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Lesson learned: Injustices in the System
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
May 14, 2001

“How dare they?”

I could hear her voice tremble.

“How DARE they?”

It was clear that Darlene was angry.

Sitting in the front seat of the caseworker’s car, I turned myself to better see Darlene. She was riding in the backseat as we pulled out of the parking lot at the county jail.

That’s when I noticed she was crying.

“How dare they treat me differently?”

What she had done was wrong and she knew it. But now she was being wronged. And she knew that, too. And even though we were driving her away from the jail, she felt trapped.

I did understand. At least I had thought I understood.

But Darlene was about to teach me about the justice system and how justice is and is not applied to people labeled as having mental retardation. What she did that day twelve years ago also helped me to look more closely at myself and more clearly define my role as a community advocate.

The story is full of irony. That, of course, is why it had such an impact on me.

I was just thirty years old and was full of myself. A few weeks earlier I had landed my first management position for an agency that got money from the state to help people, who were called “consumers” or “clients” to learn “marketable job skills” and “appropriate work habits”. Part of my job was to make sure nobody got hurt, particularly the consumers, many of whom also worked for the agency.

For each consumer there was a private file folder in the agency’s office full of forms with words like “developmentally disabled”, “mental retardation”, “cerebral palsy”, “low cognitive functioning”, “autistic”, and so forth type-written on them.

One consumer was a 28-year-old woman in her mid-twenties who I will call Darlene (to protect her privacy I am not using her real name.) Even though Darlene had been with the program for just a few months, her file was thicker than almost anybody else’s. Many of the forms in her folder included an additional phrase: “behavior problems”. This meant that people were very interested in what she did. Mostly, people were interested in having her not do what she did. But, I didn’t need to read her file to learn anything about Darlene. Program staff told me a lot about her my very first day on the job.

Darlene hurt people. And I mean, REALLY hurt people. This 5-foot 9-inch tall, 200 pound woman had a well-documented history of pulling people’s hair, knocking them to the ground, punching them in the face, kicking them in the stomach, and throwing things such as tables and chairs at them. One staff member told me she pulled a time clock off the wall and hurled it across a break room during an outburst.

The “behavior” that made her famous, though, was biting.

What confused most of the social service people in Darlene’s life was the strange fact that she usually hurt the people she liked the most. It was especially troubling for me because I always wanted everybody to like me. Darlene was charming and loved to talk to people in charge, so staying distant from her was not easy, but being nice to her could be dangerous.

Worse yet, I knew Darlene had the power to make me look like I didn’t know what I was doing, which, of course, was the truth.

One of my staff members, a supervisor on an assembly line whom I’ll call Shelly, liked Darlene. Shelly knew all about Darlene’s history. She knew about the “critical incident reports”, the “behavior modification programs”, and how Darlene often assaulted people who grew attached to her. What concerned me the most was that Shelly was a tiny woman, with about 120 pounds on her 5-feet 2-inches tall frame, who walked with a noticeable limp.

None of that mattered to Shelly. In spite of Darlene’s reputation, Shelly often got together with her in the evenings or on weekends – not as “consumer” and “staff”, but actually as friends. They went to movies, to concerts, and occasionally snuck off to the Sizzler for steak and french fries, which was a definite “no-no” as far as Darlene’s group home was concerned.

It was very clear that these two young ladies enjoyed each other’s company. Thank goodness the program I worked for actually encouraged such relationships. Few programs do.

One day at work, Darlene got up from her workbench, walked slowly over to Shelly and reached out to gently touch her shoulder as if to get her attention. Shelly looked back at Darlene and smiled.

That’s when it happened.

Darlene reached behind the base of Shelly’s neck and grabbed a handful of her long hair. In one quick movement, she suddenly pulled Shelly down to the floor and sat on top of her.

Then Darlene leaned down and bit her supervisor’s nose.

A few moments later Darlene stood back up, as did Shelly, whose face was bleeding. That’s when Shelly did what was almost unheard of in the world of human services: She called the police and filed assault charges against her consumer, employee, and friend.

The police arrested Darlene and took her to the county jail. The district attorney learned that Darlene had mental retardation and had lived in the state institution until just a few months earlier. He decided it was an “internal matter” and had Darlene released to the supervision of her group home.

The next morning, Darlene’s caseworker phoned to tell me that Darlene was back at the county jail. She was not being held by police, but apparently had walked across town to the jail on her own.

When the caseworker and I arrived at the jailhouse, Darlene was in the lobby, walking back and forth demanding to be let inside to the cellblock.

This made no sense to me. Why would anybody who had just gotten out of the institution want to go to jail?

We managed to calm her down enough to get her to go back with us to the caseworker’s office.

“How DARE they treat me differently?”

She now sobbed in the back of the seat as we headed back across town.

“They think I’m STUPID! They think I don’t know what I’m doing! They think I don’t know what they’re doing!”

“What’s the matter with them? Why won’t they listen to me?”


That’s when it started to sink in. That’s when I learned Lesson One in Darlene’s course on justice:
“Discrimination is discrimination.”

No matter how we dressed it up, no matter what words we use to hide what it really is, no matter what reasons we give to make us all feel better, discrimination is discrimination. Treating people differently simply because they have a label of “mental retardation”, or “disability”, or because they have spent time in an institution, is discrimination.

Darlene understood that her rights had been taken away, not because she had committed a crime, but because she was different.

Of course, her legal right to face her accuser and to tell her story in an open court had been taken away. More importantly for Darlene, however, was the right to face the consequences of her actions, so she could deal with her own emotional pain and move on. For reasons that may or may not be clear to anyone, Darlene had suddenly injured a person she loved dearly. Worse yet, she had violently damaged an important relationship that had taken months to grow.

And it was not the first time. Through the years, she had hurt people she liked -- people who liked her. The consequence was usually the same: She was forced to apologize and then was removed from the people she had hurt and put in “time out”. The institution had been her ultimate “time out”. Out here in the community, jail or prison is the ultimate “time out”.

Only by going to jail -- the community’s version of “time out” -- could she hope to set things straight with her friend. Only by spending time behind bars could she hope to push away the incredible loneliness and despair that had been with her most of her life.

Along with her rights, her hope was being taken away from her simply because she was different.

And that was one reason why she showed up at the county jail that morning demanding to be let inside.

There may be other reasons, some of which I want to explore. But first, I want to tell you that this story did have an unusual, yet happy ending. Since the district attorney had the charges dropped, those who knew Darlene arranged an informal hearing. Darlene was able to confront her accuser. She was able to confess and to apologize. She begged to have a chance to set things right, to do Shelly’s laundry, wash her car, braid her hair – anything to make amends and gain Shelly’s friendship and trust.

Amazingly, Shelly refused. She refused to accept Darlene’s apology. She refused to let Darlene do anything for her. She refused to work with her ever again.

Even though Shelly loved Darlene, she told her she simply did not trust her. It did not matter to Shelly if Darlene had a label of “mental retardation” or “consumer” or even “employee”. She had no reason to treat Darlene any differently than any other person who had hurt her.

In a strange way, that may have been the best thing that had ever happened to Darlene. The consequence of her action was that her friend did not trust her any more. She could do nothing to change that.

I have no idea if Shelly and Darlene ever mended their relationship. But a few years later, I talked with somebody who knew Darlene. It sounded like she was an entirely different person. She had learned how to let people know what she was feeling without sinking her teeth into them. She was working at a grocery store and was considered a model employee. She enjoyed her work and her coworkers enjoyed working with her.

They had no idea she had ever bit or hit another person.

Looking at ourselves

During much of Darlene's life, few people in the institution had taken the time to listen to her. As it turned out, those of us in the community system, including myself, were not doing any better. We believed, as I still do, that nobody should have to live in an institution, and that segregation is one of the worst forms of discrimination. The sad truth is that we did not want to look at ourselves. We were not ready to face the fact that our community service system had problems of its own that needed attention.

If we had listened to Darlene we might have learned that her move to the community, and the freedom we so strongly value, was far from liberating.

Darlene had moved out of the institution with about a dozen other people, and half of them became housemates in her new group home. Within the few months after moving to the home, two of her friends were taken back to the state institution because of “inappropriate behavior”. Each time, the staff threatened Darlene that if she did not “behave” she would also be sent back to the institution. As time went on the threats became more frequent and she got more stressed.

We learned later that Darlene’s roommate had been moved back to the institution the night before Darlene bit Shelly. One staff member told Darlene, “You’ll be next if you cause any trouble.”

If we had listened we might have realized that controlling her own “time out” by going to jail was better for her than waiting for others to do what she considered unavoidable. Darlene was not afraid of going to jail. Being locked up was familiar to her. She had spent more than half of her 28 years in the state’s largest institution.

Finally, if we had listened we might have learned of the real injustices she endured from within our own community service system.

Early on the morning of the assault, a man living in the group home next door to Darlene’s was treated at the hospital for injuries to his mouth, including broken teeth. A roommate later said that a male staff member had shoved the victim from behind, causing him to fall onto the sidewalk face-first.

The staff member was fired from the agency, which itself was shut down a couple of weeks later. The worker did not face any criminal assault charges, however.

The only witness was the victim’s roommate -- a man labeled as having “moderate mental retardation”, who had just recently been released from the state’s largest institution.

Who would listen to him? Who would believe him?

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