran out of his class and kicked and scratched a teacher’s aide. He spent several hours in the Citrus County Jail.

Demetri Starks turned 9 last week.

One day this summer, when he was still 8, he swiped a neighbor’s jar of change. Police stopped the 60-pound St. Petersburg boy wearing a T-shirt covered with monsters from the cartoon Digimon. They handcuffed him and sent him to a detention center where he stayed locked up for nine days.

— St. Petersburg Times 2000-12-17: Under 12, Under Arrest

Hell, it’s not even the only time that it’s happened recently.

Two boys, aged 9 and 10, were charged with second-degree felonies and taken away in handcuffs by the police because they drew stick figures depicting violence against a third student.

There was no act of violence, no weaponry. According to news reports, the arrested children had no prior history of threatening the student depicted in the drawing. The parents were not advised or consulted. The school’s immediate response was to call the police and level charges “of making a written threat to kill or harm another person.”

The incident was not an aberration but one of three similar occurrences in the Florida school system during the same week. In another case, a 6-year-old was led away in handcuffs by police. And those three incidents are only the ones that managed to attract media attention.

— Wendy McElroy 2005-02-10: On Handcuffed and Felonious Children

(Just in case you Blue Staters were thinking about getting smug about those barbarians down yonder in Florida, you might also be interested to know about the California cops who beat the shit out of a non-verbal autistic teenager who didn’t follow their orders–using bludgeons, a taser, and pepper spray.)

photo: Two cops hunker down with tactical gear and assault rifles

Hello, we’re the cops, and we’re here to keep you safe!

The cops, of course, continue to treat these cases as a P.R. management problem, not a public safety problem created by out-of-control cops. That’s because the cops aren’t out of control; they are doing what cops normally do in our society; we only know about it here because the victims were vulnerable enough that their caretakers were able to get the attention of the newsmedia and the civil courts. We are not talking about a few bad apples here; we are talking about a systematic feature of policing in our society. We’re not talking about something that a bit of administrative hand-wringing and P.R. management and tinkering with equipment will solve. Police brutality, especially police brutality against unruly Black people, ain’t exactly new. This is what happens when the means of defense are almost entirely in the hands of a professionalized paramilitary force. You get an institutional culture of command-and-control. You get unaccountable peace officers who go on a rampage when their orders are questioned, and who apparently don’t have any principled inhibitions about using force on people that is wildly out of proportion to any possible threat. (Restraint can especially go out the window if they are Black. Or if they are otherwise thought to be unlikely to get sympathetic attention from the courts.)

So just remember, Johnny: the cops are here to keep you safe. By hurting you for no reason when you pose absolutely no threat to anyone.

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