23 February 2012

Six Years

As some of you might know, I have been working on legislation to mandate training about autism for law enforcement and corrections officers in Massachusetts since 2009. It started as an overly idealistic, rather optimistic idea for how to complete my school's requirement that all eleventh grade students merge their interests and abilities with a need in the community in a year-long community service project. This is when I first decided to become involved with the larger autism and Autistic community.

For a very long time, I had wanted a career in law enforcement (in addition to writing crime novels, which I do now), and I decided to explore the overlap of my potential career interest with a part of my identity -- being Autistic. I quickly realized that the vast majority of states do not offer or require training about autism for law enforcement, which has repeatedly led to unfortunate situations, including wrongful deaths, wrongful arrest, exacerbation of sensory problems, and even altercations, all of which could have been avoided had officers been taught to recognize common behavioral and verbal characteristics of Autistic people and to respond with appropriate de-escalation techniques.

In fall 2009, I approached my then State Representative, Katherine Clark, about the possibility of creating legislation to require an autism training program for law enforcement in Massachusetts. By the Spring, I had drafted legislative language, and the bill was filed for the first time as House Bill 4811 in May 2010. Unfortunately, it was a late file (as the session had started in January 2009 and was to conclude at the end of July 2010), and never made it out of committee, which would have been the first step to moving forward in the legislative process. I later learned that that was the first year that a new bill filing system had been introduced, and that many committees were inadvertently uninformed of bills assigned to their committee.

Unfazed by the first fledgling attempt at filing legislation, the bill was refiled in the 2011-2012 legislative session in January, ahead of the filing deadline, in both the House and the Senate. By this time, I had received a few suggestions about the bill's language, and had incorporated them into minor revisions in the text of the bill, now filed as Senate Bill 1197 and House Bill 2909. Katherine Clark was now my State Senator, and the newly elected State Representative for my district, Paul Brodeur, also agreed to sponsor the bill. Very quickly, another Senator, Jim Timilty, and two other Representatives, Denise Provost and Kay Khan, signed their names as co-sponsors. All of this was very exciting.

I anxiously waited for the committee to schedule a date for a hearing -- committees must hold public hearings before a bill can progress in the legislative process. My bill had been assigned to the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, where Senator Clark sits and which Senator Timilty co-chairs. More optimism came my way as the chairs of a legislative committee can often exercise a good amount of influence on the committee's activities and decisions. The hearing was held on 19 May 2011, and several people submitted written or oral testimony in favor of the bill along with my own testimony -- cobbled together at one in the morning the day of the hearing in true student fashion.

After that, progress came to a standstill. I've spent the last nine months waiting to hear word -- any word -- from Senator Clark's office, from Senator Timilty's office, from anyone associated with the committee -- about when the committee could be expected to favorably report the bill from committee and move it forward in the legislative process. At the beginning of the summer, I was told that my bill was one of ten priority bills that the committee intended to report favorably by the end of summer. At the end of August, nine other bills had been reported favorably from committee. Mine had not.

Months passed with other pieces of information -- that the casino debate had taken the bulk of everyone's attention and it would not be addressed until late October; that the House co-chair of the committee, Rep. Harold Naughton, was deployed on active duty, and they wanted to wait for him to return before taking action; that at the beginning of the year (January), they needed to act without Rep. Naughton...

After continual frustration and anxiety, Senator Clark's legislative staffer called me today. My bill was to be included in an omnibus type bill with more general language. I called Senator Timilty's office and spoke to his Chief of Staff less than two hours before writing this. Instead of an omnibus bill, only one piece of legislation (Senate Bill 1258), which was intentionally written with very vague wording, will be released from committee next week. My legislation and some related initiatives around police training programs were to be rolled into S-1258 -- the bill language would not be included, but the bill's history would be amended into S-1258's bill history. My bill is not leaving the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. It is dead, effective today.

Senator Timilty's Chief of Staff told me that I should re-file in the next legislative session, 2013-2014. He said that it's a good idea that will continue to have support. It can't go through, however, because of financial reasons. Massachusetts's police are operating on a deficit, in particular regard with training officers. Such a mandate cannot be funded were it to pass. Even if the autism training program would save money in the long run, there's no money for it now, and thus the bill has been killed.

S-1258 creates a funding mechanism for police training, which Senator Timilty's Chief of Staff told me would hopefully be able to be expanded in the future to allow for additional programs and initiatives, such as a program on autism. The bill's language specifies only that the Municipal Training Committee update its programs. That was, he said, the key phrasing. That's all. No mention of autism, nor of disability in general. They were reassured by the MTC that training programs will be updated to include training on appropriate and respectful interactions with a variety of marginalized groups -- people who don't speak English, people with physical disabilities, people with developmental or intellectual disabilities. But reassurances without the backing of regulations or legislation don't carry much weight with me.

I've heard that it takes an average of six years to pass a bill in Massachusetts. I started this process in 2009, and first filed in 2010. It's 2012. Two-ish years down. Four to go? Maybe more?

I'm a writer, and I can't seem to find the best adjectives to describe my feelings right now. Disappointed is a good one. Frustrated seems too mild. On the verge of crying is on the cliché side. But I'm unable to produce more precise verbiage at the moment, so those will have to do.

Three years, and I'm right back to where I started. Well, this is depressing.

9 comments:

  1. It sounds like you are on a good quest, and I hope you can find the resolve to stay the course. I also hope the Chief of Staff is being truthful with you when he encourages you to continue. That is always the worry . . . When I have been in situations like that I have trouble telling if someone is just stringing me along or it's really a long slow process.

    All that said, I agree with you that we need to train cops to deal with folks on the spectrum. I wonder if you could enlist support from other groups in this cause; perhaps criminal lawyers who defend autistic people or even groups like the chiefs of police who want to protect their departments from bad press.

    Anyway I wish you eventual success

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    1. My town's chief of police expressed support for the measure, and there were two police officers at the hearing present in support of the bill as well.

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  2. I don't wish to be contrary,but you are no where near where you started. The number of people who are aware of this legislation's potential has increased exponentially; you do, in effect, have a "base". You are one giant lawsuit away from this becoming a hot-button news media issue; if someone were able to successfully sue for what happen to them because the law is not in place. But most of all, Dear Lydia, have have been obedient to the call of God's justice in your life and have trudged roads and put your blood sweat and tears into something much bigger than yourself. It's something that will eventually change the lives of countless people on all sides of the issue, mothers, victims, police, you name it. Never give up your love for this please. If I have to move to Massachusetts...well we'll talk about that. I love you. T

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  3. Dear Lydia,

    I have been following your blog and reading some of your writings since we were introduced at the beginning of NSO this year. I cannot pretend that I understand your frustration. I will not tell you that "I know exactly how that feels!" However, I have been inspired by you and your commitment. I just want to share a word of encouragement- I know that you can fight this fight well!

    Mahi Megra
    COL'12

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  4. Andrew Edward CollinsFebruary 23, 2012 at 7:04 PM

    I'd argue that you're not anywhere near where you started. Your efforts towards the bill brought you to a lot of different places and a lot of different people, many of whom you have helped or have helped you in some way. At the very least you've effectively raised awareness of the issue, which is of course far from negligible. Consider reassessing your journey with the bill; I think you'll find it took you farther than you think.
    -Andrew Edward Collins

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  5. Don't give up Lydia. I had given up on people before I met you. Now I'm back fighting like a lioness because I said, if Lydia Brown can do it, I'd better keep on until my last breath is gone. Keep going Lydia. I am with you .

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  6. Hang in there, Lydia. Setbacks and disappointments are extremely exhausting, so what you're feeling is quite normal. It's okay to feel frustrated, and have a good cry. This is a fantastic bill which is very much needed. You've brought it along so far, and the two years of hard work you've put into this has been a good two years, Lydia. There's no turning back, right?!

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  7. *hugs* This work is lots of long uphill battles. You've done a lot getting it this far, and I'm sure that as you continue to push for this much needed legislation that it will eventually happen.

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  8. I know it's a long road but please keep this up! Hopefully someday it can go country-wide. I want to encourage you that there ARE some departments that already do this (though I am not aware of any states that have made it mandatory). My husband is a police officer and in his city's police academy they spent several days of instruction on serving different types of people in the community including those with autism. It was all material that my husband was familiar with since we have an autistic daughter, but we were excited to see that it was being taught to all of the officers in the academy.

    ReplyDelete

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