Youth with autism are more likely to be arrested. A Nevada judge wants to remedy that
Updated February 13, 2024 at 8:27 PM ET
Melody O'Connor is grateful her teenage daughter Angeleena O'Connor was arrested in the winter of 2022.
"Isn't that a horrible thing to say?" Melody said.
It wasn't the first time Angeleena had the police called on her. The first time was more than four years earlier – when she was 12.
Angeleena is now 16 and the police have been called to her house more than 40 times over the past four years, including once for a violent incident in which Angeleena grabbed a steak knife and held it to her mother's face, Melody said.
Angeleena was adopted by Melody as an infant.
"Angeleena is actually my second cousin," Meloday said in early January, speaking from the comfort of her North Las Vegas home over Zoom.
She initially took Angeleena in when she was just 10 months old and then again, permanently, once Angeleena was 2 years old. When she was a toddler, Melody says Angeleena's violent episodes were manageable.
"I could just grab her and restrain her or throw her over my shoulder, carry her out of a store, stuff like that. But now that she's my size, and she's older, she's extremely strong," Melody said.
There's also been an uptick in her violent behavior, including property destruction, threats to their pet dog, Daisy, and suicidal ideations.
"The thing about Angeleena is when she has these episodes, she glazes over, she becomes a different person. She is like Jekyll and Hyde when she flips," Melody said.
Angeleena has autism in addition to anxiety, bipolar disorder and intermittent explosive disorder, among other diagnoses that cause these, at times, violent outbursts, according to Melody.
When she was born, Angeleena had microcephaly, and her brain was smaller than normal, Melody said. She also suffers from frontal lobe epilepsy where her seizures originate and that also contributes to her lack of impulsivity control. A formal autism diagnosis from a psychologist came in 2020.
Before Angeleena's arrest in the winter of 2022, Melody tried several times to get her daughter into hospitals or other treatment facilities but she was always told "No" for a variety of reasons: "They couldn't house her with the older kids because they were afraid she'd become a victim. They couldn't house her with the younger kids because they were afraid that she would hurt them."
Or there were long waitlists. Or, they didn't accept their insurance, or they couldn't take her because of her neurological disorder.
"It was always something," Melody said.
The program helps at-risk teen offenders with autism to stay out of the criminal justice system
That is until she heard about a specialty court program near her home called DAAY Court or the detention alternative for autistic youth treatment court. It's based in Las Vegas and not far from Melody's home.
Started by Judge Sunny Bailey in 2018, the Eighth Judicial District's diversion program aims to address the behaviors of at-risk juvenile offenders with autism and to prevent them from entering the revolving door of the criminal justice system as adults.
Autism is a developmental disability that can cause challenges with social cues, communication and behavior, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The most common charges kids who come into DAAY Court face have to do with battery (usually at home or at school) or sex-related offenses (usually stemming from a lack of understanding of boundaries or proper behavior), according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Summer Clarke.
The court combines the efforts of social workers, therapists, probation officers, defense attorneys and prosecutors to address psychiatric needs, behavioral modification, socialization, and parent training to get to the root causes of the kids coming into Judge Bailey's courtroom.
"We all have to work together because autism is 24 hours a day. School can't fix this, home can't fix it, everyone has to fix it," Bailey said.
It's the first of its kind in the nation and, as of this summer, received recognition from Gov. Joe Lombardo which allows the program to get more funding. Lombardo's signature on Senate Bill 411 also allowed other jurisdictions across Nevada to create their own DAAY Court Program.
Since its inception, Bailey said 86 children have graduated the program with just six returning so far.
Angeleena is one of those kids who successfully completed DAAY Court.
Her mom, Melody, as well as two mothers of kids who also went through DAAY Court, Amber Ayala and D. Lopez, said it's made a meaningful difference in theirs and their respective child's lives.
For the first time, Melody has felt hope for her and her daughter's future.
"It was literally going from I'm bawling up in the fetal position in my bedroom at night after she went to bed, crying myself to sleep most days of the week to so many resources, I didn't know what to do with them. And it was so wonderful," Melody said.
The judge who started it all
The way Judge Bailey tells it, DAAY Court started completely by accident.
She was assigned the case of a child with autism facing a charge for domestic violence against his stepdad.
This was in 2018 and Bailey, the probation officers on this case and others familiar with the intricacies of individuals with autism knew that a crowded, loud, chaotic courtroom would be too much for a child with this diagnosis to handle.
"We were concerned about him being overstimulated," Bailey explained, which is when someone with autism becomes very overwhelmed by their environment, leading to distress and serious anxiety.
So Bailey set his hearing for a quieter Thursday afternoon where this child would be the only one in her courtroom.
Probation officers and other court workers heard about this accommodation and thought it was the start of a new "autism court." Bailey tried to explain it was a one-off but "the next thing you know, they put another kid on the calendar" who also had autism.
Every week it grew. More probation officers, social workers and behavioral specialists heard about this day set aside for autistic youth and began showing up wanting to help, Bailey said.
Soon enough, court administrators gave this once-a-month meeting a name: DAAY Court – Detention Alternative for Autistic Youth, "And that's kind of how we were born," Bailey said.
She said that there has been some interest elsewhere in the state and country for other courts to adopt similar programs, but it has not been formally adopted yet.
So far, it's helped children like Angeleena as well as the children of Amber Ayala and D. Lopez.
Research shows youth with autism come into more frequent contact with police
Lopez said she struggled to know how to help her son, 16, who has autism and who deals with mental health issues. Lopez requested NPR not name him over privacy concerns.
Much like Angeleena, he was arrested for a similar violent outburst. Having police involved in what is normally a mental health issue for her son, terrified Lopez.
"As they get older, they're not seen as a little kid that has autism anymore. They're seen as a danger," Lopez said.
Some research done by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel Universityfound that youth with autism are coming into contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system at higher rates as both victims and offenders.
And law enforcement officers are frequently not trained to properly deal with a child with disabilities having an episode, like Ayala's daughter, whom Ayala requested NPR not name out of privacy concerns.
She has autism but much like Lopez's son also deals with mental health issues, Ayala said.
One day, in the middle of one of these episodes, Ayala was trying to get her daughter to a hospital safely. But her daughter was threatening to jump out of the vehicle.
"I actually ended up calling 911," she said. Previously, when she lived in California and this happened, officers would just help her transport her daughter to the hospital. "I thought that would be the same thing here. But because she was violent against me, they arrested her instead."
This was all the more frustrating when Ayala knew her daughter just needed an adjustment in her medications.
"I knew going to jail or to juvie, she wasn't going to get the help she needed," Ayala said.
Leigh Anne McKingsley, the senior director of disability and justice initiatives for The Arc raised some concerns about DAAY Court as a meaningful solution for helping youth with autism as they come into contact with law enforcement.
The fact that this program was created shows just how crucial the need is for more education in the U.S. criminal justice system on people with disabilities, she said.
"In the court system, we need folks to understand ADA accommodations and why those are so important," McKingsley said. "In a perfect world, police, prosecutors and judges would be equipped and trained to understand the needs of those with disabilities that come into contact with the criminal justice system."
Beyond that, McKingsley wonders if this idea of DAAY Court could have unintended, negative consequences.
She said that core to the disability rights movement is the goal of creating true societal inclusion, "Sometimes when we try to create a specialty or separate system, it can actually serve to kind of backfire, and have some long-term consequences that can steer us back to institutional thinking, or isolating people with disabilities or other-izing them," McKingley said.
This can, however, also serve to leave out the greater group of individuals with intellectual disabilities who fall through the cracks when their unique needs are not met in the same way as something like DAAY Court.
"We've got to look at it more holistically. And make sure that we're not alienating a part of the disability community when we're looking at trying to help people," McKingsley said.
In response that concern, Judge Bailey said the goal of DAAY Court is to get the kids out of the juvenile justice system and to remain out of the adult system.
She noted that she and the volunteers who work on this program understand that having a criminal justice system that addresses all of the needs of kids with intellectual disabilities or other disabilities is a long way away.
"But we can only climb one mountain at a time. And this is all done through volunteers. So we're just tackling each hill as we go," Bailey said.
An afternoon in DAAY Court
Bailey, to her credit, has a unique sensitivity to helping youth with autism because of her own experience.
"My eldest child is on the spectrum," Bailey said. Her daughter is now 25, but when she was first diagnosed in 2000 "there weren't any providers."
Her daughter also had aggressive behavior, which when Bailey documented it, totaled to more than 250 such incidents a day that led to several injuries.
"We've included, just on myself, four herniated discs on my neck, I've dislocated fingers. She put her head through the wall. We've had all kinds of issues with her," Bailey said.
After many years, Bailey found that Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a therapy based on the science of learning and behavior, that emphasizes behavior modification and positive reinforcements, as the biggest contributors to her daughter's change.
"She went from 250 of those aggressive acts per day, to maybe one per four or five months. So I know it works," Bailey said.
That's why this type of therapy option is a major aspect to the DAAY Court program.
Bailey uses ABA's main strategies: Positive reinforcement. She found that rewarding kids who meet certain goals between each appearance in her court makes a huge difference and gets the kids' buy-in from the start.
This method was put into action during a quieter-than-usual Thursday afternoon in DAAY Court in late October. Bailey and her cohort of attorneys, prosecutors, juvenile treatment program officers and probation officers are all on deck, both in person and over Zoom, for check-ins with a handful of kids currently working through the program.
When each child comes up for a check-in, Bailey goes through a checklist of goals each child was supposed to meet since the last hearing.
NPR is not naming any of these children as they are minors and their court cases are confidential.
One child, who NPR is calling CD, had an issue with running away from a facility he was staying in. But, on this Thursday, it's revealed that since his last check in he managed to stick to his agreement with Judge Bailey to not run away for two weeks.
Before he enters the court room, Bailey announces to the cohort on Zoom and in-person: "Everybody get ready for positive reinforcement!"
When CD enters, the group applauds and those over Zoom send in a barrage of happy emojis. For keeping his agreement, he gets to pick a $10 Target gift card from Bailey's collection.
He still has some time to go before "graduating" from the program, so Bailey asks for the next check-in, "What are we going to bargain for this time?"
The child exclaims, "A fish aquarium!"
That's too much, but they both agree that if he can make it another two weeks, he could get a $15 Raising Cane's gift card.
And during that next check-in he got that gift card, too, Bailey said.
Parents provide a key component to success
There are times that attorneys and probation officers are unsure if a child in their care has autism. If that's the case, they are brought to Bailey's court anyway where the first step is to get a proper diagnosis, the judge said.
Getting buy-in from family members is a major piece of the puzzle, Bailey said.
"Cases where we have parents who are ready, willing and able to cooperate and follow court orders and take kids to their appointments and do what they're supposed to do, I would say that we have 100% success rate," Chief Deputy District Attorney Clarke said.
Lopez said she was lost as to how best to help her son. He was the first in her immediate family to have any kind of diagnosis.
"So it was all new for me. There's no instruction manual for kids with autism," she said.
Before they discovered DAAY Court, Lopez, Melody and Ayala all described frustrating obstacles to get their kids help. They found months-long waitlists for therapy or hospitals and denials due to costs or incorrect insurance coverage.
There was another element to their cases: Often it was the mothers themselves who were the victims and targets of their child's violent outbursts.
At the beginning of DAAY Court Ayala said she thought, "I can't wait to just be done."
As a mother and victim of her daughter's batteries, "It felt more like a punishment to me," she said. She was also juggling being a single parent working a 40-60 hour workweek with the many appointments.
"I feel like there's no parent support. So I'm doing all this for my daughter, but I felt very alone and I was lost all the last year," she said.
Ayala notes that the program helped her get connected to valuable behavior support services for her daughter.
"I don't think I would have found these resources any other way," she said.
Lopez and Melody said they saw a major transformation in their children thanks to DAAY Court.
"He would have totally ended up in jail or juvenile hall," Lopez said. Leading up to the program, he struggled with coping with the outside world and making friends.
"He wanted to run away because he had no friends," she said crying.
"He's actually taking acting classes. He wants to be a TV host and a podcaster. And he wants to be on musicals on Broadway," she said.
Her son told NPR that he believes the program should be adopted elsewhere and that, "I think it'll help other people like me."
He added that he got "happiness" out of DAAY Court, no doubt in no small part due to the gift cards and fidget spinners he received for meeting his goals.
For any other child entering the program he had this advice: "Don't fight it, believe in yourself."
For Angeleena and her mother, Melody said: "It was a life changer. She probably would not be living with me today or alive today if I hadn't had DAAY Court. I'm confident of that."
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