Aug 13, 2012 57 Share

Eyes Wide Open

Eyes of boy whose face is bruised and cut.

This is one of the most difficult things I've ever had to write. There is raw emotion involved, and I'm not sure what else might erupt within me as I begin to tell this story.

Cameron, my 17-year-old son with Autism Spectrum Disorder, whose independence I've had to deliberately formulate and even force myself to allow, was assaulted at his workplace by a co-worker. It has been a horrible "facts of life" lesson for both us. 

As I chronicled in my column, "Working for a Living," Cameron was a participant in the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) sponsored by the District of Columbia’s Department of Employment Services. When Cameron enrolled, I saw this as a fantastic opportunity for him to gain real employability skills, all while being in a "mainstream" setting, as this was not a disability-based program. I wasn't sure if Cameron had the skill set that would be required of him, so I sent an email to the SYEP director, asking for guidance and recommendations for employers that would be compassionate about Cameron's challenges. My email went unanswered, but Cameron was assigned to work in the mailroom at the Department of Disability Services (DDS). His supervisor was a transition specialist at the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA). I felt at ease, knowing that even though I had not gotten a response to my email, someone, somewhere had taken the information to heart, and made sure Cameron had an appropriate placement. 

When Cameron started work this summer, I couldn't contain my excitement. I would anxiously await his arrival home each day, and fire questions at him: "How was your day?" "What did you do?" "Who did you work with?" "Did you learn your supervisor's name?" Cameron was diligent about calling me each day when he arrived at his office, and at the end of the day when he was on his way home. He was, after all, taking public transportation on his own at rush hour. This was when I feared the most for his safety, as I felt he was the most vulnerable during his commute. I coached him about not pulling out his phone to call me until he was inside his office building. We went through hypothetical situations of being approached by panhandlers for money. Or even what to do if he was threatened by a thief. 

So imagine my reaction when I learned Cameron had been assaulted at his workplace. I received an incoming call from Cameron's phone at the same time that he called every day to say he was on the way home. But instead of hearing Cameron's voice, I heard the voice of a stranger saying, "Mrs. van der Poel?" This was not a good sign. It was Cameron's supervisor, whom I misunderstood to say, "Cameron has been kicked by another employee." She said the police were on the way, and she put Cameron on the phone. My immediate thought was that this was the equivalent of a school lunchroom incident, where students with low frustration tolerance act out, and behavior interventions are put in place. The idea that the police were involved didn't even strike me as odd, as I thought this would be normal protocol since the incident happened at a government agency. 

When Cameron came on the line, I immediately went into "Calm Cameron Down" mode. He was quite upset, told me his face was swollen a bit, but he didn't think anything was broken. It was then that I realized that Cameron had in fact been hit, and not kicked. He told me that another teen—with whom he had been working all along—just came at him out of nowhere. Cameron said the youth hit him and then ran out of the building. Cameron said that another coworker was coming out of the restroom and went and got the “grown-ups.” As we talked, Cameron did calm down. In an effort to get him to think beyond the event, I asked if he wanted to come home, or if he still wanted to go the gym after work as he had planned. Cameron seemed intent on sticking with his gym plan, and this satisfied me that he was sufficiently calm. The supervisor came back on the phone, and said she would complete her report and would walk Cameron to the Metro station just to make sure he was okay. 

When I still hadn't heard from Cameron 45 minutes later, I called him to see if he was on his way yet. He said he was talking to the police, and was almost finished. Another 45 minutes went by before he called to say he was on the way to the gym. I picked him up from the gym 3 hours after I received the initial call. I was shocked when I saw him, and Cameron was clearly in a stunned state as well. His face was swelling, and he looked like someone who had just had their wisdom teeth removed. It wasn't until I got home and started photographing him that I realized he was swollen on both sides of his face. When I heard Cameron was "hit" I assumed the singular form of the word. This was clearly not the case. Cameron had sustained several blows to his face and neck, but could remember very few details of the actual beating. 

The evening of the attack, I experienced a wide variety of emotions. Surprisingly enough, guilt was one of the primary emotions I struggled with. I was angry with myself for not responding to the initial phone call differently. Why didn't I ask better questions of the supervisor? Why didn't I immediately rush to the scene so that I could support Cameron during the interview process? And then I became angry. How could this have happened? Did the assailant have a record of violent behavior, and was the agency negligent in leaving my son alone with him unsupervised? Why didn't the supervisor herself suggest I come down to the office? Was she intentionally trying to downplay the incident? I came to my own conclusions that the assailant had his own disabilities, as I assumed all of SYEP participants working at the DDS had disabilities. 

I didn't know where to begin, but I knew I needed an action plan in place. Since the incident occurred on a Friday afternoon, there was very little I could do over the weekend, aside from ask friends for advice regarding where to get advice. I am not the type of person that believes lawsuits are the solution to every injustice. That said, I did feel I had some questions that needed to be answered, and realized I would need help getting those answers. I decided I should look for legal support, but wasn't even sure what type of legal support I needed. I spoke to the responding officer the evening of the attack. She assured me that charges were pressed against the attacker, and that the case would be turned over to a detective. It took eight days for the police report to be released, meaning it took eight days for a detective to be assigned to the case. 

On the Monday following the incident, I received a call from Cameron's supervisor at DDS. She was calling to check on how Cameron was doing. I took this as an opportunity to get some answers to a few of my many questions about the event. As it turns out, the alleged assailant is 17 years old and has no documented disability. The supervisor didn't know that Cameron had any disabilities until he started working there. So my assumption that Cameron had been placed at DDS because of his disability was totally wrong. It was essentially the luck of the draw that he came to work there. 

I thought it was such a great idea to enroll Cameron in an employment program that wasn't disability-based. I so wanted to expand Cameron's community beyond his relatively small school population of students with similar disabilities, and get him out of that special needs cloister. Any opportunity to learn job skills AND earn money is a clear bonus. Or so I thought. I've found myself second-guessing the rationale behind enrolling Cameron in SYEP. I'm not going to give up on the desire to increase Cameron’s opportunities for inclusion, but maybe I need to be more selective about the placements I pursue on his behalf. But then again, who could blame me for assuming the DDS would be a good start? 

Many people suffer senseless beatings every day—often in places they should be safe. But with the rise of mass shootings, and the outcry to pay more attention to the trail of red flags the shooters inevitably have, I don't understand how this random act of violence doesn't trigger a stronger response from the authorities. A full 10 days after the attack, and it would seem that the "suspect" hasn't so much as had a finger wagged in his face. The motive behind my son's attack seems to be of no consequence to anyone in authority. For all we know, this may have been a hate crime. Cameron may well have been victimized for no reason other than his disability. 

I honestly think that if this assault had occurred at a Metro station, I would chalk it up to what an attorney friend referred to as "life in the big city." But this happened in the workplace. By someone with whom Cameron had been working for 6 weeks. The alleged assailant’s identity is known to both the police and to the employer. Isn't this evidence of an all-around systemic failure? Are the anti-bullying campaigns and the "see something, say something" nothing more than lip service? Why are there no consequences? 

Actually, there are consequences. But so far they only seem to be for the victim and his family. Cameron and I are forever changed by this event. I think I speak for both of us when I say that a massive chunk of our faith in humanity has been blasted away. I am heartbroken. It's a cruel world out there, and we should be thankful this incident was relatively minor. I've also lost my faith in the agencies that provide adult services. I've had very little hands-on experience to date, but this incident has greatly increased my skepticism. I feel as though I did what I should've done on my end, by disclosing Cameron's disability and asking for guidance in an appropriate placement. The one good thing that has come out of this is that I have lost my naiveté. My eyes are now wide open.

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I'm truly heartbroken. This

I'm truly heartbroken. This story you have written about the experience your son Cameron & your family had to endure is so hard on my heart. I'm upset that no one did anything for him, and I can only hope & pray that those who did this against Cameron will be punished. I can only imagine how hard this article was for you to share but an important one that needed to be addressed. Constant awareness is vital and I've shared this story to bring more light into how we as people need to be aware of "others" around us. I'm a single-mother of a 5-yr old boy with Asperger's and as with any mother I worry for him. I know that as he grows older I'll probably worry a lot more because he'll be growing into his own skin and I won't be able to watch over him 24/7. It'll be a learning lesson to come for the both of us, but one that worries me as there are so many heartless & blinded people out there who really don't comprehend (or care to comprehend) anything that another person may be experiencing. I'm so sorry that this had to happen to Cameron, and I hope that we (anyone reading this story, a part of this story, knows of similar stories, etc.) can bring more awareness and change for the future.


sadly it will happen again ,

sadly it will happen again , I hate to say it, MY son too has been the victom of situations likes this. and at the hands of non disabled persons, care givers, peers. Its horrible and one that has changed my life, I used to be far more happy about his growth and eevelopements and opportunities I have changed now I am apprehensive about letting him out of my sight. I am scared to trust anyone, and the police , at least in my town , don't care. the last time, the care giver did it, and of course other care givers protected that person. my son however was the only one with bruises and black eyes. I shudder at how fearful he might have been and I was not there to protect him. it was everything I could do, and too ever fiber of my being not to also be the fists for him and take on the attacker myself. I went to the police department, but by then my son didn't want to talk about it, so the police would do NOTHING. I told them I can get him to speak he needs me there.. and they said it was not reliable. this kills me daily the fears I Have for these kids. adults so innoncent , no beautiful at the hands of people to day.  and they say OUR children are the ones that have the disabilities. its an ugly world that we live in,particuarly if you do not have the financial means to incororate the more expense kinds of care that is out there. I urge all parents who are going through the diagnosis now with their littles ones, put every penny away for the future that you can. prepare for the long term . 


You have said it correctly ...sadly it will happen again!

I'm so sorry to hear of your child receiving the same treatment as my daughter. We have had to deal with police in many states and know the drills of our system all too well....our daughter is completely nonverbal and we have allowed her to work in the past and had to stop so she could live longer. She is now 24 and happy and we save more money being very protective and we just pretend like we are living more isolated for a cause higher than society can comprehend. We love her so much and I call myself her bodyguard to the public,,,,,,the violence has trained me as well in self defense and legal issues..... it has given me purpose for being a mom that is in great shape (yes saving, working hard and has lived in tiny cabins to afford her) but it is worth it. This is the world we live always has been this way and only if you are turning a blind will not see it. Thank you for sharing your stories and stay strong my fellow warriors.


i can say this my baby is

i can say this my baby is five i hope to God it never happens to him because they ain't seen crazy. My heart goes out to you and your son and I hope this ends well for youas for the young man and i use that loosely he will have to answer one day for his actions . you cant wipe it off the big guys's books!!!hang touchcameron way to go work hard and you can be anything. God bless love.


So sorry for what you've gone through

Julie, I'm so sorry that you and Cameron have had to go through this terrible experience. I can't imagine the kind of pain a parent feels at seeing their child harmed in such a way (and with no visible repercussions for the assailant). And as a former DC resident and care provider for an organization that received DDS oversight, I'm saddened to hear of this letdown in disability services. I will hold you and Cameron in prayer, and contine more diligently to work toward a world where things like this do NOT happen. 


Eyes wide open

Julie, as a mother of a young adult with special needs, my heart and soul reach out to you.  I know what a roller coaster ride you have been on and how hard you tried to make this a positive experience for your son.  You did everything you knew to do.  I am glad your eyes are now open and i am glad you put your story in print.  You have shared your experience and wisdom which continues to expand each day.  Often, we Moms, are surprised when our children are hurt in places we consider safe.  A trusted friend on the worksite can make all the difference.  What do you think you will do differently going forward?With much appreciation,Doreen 


my daughter

my daughter is 4 years old and just little a year in a half a ago she was diagnosed with ASD.  She is fortunate to have been in a really good school and now a really good kindergarten class.  But, I do fear when she gets older, that she will might be  bullied?  Sorry, you had to go through that, but your a great mom and did the right thing;)  you really do have to be an advocate for your child..