The Class B Felony and My Autistic Son — Part I

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Editor’s Note: This story was written by a local mom who, through a traumatizing experience, helped to change how Manchester’s police department trains and prepares officers to deal with situations involving people with disabilities. We will bring you that story, as well.

But first, the prelude to change.

What follows is her story, a journey through a system she quickly discovered was ill-equipped for the unique circumstances that began with a simple phone call for help. The author is using a pen name to protect the identity and privacy of her adult son and those involved. 

He answered on the first ring, “Mom, I’m being arrested.”

Thirty minutes earlier, he called me because he needed help. I could hear doors slamming, a loud crash, then he said, “Put that down you’ll break it. No! Please! Please stop! Stop it! Ow! That hurts! Stop hitting me!” He was in trouble. I told him to get out of there. I told him I’m on my way. I told him to call the police.

I arrived at his apartment building and I called him from my car. After telling me that he was being arrested, he told me that a police officer would come down and speak with me. As I waited in the back parking lot, my son was being taken out of the front of the building in handcuffs and put into a cruiser.

It wasn’t long before a young officer approached me. He told me, “I don’t think we should be making this arrest. These are two people with disabilities.” He paused and said, “But it’s out of my hands. They’re taking him to the police station now.” I was told that my son is being charged with a Class B felony — second-degree assault — and faces up to seven years in prison. My heart pounded. I feel the contents of my stomach turn to liquid. My God, I’m the one who told him to call the police. What have I done?

I raced to the police station. I didn’t even see the telephone to use to talk to the woman behind the plastic barrier. I knocked on the plastic window and she looked up at me. I am certain that I looked unhinged. I kept knocking because I couldn’t hear what she was saying. I kept say, “Please help me. My son was just taken here. He has autism.”

I finally understood that I was being told to put $40 in an envelope and write my son’s name on it and place it in a bin for the Bail Commissioner. She looked bored as she passed an envelope under the plastic barrier toward me. Bail Commissioner? Who is that? Forty dollars? Then can I see him? Can he come home? I don’t have my checkbook with me. Hold on. I think I have cash, is that okay? Yes! I do! I have cash! I knock again. Hello? Can you hear me? What happens next?

I called my husband. I called my son’s case manager at the Area Agency. I called my friend who, coincidentally, trains new officers about autism at the Police Academy. All I could do was wait. When I inquired how much longer it would be, I was always told the same thing, “It won’t be long now.”

After three hours, I was assured by the unremarkable receptionist that I would be called once my son had been “processed.” I left the building to go check on my parents, both age 89, as I did every afternoon.

Two more hours passed and I headed back to the police department. While en route, my phone rang, “Mom, can you please come get me?” he said. I replied, “I see you. Look up. I’m at the light on the corner. Do you see me? When the light turns green, I’ll pull into the parking lot and meet you there.”

I got out of the car and gave him a hug. I told him, “I need to go inside. I need to talk to someone to find out how all of this works.” He said, “Me too.” I don’t understand all of the things they told me.”

We entered the police station lobby. This time there was a different person behind the barrier. She looked up and acknowledged me and pointed to a telephone. I picked it up and explained that my son needs his Rx medicine, clothes and other personal items. I need his car keys so we can get his vehicle. The woman spoke into a different telephone for a few moments. She got back on the phone with me. She explained the bail conditions. My son was not allowed to go within 300 feet of his apartment and was told not to have any communication whatsoever with his roommate. She asked me for the phone number so she could call the “victim” and ask if it would be okay if I called to make the arrangements to pick up my son’s belongings. She made the call. The roommate agreed that I could call in the next hour.

Having received permission to make that call, I took my son to my home. It was nearly 6 p.m. He was tired. He was extremely thirsty. He told me he hadn’t eaten yet that day. He was very frightened. So was I. While he greeted his dog, I ordered dinner from his favorite pizza shop to be delivered. I asked my son to stay indoors so I could make the call in private. I sat in my backyard and made that phone call. I understood all too clearly that he was not to communicate with “the victim” as part of the restraining order.

I asked if the roommate was okay. Yes. I was told that my son never assaulted or threatened anyone. When I asked, the police reported otherwise, the answer was “I was not in my right mind,” the person was “so angry” and “couldn’t calm” themself, but now desperately wants “to fix this.”

This person, also someone with special needs, asked, “Who do I call? What do I need to do?”

I said, “Just tell the truth.” And then I said, “No. I can’t help you with this. I’m sorry. Ask your sister to help you.”

I was told that the sister refused to help her. It didn’t occur to me to wonder why.

Screenshot 2022 03 28 11.37.50 AM 1Over a decade earlier, my family participated in the Easter Seals 9–1–1 autism program with the community resource officer of the local police department. He also helped my son learn how to drive his Segway. It was a wish granted from the High Hopes Foundation when he was twelve. He was always told if he was afraid or in an unsafe situation to call 9–1–1 for help. My son asked for that officer when he was being arrested. He was told that he retired a few years ago and his position was eliminated.

The night of the arrest, I sent an email to VP for family support of our local Area Agency, who is charged with helping adults with disabilities, we’ve known each other for years. She never responded. The next day I left a message at Easter Seals. No one called me back. The Disability Rights Center of NH called me back, but only to give me the phone number for the public defender’s office. The NH Bar referral line did the same. Not one of my contacts who know attorneys who have expertise in mental health or developmental disabilities could refer a criminal defense lawyer experienced in working with a defendant who has autism.

My thoughts kept churning. Class B Felony. Prison. It is the State of NH vs. my son. Superior Court. Convicted felons are not allowed to live in public housing. He did nothing wrong. How do we help him with this?

Screenshot 2022 03 28 11.37.50 AM 1I’ve had zero experience with how law enforcement and how the justice system work. I had many questions. I obtained my son’s permission to “spread a wide net” among the people in my life who might be able to assist us.

I work in a law firm with attorneys who practice probate law. I asked the senior partners for referrals and I was given some names and began calling. Most never bothered to call me back. Those that did all asked for retainers. The amounts ranged from $2,500 to $10,000. And none of them had experience representing a young adult who experiences autism. I began to realize that there was no such thing. I would have to settle for an attorney who only represented “normal” people and hope that I could coach my son through the process.

I began calling my friends. I spread a wide net among other parents in our autism/disability community. I had many questions. Who do I ask? Has no one in my circle ever had anyone in their lives get arrested? Or was it that they weren’t willing to share that information out of discretion? And, out of respect for my son’s privacy I asked that they not use his name when making inquiries on his behalf.

I googled domestic abuse cases. It is quite common for victims of domestic violence to recant their testimony or not follow through pursuing charges against their partner, husband, lover, or father of their children who are the defendants.

This problem was too big for me. I was not strong enough. My son was released and now living with us. For how long? We didn’t have a spare bed. My husband went out and bought a mattress. We put fresh linens and pillows on it for him and an a/c in the window of the spare room. He came to me in the middle of the night. My 28-year-old son was crying. He whispered, “Mom, can I sleep with you?”

Screenshot 2022 03 28 11.37.50 AM 1Ten days after the arrest, I wrote out a very large check to a complete stranger. I’m was putting our future in his hands. I picked this attorney because he was recommended by two other attorneys that were acquaintances. I picked him because his rate was only $250.00 per hour. A bargain. I wondered why he didn’t charge more. I wondered why he didn’t have a website. I wondered why criminal defense attorneys had such mixed reviews online. I supposed it was the nature of their business.

My son and I met with this attorney who told us to watch the mail for a hearing notice that should take place in 30 days. What? Can’t we get this resolved sooner? He said he would reach out to the Prosecutor and see what he could do.

I explained that my son’s roommate is a young woman who has an acquired brain injury, her Mom died when she was twelve and her other family members love her but are fairly unreliable. I can’t abandon her. I told him that I’ve known her for eight years. She lived in my home for four years. She moved out when my son got approved for public housing. The attorney warned me that my helping her could be viewed as “witness tampering” and that I could find myself in serious legal trouble.

We walked out of there and I thought, we had representation. I needed to keep putting my big girl pants on and a smile on my face and try to convince my son that’s everything will be okay. But my hands wouldn’t stop shaking.

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Coming tomorrow: The Class B Felony and My Autistic Son — Part II

*Author’s note: I chose to conceal my identity to protect the privacy of my son and my girl. I do not want them to be identified by their disabilities and weaknesses. My son feels betrayed by the police and violated by experience. My girl feels like she was tricked into saying something that wasn’t true and no longer trusts the police. They deserve a chance to put this behind them and find happiness in their quest for independence.

About this Author

Cam Martineau*

Cam Martineau was born in Manchester and resides here. Cam Martineau is a nom de plume. The Martineau name is part of her ancestry. The first name, Cam, stands for C.A.M. (childhood nicknames of the author and her sibling.) She is a spectrum mom and has spent decades volunteering and advocating for people in NH who have special needs.