suntimes
GRACIOUS
Weather Updates

Experts: Not enough help for those with developmental disabilities

Updated: March 9, 2012 8:18AM



In the heated debate last week over whether Calumet City Police acted properly when they shot and killed an autistic teenager in his family’s basement, one of the most important aspects of the tragedy received scant attention.

Why were the police called to the home in the first place?

The answer — as provided by the boy’s family — may be more telling in the long run than the dispute over whether police officers were justified in their use of deadly force.

Family members say they called police because that was the only way they knew to get professional help for 15-year-old Stephon Watts when he was acting out.

“In order to get my nephew into a treatment center, they ask you to call police first. That’s by law,” Stephon’s uncle, Wayne Watts, told me over the weekend after a news conference at Rainbow/PUSH where the family sought to call attention to a website created to help raise funds for the boy’s burial, justiceforstephonwatts.com.

With Stephon’s tearful parents at his side, Watts asked the public to help change the “policy” to allow families to directly access state-paid emergency treatment.

Here’s the thing, though. Experts in both autism and mental health tell me there is no such law and no such policy. They say the Watts family was either misled or mistaken about any requirement to summon police, as they had done nine other times in two years.

But they also say the family’s confusion is symptomatic of broader problems in how this state cares for those with developmental disabilities such as autism, many of whom also require mental health services.

There isn’t enough funding for such services, they say, and families find it difficult to access what services do exist. What I take away from this is that we failed Stephon Watts long before the police showed up on his family’s doorstep.

“This should have never gotten to this point,” said a frustrated Mary Kay Betz, executive director of the Autism Society of Illinois. “These parents should have been given an advocate. This is our state. We don’t have a good plan of action for families.”

I’ll leave it to the courts to sort out the facts of what happened in the Watts’ basement. The family has lawyered up, and a civil lawsuit is likely.

To review, though, police say they shot the 6-foot, 196-pound boy in self-defense after he attacked officers with a knife and slashed one of them in the arm. His mother, who says it was a butter knife, has accused police of “cold-blooded murder” and says they should have been better prepared to handle the situation after previous trips to the home.

Wayne Watts, designated by the family to do the talking because of the lawsuit, said his brother called police that day expecting officers to arrange for his son to be taken by ambulance to Streamwood Behavioral Healthcare Systems, as was the case when he was hospitalized for two weeks after a similar outburst in December.

Stephon was diagnosed as autistic at 9 by doctors at the University of Chicago, his family said. His condition was later identified as Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder in which individuals may have normal to high intelligence but struggle with social interaction. That often includes difficulty in calming themselves when angry or upset. “He was a beautiful person, Mark. He was a lovely child,” his uncle said of the boy he described as a “computer genius.” “That’s the only thing he cared about was computers,” Watts said.

What Stephon didn’t much like was attending school. On the day he was killed, he refused to go to a new school he had just started two days earlier, and his father took away his computer, triggering an emotional outburst.

“Sometimes he would act out and get angry at things, and then we’d have to wait for him to calm down,” Watts said. When he didn’t calm down, Watts said the standing instruction to call police came from workers at Grand Prairie Services, which operates a crisis intervention screening program for the state. Officials there did not return my calls.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to properly evaluate Stephon’s case without more information about what resources the family received in the past — details I couldn’t get.

If we don’t get on top of this, though, I expect there will be more burials, more lawsuits and more broken-hearted families.



© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit www.suntimesreprints.com. To order a reprint of this article, click here.