As an attorney, I often read about lawsuits wondering what the best outcome for both parties will be. I sat through what felt like a decade of law classes learning that not everything is what it seems. Learning to condense information to the most necessary facts and looking at both sides of a case.
Now in my legal profession, I sit across my clients, digging deeper, finding out facts about who they are as a person. To highlight their personal struggles to formulate a defense and negotiate based on who they are, not what they have done. I listen to mothers and fathers as they recite their son’s and daughters’ stories of life long struggles, of IEP’s, diagnosis, addiction, and peer pressure. I hear the pain in their voice as they talk about circumstances they could not control.
Before having children, I thought of my own life path during these conversations and the experiences that pushed me into a social service life. Now, as I hear these stories, I think of my children, hoping as they enter into the world, that will be met with kindness, that the people they encounter will come from a place of wanting to understand instead of a place of trying to shove them into societies expectations.
I came across a story in the news on CNN with the title “Mother of 7-year-old with autism files lawsuit after resource officer handcuffed her son her son at school.” The boy was enrolled in a day treatment program. A program he was sent to with the expectation that it was the best choice for him. As parents of special needs children, we are often navigating therapy programs, school choices, and day treatment programs. We are looking for the best fit to help our children. We are often met with fights from IEP teams, insurance providers, and school staff. We do our best to advocate for our children’s needs. According to the lawsuit, the officers assigned to her son’s program were aware that children at the day treatment program had special needs and suffered from various developmental, mental health, and behavioral issues, including autism. The lawsuit details facts about the situation that the boy verbalized being stressed out. He was taken to a quiet room by his teacher to help process his feelings. Body camera video shows Officer Fattaleh forced the boy, who was in a sensory room, into a kneeling position, with his arms pinned behind him, saying, “if you spit on me, I’m going to put a hood on you.” The lawsuit alleges that Fattaleh restrained the 7-year-old in metal handcuffs, on the ground, for more than 38 minutes, at one point stating, “Have you ever heard the term babysitter? I take that term literally, my friend.” According to CNN, he then said, “If you, my friend, are not acquainted with the juvenile justice system, you will be very shortly,” on the video. “You ever been charged before? OK, well, you’re fixing to.”
I do not know why this mother chose to send her son to this day program and what advocating she had to do to get him there. I’m sure as she sent him off, she had a set of fears if this was the right choice for him. As I read through the article, I flashed back to my feelings as I put my son on the public school bus last year. The fears that overcame me. The discussions I had with my husband over and over about those fears. Those fears highlighted in this lawsuit that my thoughts weren’t just a nervous special needs attorney mom overthinking. This boy, nearly 7-years-old who could verbalize he was stressed out and handcuffed for 38 minutes, who asked for help from a day program for special needs children. I thought of my son, only 4-years-old who can’t say I am stressed out, handcuffed, and scared.
When the boy’s mother arrived, she was told that her son was going to be charged with one maybe two counts of assault. I thought of my clients and their parents, who tell me stories of situations that still cause heartache, who carry this heartache for things they could not control, from a public who misunderstands mental health, developmental disabilities, and yes, autism. I hope my children never experienced this level of misunderstanding that the world doesn’t meet them with handcuffs and cold statements. This mother is seeking to hold Fattaleh liable for inflicting “unnecessary and wanton pain and suffering,” what this mother can do in response to the officer’s actions under the law.
As an attorney, I know that this article does not highlight everything that happened that day, that we do not have all the facts. As a mother to a special needs child, I feel deeply for this mother. As I read about this mother’s experience, I looked at the fears that have left me wondering about society as a whole. I thought of her young 7-year-old special needs son and the adversity he faces in his daily life.
I do not know what justice looks like for this mother and son. I can imagine that her lifelong feelings about her son’s experience that day will not be forgotten with won lawsuits. That a legal win will not take away the lingering heartache, they both will carry. As I send my children out into the world, I know my fears will always be there. Fears heightened by this boy’s story and my clients’ stories. Still, these fears will not stop me from getting my son the services he needs. They won’t stop me from believing that this world can change with knowledge and understanding. These fears won’t stop me from advocating, listening to the heartache, or facing the world as a special needs mom.