February 17, 2020

Chicago torture video raises issue: Who can we trust?

In my son’s special education high school class, the teacher spent a lot of time preparing the teenage students who have a variety of special needs, from autism to intellectual disabilities, on how to be as independent as possible, a major goal of the program. 

As part of their community-based instruction, students were taught important life skills, such as cooking, cleaning and how to buy items on a budget. There was a lot of time spent on teaching students how to keep themselves safe while out in the community by themselves, too. He had the students role play what to do if someone started saying “mean things” to them or touching them inappropriately on a public bus (his advice was to yell, “Stop!” in your loudest voice, and then move away). The teacher, someone with many years of experience in working with students who had moderate to severe disabilities, also taught the students how to call 911 for help if they were ever afraid of being in physical danger. He stressed how students needed to avoid strangers who were up to no good.

Unfortunately, as the recent ghastly 30-minute Facebook live-streaming of the torture of a kidnapped, white 18-year-old man with mental disabilities in Chicago demonstrated, sometimes the physical and verbal abuse can come from people you know. Media outlets reported that in the video, the victim is shown being beaten, cut and forced to drink water from a toilet (I couldn’t stand to watch more than a few seconds). According to the Chicago Tribune, authorities now allege that one of the four perpetrators, Jordan Hill, knew the victim from attending the same alternative school in a Chicago suburb and had arranged ahead of time to meet him at McDonald’s for an overnight stay. Hill picked up the victim in a stolen van, and things spiraled downward from there. Court proceedings revealed the victim has schizophrenia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

The Tribune further reported that Hill first beat the victim in the back of the van after Hill became angry when the victim’s mom tried to contact her son via his cellphone. Prosecutors said Hill then demanded $300 from the victim’s mother if she wanted her son back, prompting the mother to contact the police, who days later found the victim bleeding and dazed, walking in the frigid Chicago winter wearing nothing but a tank top and shorts.

The four alleged assailants are Black, and at one point on the video, a male voice can be heard yelling, “F— Donald Trump” and “F— white people.” As the story unfolded on the media, alt-right media outlets pounced on the story and inaccurately connected this savagery to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

All four alleged attackers, including Hill, have been charged with hate crimes, felony aggravated kidnapping, aggravated unlawful restraint and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. Although the primary focus has been on the racial hate crime charges, few people know that people with disabilities also are protected under federal and state hate crime laws. Illinois state law defines a hate crime as a criminal act against someone “by reason of the actual or perceived race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, or national origin of another individual or group of individuals, regardless of the existence of any other motivating factor or factors.” Altogether, 26 states have similar legislation, including California.

Sadly, people with disabilities often are victims of violent crime, disproportionate to their numbers. As David M. Perry, associate professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois, wrote in a CNN opinion piece, “The latest Bureau of Justice Statistics report shows that people with disabilities were 2.5 times more likely to experience violent victimization than people without disabilities” — and that’s just for the crimes that are reported to police. 

But saddest of all for me as a parent of a young adult with significant disabilities was the fact that the victim regarded Hill as a friend from school, and trusted him. Due to the nature of our 22-year-old son’s physical and developmental disabilities, he isn’t able to go out of the house by himself and is always accompanied by a family member or paid caregiver, but so many of his friends and classmates with special needs do have greater verbal, cognitive and physical abilities and can enjoy a greater level of independence. From reading my friends’ Facebook posts and texts, I know they were deeply upset by this event in Chicago and now wonder if it is ever safe for their teens or adult children with special needs to go anywhere by themselves. 

In recent years, there has been a huge push by disability advocates to move away from a segregated system of separate special education classes to greater inclusion, and overall, the results have been very positive, with more students who have special needs included for part or all of the school day with typically developing peers. The reasoning is that if students with special needs are placed in general education classrooms, they are better able to stay on track with the required curriculum in order to graduate, will learn more typical age-appropriate behaviors from modeling classmates than if in a class only with others with similar special needs, and hopefully will form friendships and social connections with typical peers.

This move to full inclusion is now the guiding principle after high school as well, with new rules from the federal government’s Medicaid program governing Home and Community Based Services, which pays for the vast majority of residential and vocational programs for adults with developmental disabilities. When these new rules go into effect March 17, 2019, funding will be dependent on providing integrated services, with active engagement in community life. 

For our vulnerable adults, there also is a constant tension between safety and independence, but as much as we yearn for maximum independence for our adults with special needs, their well-being and safety must come first. This terrible kidnapping and torture episode has shaken many of us to our very core, and we worry that in the rush for community integration, basic safety of our loved ones is at stake.

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