Eyes Wide Open
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.