Our Stories: Defusing high-stress situations – helping PWIDs navigate the criminal justice system

Defusing high-stress situations – helping PWIDs navigate the criminal justice system

  #60Stories

How would you feel if you were sitting in a room with police officers and had to answer question after question with no idea when it would all end? Anxiety, fear, and frustration would be an understandable reaction for many — perhaps even more so for Persons with Intellectual Disability (PWIDs) who have a hard time understanding the situation they are in.

The Appropriate Adult for Persons with Mental Disability (AAMPD) Scheme was developed to alleviate this distress, and bridge communication between PWIDs and investigation officers. Under this programme, trained volunteers, called Appropriate Adults (AAs), participate in interviews with law enforcement officers to assist witnesses, victims or suspects with intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorders or mental health issues.

AA volunteer Ms Donna Chew tells us why she volunteers, how it helps, and why she finds the work meaningful.

Stories-Donna
A desire for a fair and just world has led Donna Chew to find time between juggling freelance writing, training for Half Ironman races, caring for her 5 pets, and to advocate for persons with special needs.

My journey to support PWIDs began in 2010. I was walking down Orchard Road when I saw a young boy with special needs having a meltdown. His mother was unable to calm him down, and passers-by had all stopped to stare at him. Although I had no experience with PWIDs, I went to help him and became friends with his family. Later, I became one of the boy’s teachers at school and regularly helped watch him when his parents were not around.

The relationship I built with the boy and his family, and the six years I spent working with children with special needs, taught me volumes about people with special needs. For example, there are many things that we take for granted when teaching mainstream children, but that children with special needs have difficulty with.

Every child has different abilities and goals that they want to achieve. Whether it is being able to verbally make a decision or brush their teeth without having a meltdown – these can be important milestones in their lives.

Fairness Comes with Understanding

These differences do not make people with special needs less important than other members of society. Yet they still face prejudice, which I believe is only exacerbated when they are involved in the criminal justice system, whether as victims or suspects.

The challenge is that many people with special needs do not understand what is being asked of them when they are questioned. They are also more likely to be overwhelmed under pressure and agree to statements that are not true.

Despite how professional the police are, they may lack experience communicating with PWIDs. As a result, they might not comprehend the level of understanding that person they are questioning has, or how best to approach them, resulting in distress and untrue statements.

Steps that Can Bridge the Gap

The AAMPD programme is a way for us to bridge the gap between those with special needs and the law enforcement officials.

As a volunteer from AA, I might rephrase the questions asked or change my tone of voice to accurately draw out what happened. With victims, I sometimes use flash cards to help them identify their feelings or actions. And in cases like sexual assault, I may use toys to help them re-enact the situation. The goal is to build rapport and make the person being interviewed feel safe, which increases the likelihood that the information provided will be as accurate as possible.

It is similar with suspects. I help them understand the questions asked and enable investigators to understand their state of mind at the time of the possible offence. Importantly, I try to reduce tension and escalation of their distress so they do not feel pressured to admit to something just because they are overwhelmed.

I stand by my belief that PWIDs can be part of a society that is inclusive, fair, and just. In many of the cases I have worked on, I may have seen the darker side of life, but there is also light in the knowledge that I have helped to alleviate the plight of a person and their loved ones during an immensely difficult time.

Ms Donna Chew
Appropriate Adult (AA) volunteer

Be a Beacon of Light in the Darkest of Times

It has been about 7 years since I joined the first group of AAMPD volunteers. Since then, I have worked dozens of cases involving both victims and suspects. What strikes me most each time is the expression on the faces of the victims, the suspects, and their caregivers — amidst the heartbreak and despair, there is also hope and love.

I stand by my belief that PWIDs can be part of a society that is inclusive, fair, and just. In many of the cases I have worked on, I may have seen the darker side of life, but there is also light in the knowledge that I have helped to alleviate the plight of a person and their loved ones during an immensely difficult time.

Like Donna, you too can do your part to support those with special needs as an Appropriate Adult. Regular training is provided to ensure volunteers are equipped for the role — so you don’t need experience, just patience and a heart to help. Find out more about the Appropriate Adult for Persons with Mental Disability (AAMPD) Scheme and begin making a difference in the lives of those in need.

In a separate interview with news and lifestyle platform AsiaOne, Donna shared more about her story and journey with mental health. Read the article here.

Be a friend of our MINDS community! Explore volunteering opportunities or consider donating to our cause.

Follow us on Facebook and Instagram for more stories and updates from the MINDS Community!

NOTICE OF THE 59TH ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING OF MINDS: NOTICE is hereby given that the 59th Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS) will be held by way of electronic means as follows: Date: Saturday , 18 September 2020 Time: 9:30am (Registration starts at 8:30am) Venue: Online via ZOOM MINDS members will be receiving an email on the notice of AGM and are strongly encouraged to register your attendance to facilitate the verification process on the day of the AGM. For enquiries regardingthe AGM, members may email to agm@minds.org.sg or call 849607358