In Sumner County, Tennessee, an eight year old boy, who was known to his school as being on the Autism spectrum and having violent outbursts, was arrested by police this year in violation of his civil rights and all human decency. The young child’s parents had sent him to an alternative school and worked with the school on a crisis management plan. Nonetheless, police arrested and placed the child in a straight jacket. They threw him in a jail cell and left his mother to watch from the other side, unable to comfort her suffering child.
While this conduct by police is horrific, it is nothing new. People who suffer with mental health issues are arrested at a higher rate than people without mental health issues. The criminal justice system has no way to adequately address the needs of the mentally ill so instead treats them like criminals. Our jails and prisons are historically filled with mentally ill people who need treatment and not punishment.
What is particularly shocking about this case is that the conduct by police was directed toward an eight year-old. Even if the child was not on the Autism spectrum, it is hard to see how arresting and placing a child in a straight jacket is ever a reasonable alternative to calling the child’s parents and asking them to come get him. But it is the special circumstances of this case that involve the child’s diagnosis that makes things worse.
The parents have filed a law suit and I hope they succeed. One of the terms of the judgment should including training of the community’s police officers in dealing with children with mental health issues. They owe children nothing less than knowing how to respond to them when they are in crisis. It is our job as adults to take care of kids and not traumatize them for the rest of their lives.