Autism and the law: North Ridgeville boy’s incarceration reveals failures of the system

NORTH RIDGEVILLE, Ohio — Ehren Jackson didn’t understand why he was locked up in the Lorain County Detention Home for five days. He just knew that he wanted to go home.

The 14-year-old North Ridgeville boy stands nearly 6-feet tall and weighs 200 pounds. But with an autism diagnosis and an IQ of 47, he functions at the level of a young child.  He now faces felony criminal charges that he doesn’t comprehend.

“He knows he did something that is considered wrong…to put him in this place,” his attorney, David Berta said. “Beyond that, all he kept asking for is ‘I just want to come home today, Mom. I love you, can I come home?'”

Ehren was placed in the detention home following a Thanksgiving Day outburst at his family’s house. He tried to hurt himself, ran away, and kicked officers when they tried to bring him back home.

His case illustrates the precarious intersection of the criminal justice system and people with autism or other developmental disabilities. It also shows how police are often left on the front lines when people with autism act out.

Ehren’s mother, Lisa Berner, said she believes the county agencies most equipped to handle her son’s needs, namely Children Services and the Board of Developmental Disabilities, should have offered more resources to her family before Ehren’s Thanksgiving arrest.

“He is being treated like a criminal because the system has failed him,” she said. “Ehren is not the only one in Lorain County who is facing the same situation.”

The problem isn’t limited to Northeast Ohio — it is one that communities across the country are slowly starting to recognize. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in 68 children have autism spectrum disorder, meaning that police officers will often encounter people on the spectrum throughout their careers. 

One independent researcher, Dennis Debbaudt, estimated that people with autism are seven times more likely to encounter police than an average person who does not have the disorder. Most of the issues arise from miscommunication, a lack of understanding, and not enough education about the disorder, Autism Society of Greater Cleveland Executive Director Christina Shahriari said.

Ehren’s ordeal

Over the past year, Ehren’s behavior has become dangerous and erratic. Berner fears for her son’s safety and the well-being of her 3-year-old daughter and the rest of the family. The situation came to a head on Thanksgiving Day when Ehren cut himself and ran away. His mother called North Ridgeville police.

Investigators found Ehren and loaded him into a cruiser. He became combative and spit on the officers, police and court records say.

Ehren is charged with felony assault on a police officer and harassment with a bodily substance. He’s also charged with misdemeanor resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, court records say.

The officers took him to Elyria Memorial Hospital after the encounter, but once medical staff released him, his mother refused to take him back home out of safety concerns.

Lorain County Children Services took temporary custody with Berner’s approval.

“I thought it was a good idea because it would force them to place him somewhere appropriate,” Berner said.

But due to the holiday, a looming weekend and other factors, social workers determined that the safest temporary place for Ehren was the detention home, Berner said.

“Basically the DH agreed to babysit him” until other county organizations could find a solution on Monday, his mother said.

Berner didn’t learn that her son had been charged with a felony until a preliminary detention hearing on Saturday where Ehren was brought out in a jumpsuit and handcuffs. He was made to sign a paper acknowledging he understood the charges against him — even though his mother believes he didn’t. 

David Berta, a former Lorain County Common Pleas Court judge who started the county’s juvenile mental health court, volunteered to take on Ehren’s case after seeing a news report about it.

Berta said that after speaking with the boy on Monday, he has no doubt that Ehren will be found incompetent to stand trial.

“This is not a delinquency matter as far as I’m concerned because (the case) will be thrown out,” Berta said. “It’s a mental health matter.”

Ehren had to stay another night at the detention home on Monday, but the Lorain County Board of Development Disabilities, known as the Murray Ridge Center, according to its website, was able to secure a spot for him at the NECCO Center in Southeast Ohio, Berner said. He is there now, and will remain in their care for the next few weeks. He will have to return to Lorain County Domestic Relations Court for his arraignment but that has not yet been scheduled.

 Ehren’s stay at that same facility earlier this year disappointed his mother. It is not geared specifically toward children with autism or even developmental disabilities, she said, and the four-hour drive from North Ridgeville means it is difficult for his family to visit.

This may be Ehren’s first time facing criminal charges, but his mother has struggled with these dangerous episodes for more than a year, and she hasn’t been able to find the help necessary to get him into a long-term facility close to home.

Ehren’s situation intensified in October 2016. 

He destroyed parts of the family home and tried to start electrical fires, prompting his parents to disable the electrical outlets throughout most of the house. He tries to harm himself and injured in-home therapists, Berner said. His 3-year-old sister already underwent early interventions for exposure to trauma.

Berner sought help from the Children Services and the Murray Ridge Center but they haven’t done much to help her family, she said.

She believes her son needs long-term residential treatment with a structured environment — “somewhere he can get care, therapy and stabilization.” She told representatives from those county agencies as much.

Berner also hoped for better in-home solutions such as safety gear and access to therapists.

The family was approved to get 32 hours of in-home care a week, but what they received wasn’t enough, Berner said.

The therapists were qualified to tend to Ehren’s behavioral needs — but the contract they were under from Murray Ridge only allowed to them to function as babysitters so Berner could tend to errands outside of the home, Berner said. But even then, the therapists told Berner that they were not informed about the severity of Ehren’s case. They were not comfortable with Berner leaving them alone with Ehren, and the police were later called when he assaulted one of them, Berner said. 

Berner said that county caseworkers came up with an unsatisfactory “safety plan” in the interim: Call North Ridgeville police when Ehren acts out.

Law enforcement strategies

North Ridgeville officers have responded to roughly 16 calls involving Ehren over the past year alone. Berner doesn’t blame officers for her son’s predicament. They’ve stood in the family home making calls to hospitals and doctors, and they’ve stopped by the house later to drop off packets of potential places Berner could contact for help. 

“They’ve helped us in any and every way they could. But the police department acknowledged they’re not the answer, and there’s not much they can do,” Berner said.

Officers undergo training about crisis intervention and how to deal with people diagnosed with developmental disabilities or mental health issues, North Ridgeville police Capt. Marti Garrow said. But the best way to understand how to handle Ehren has been through talking with his family and learning what makes him react. Officers try to give him space and talk to him in a calm manner when they encounter him, Garrow said.

That’s the benefit of policing in a small town, according to Garrow, because officers can get to know people like Ehren on a personal level. While that’s an ideal way to interact with people on the spectrum, Shahriari said, it’s not always possible in larger cities.

Officers may mistake people on the spectrum as drug users, or they might not understand why someone can’t communicate or answer their questions. That’s why Shahriari said the focus must be on training police officers and other safety personnel to recognize a person’s behaviors.

Dennis Debbaudt, a longtime researcher and father to a son with autism, has trained metropolitan police departments, state highway patrol officers, and members of the Department of Homeland Security about how to interact with people on the spectrum.

The chief issue for law enforcement is recognizing that someone has autism in the first place, Debbaudt said.

Many times, officers are called to deal with people with autism for matters that are not criminal. A member of the public might see someone behaving oddly, and officers are then called to investigate a “suspicious person” — resulting in what Debbaudt describes as a high-risk situation.

But there are strategies that officers can use to better handle such encounters.

People with autism often struggle with comprehension and communication, meaning they take longer to process questions. Giving time to that individual to digest and then respond to police inquiries can go a long way in concluding the encounter peacefully, Debbaudt said.

Officers should also be mindful of sensory factors that may be contributing to a person’s behavior. If overloaded with sounds, light, smells or other triggers, a person might feel the need to run away, which police might otherwise interpret as a criminal trying to escape arrest. Those triggers may also prompt a person to close in, or run up on police, possibly causing an officer to believe that person is threatening them, Debbaudt said. 

Patience is key, he added.

Moving forward with Ehren’s case

Given that Berner has no qualms with how North Ridgeville police have tended to Ehren’s situation, Berner says she now wants to apply pressure to the county agencies that she believes have failed Ehren.

When contacted for comment, Jennifer Judkins, community education and volunteer director at the Board of Developmental Disabilities, said she wasn’t able to get into the specifics of Ehren’s case due to confidentiality rules. She said the board finds out-of-home placement for a person if it is requested.

And a spokeswoman for Children Services left a message in response to a call from a cleveland.com reporter, but could not be reached when the reporter called back.

Ehren was admitted to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital for a few weeks in August. Murray Ridge Center and Lorain County Children Services split the costs for another short-term stay at NECCO Center in September.

“He was set to come home but we were concerned we’d find ourselves in the same dangerous situation. (County workers) told me I was thinking negatively and that all this was in the past,” Berner said.

It is not as if Berner hasn’t sought help outside the county agencies — she said that she’s worked every day to find other solutions, and she’s contacted attorneys, a state senator and her insurance company to no avail.

Back in February, she started a GoFundMe account when she learned that residential placement at a long-term school in Northeast Ohio would cost her $500 per day, amounting to $250,000 for a 6-month stay.

But now that Ehren is in the legal system, Berner hopes that a solution will emerge. In the meantime, she continues to explore treatment options on her own. 

“There’s no court order stating that (Children Services and Murray Ridge) have to do anything, but I think the magistrate made it pretty clear that now is the time to act and get this kid some help.” Berner said. 

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