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Micki Edelsohn talks to News Journal about parental fears of bullying of children with I/DD

When 17-year-old Angeliz Marrero saw the video of a group of teens attacking a thin, disabled man in Ogletown near Newark last month, it reminded her of the sickening beating her disabled brother endured years ago.
Marrero, a senior at Howard High School of Technology in Wilmington, was determined to seek justice for the 26-year-old man she had never met. He is seen in the video being stomped on, picked up and dropped on the ground and pummeled while attempting to cover his head.
The video actually chronicles at least two attacks on the victim named Karon – one at Harbor Club Apartments in Ogletown, and another at a nearby creek, where the victim is picked up and tossed into a shallow pool.
Marrero secured the video from a witness to the attacks, and posted it on social media sites. Within hours she gained thousands of followers and comments disapproving of the violence, demanding justice.
Boys who committed the attacks were recognized in the video, and they began to receive threats. Their parents took the boys to police to make a report, but officers had little sympathy for the attackers: Three teens, two age 14, another age 13, were charged with offensive touching, third degree conspiracy and assault on a vulnerable adult, all misdemeanors.
Several days after Marrero created a social media hashtag called The Bully Project, the Delaware Attorney General’s Office bumped the charges to felonies under the state’s hate crime statutes.
Now Marrero wants all bullying attacks against the disabled to be automatic felonies.
“Everyone is here for a purpose,” said Marrero, a high-energy teen who loves basketball and talks fast. “If I know I can make a difference just by using my voice, why wouldn’t I do that? Everyone needs someone.”
According to federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 60 out of every 1,000 people with a disability was a victim of violence in 2012 – almost three times the rate of those without disabilities.
Longtime advocates for people with disabilities say Marrero’s crusade spotlights a serious problem – their loved ones are particularly vulnerable to violence and other abuse.
About two years ago, Marrero’s brother was jumped by five teens as he got off a bus near New Castle, she said. Her family knew the teens and reported them to police. Yet, no charges were filed, she said.
Marrero said when her brother learned of the attacks on Karon, he began crying.
“This needs to change,” she remembers her brother, who is now 22, saying. “If I can’t get justice, maybe he can get justice.”
That’s what moved Marrero to do something.
“He looked like my brother. He’s as skinny as my brother,” she said of Karon. “That could have been my brother again.”
The victim’s mother, Yana Brooks, said not only does she have confidence in Marrero’s ability to bring about changes, she appreciates the attention she raised.
“She’s strong and I admire her courage and I appreciate her as a person,” Brooks said.
“Her name is Angeliz, but I call her ‘angel’ because to me that’s what she is. She’s brought awareness and attention to this type of situation and hopefully it can benefit a whole lot of people.”

Difficult to prosecute
It is not easy to prosecute cases involving disabled people, experts say, often because the victims can have difficulty detailing exactly what happened to them.
“It is difficult to prove any crime,” said Deputy Attorney General Patricia Dailey Lewis. If there was not a video recording of the Newark incident, “obviously, it would be more difficult.”
But it is not impossible, she said.
“We have specially trained people to work with the cognitively, emotionally and physically impaired to help us get the evidence we need,” she said, in the same way there are specialists trained to deal with young children who are crime victims.
It is uncommon to convict a person with committing a hate crime.
According to the FBI’s analysis of the 5,790 single-bias incidents reported in 2012, only 1.6 percent were prompted by disability bias. The most common are racially motivated at nearly 50 percent.
Those figures also showed there were no hate crimes motivated by disability from 2008 to 2012 in Delaware, the most recent period available.
One of the problems Delaware faces is that it does not have reliable information on crimes committed against people with disabilities, according to Brian Hartman, director of the Delaware Disabilities Law Program.
The state added language to police reports this year in which officers can tell victims the state might be able to seek additional penalties if they have a disability. It also prompts officers to ask the victim if they would like to self-identify for that purpose.
Hartmann said he hopes that will help the state get a better handle on how many and what types of crimes are committed against the disabled. That could allow officials to better plan how to combat those crimes.
There is support for Marrero’s idea of automatic felony charges, but many in the legal community caution against it.
“For the population you are dealing with, young people, the likelihood of there being a deterrence effect because we call it a felony … is slim,” said Jules Epstein, a Widener University law professor. “I’m not sure that is a conversation 14-year-olds have. So if your theory is we will stop people from doing this if we label it a felony … it doesn’t have a whole lot of support in research.”
Epstein said one should not dismiss misdemeanor charges and convictions as meaningless. He said a misdemeanor conviction gives judges plenty of punishment and treatment options that could potentially reform, rather than just incarcerate young offenders.
The more punishment a juvenile receives, “the more we are creating a lifelong ripple effect,” he said.
Epstein conceded there is a social aspect to making bullying into a felony – sending a message that society will not tolerate such behavior – “and I don’t want to diminish the concerns about bullying or the importance of the symbolism.” But he said that has to be balanced against the long-term effect from imposing harsher punishments on juvenile offenders.
Lewis, head of the state Department of Justice’s family division, said an automatic felony charge is not needed “because the Legislature has given us the proper tools to address bullying on multiple levels.
“Remember, bullying is a condition, a situation, and it may consist of offenses that are not criminal,” she said. “Many situations start as noncriminal and work to criminal.”
“We can address bullying appropriately when we find it, on a case-by-case basis,” she said, noting that with the Ogletown man, prosecutors filed additional felony charges because the investigation showed they were appropriate.
She pointed out, though, that the Ogletown incident goes way beyond bullying. That was a group of people “just beating up on a guy who couldn’t defend himself.”
“This is no way to treat people,” she said.
State Sen. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, said he would be willing to listen to the public about strengthening laws against people who attack or abuse the disabled.
“If we need to fix things, we need to strengthen the law to make the punishment more obvious in an effort to dissuade this kind of thing, then sign me up and good for Angeliz.”
“I was contacted by others who, like me and Angeliz, were outraged by these brutal attacks,” Lavelle said. “Sometimes this is what brings attention to these laws. I will work with her, the AG’s office and others to make changes.”

Karon’s story
Karon was walking through his mother’s Ogletown apartment last week talking about how stressed he was because the law wasn’t doing anything about his attackers.
“They’re not going to get no jail time,” Karon said. “That’s what people said.”
Karon said he wants his attackers to spend time in prison, adding if he’d been the attacker he’s certain he would have been jailed.
Like many young men, Karon enjoys music, sleeping and eating – macaroni and cheese is his favorite. He also enjoys going out, which many times worries his mother, especially when he stays out all night.
“He never meets a stranger. He always finds the good in people,” Brooks said. And while this can be a good thing, it can hurt Karon, who suffers from Williams Syndrome, a genetic condition with medical problems that include cardiovascular disease, developmental delays and learning disabilities.
“That’s really a downfall … automatically assuming everybody is going to be kind to you,” the single mother of four said. “This attack on Karon is new for the outside world, but we as a family have been going through this many, many, many years.”
Karon said he does not tell his mother about the attacks against him for fear she would get in trouble. “I was scared that mom was going to really hurt somebody,” he said.
Brooks said the first attack on her son occurred in Maryland when he was a teen.
“People would do really inhuman things to him,” she said. “But it was hard to combat because he looks at everybody as a friend.”
People could attack him one day and he would be hanging out with them the next day, she said.
“He bounces back really fast,” she said. “He’s still smiling. He’s still doing his thing even though this negativity has taken place.”
She said one of the teens charged in the recent attacks had been to her house on several occasions – he even called her “Mom.”
“It’s making me look at everyone like they are suspects,” she said. “I don’t want to look at kids like that. I didn’t think I had to, but I see I do.”
Complicating the situation is that while Karon’s comprehension level is that of a second- or third-grader, he is an adult and has the legal right to come and go – even if his mother wants him to stay home.
Shortly after becoming an adult, Karon started staying out. When she would call police, she was told her son had the right to be out. Karon left his mother’s house about the age of 19 or 20, she said.
She’d occasionally find out where he was staying, to include a trailer with no running water or electricity. When she called police about this, she was told he was an adult and he could live the way he wanted.
This went on for several years, until about five months ago when she got a Facebook message from him wanting to see her. She picked him up and brought him back to her apartment.
Karon said he was living in Camden, but wouldn’t say who he was living with. “I would stay home all day and do nothing,” he said. “I had a bed-time limit.”
He added the people he stayed with were strict.
“I didn’t know what was happening in the house because, again, I have no rights,” Brooks said.
Since his return, Brooks said there have been some challenges, particularly that Karon enjoys going out and sometimes not returning. “He’s not coming home all the time,” she said. “Sometimes he’s gone two, three or four days.”
He does not understand the danger that he may face, she said.
“I like being outside. That’s who I am,” Karon said, adding he stays with friends. When asked by a reporter why he doesn’t call his mother to let her know where he is, Karon just said that he’s being asked a lot of questions.
Despite being assaulted, Karon still enjoys going out. If he sees the teens who attacked him, he would stay away from them.
“Nothing is going to keep me in the house,” he said.
Until there is a law that would give parents of disabled children more rights over their adult children, Brooks said she will continue driving around searching for her son or staying up wondering where he is.
“It’s frustrating on a whole lot of levels,” she said.

An easy target
When Micki Edelsohn saw the video online, she said it was like watching her worst nightmare.
Edelsohn’s son, 42, has a disability and she has spent decades advocating for better services for people like him.
She leads the Homes for Life Foundation, which helps provide homes where disabled people can live safely.
Edelsohn said the video shows just how easy prey people with disabilities can be to bullies. It’s not just physical violence, either; reports of exploitative caretakers and others are all too common, she said .
“A staff member could say, ‘Hey, let’s take your ATM card and go to Atlantic City,’ ” Edelsohn said. “Sadly, human nature is such that weak people go for weaker people.”
What worries Edelsohn is that, as the federal government and other groups push for people with special needs to be more closely integrated into society, it’s possible they could be easier to exploit. Inclusion is good, in theory, she argues, but the on-camera beatings show just how high the risks are.
“People say I’m being old-fashioned or regressive,” she said. “But if you want to push for this, we have to be sure we’re doing it right.”
While it’s obviously not pleasant to see the video being spread so widely, Edelsohn said Marrero’s efforts could be helpful if they more broadly inform the public about how vulnerable people with disabilities are.
“If she’s really getting that much exposure to the issue, I think she deserves to be lauded,” she said.
While talking about changing laws is one thing, Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, said parents can take steps right now to make things better. The video and its aftermath, she argues, represent a teaching opportunity.
“As a parent, it’s just not OK just to teach your kids not to be a bully, they have to teach their children not to sit on the sidelines,” said Smith, whose son has special needs. “Teach kids not to laugh when a bully makes a joke about a person with a disability or a person who is different. Teach them not to accept those actions. That’s what the real learning and takeaway from this event can be.”

Permanent link to this article: http://www.familiesspeakingup.com/2014/09/30/micki-edelsohn-talks-to-news-journal-about-parental-fears-of-bullying-of-children-with-idd/

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