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Justice clinic improves outcomes for persons with developmental disabilities

Tuesday, March 16, 2021 @ 12:57 PM | By Hariklia Simos

Hariklia Simos %>
Hariklia Simos
March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness month and an apt time to shed light on the unique challenges facing persons with developmental disabilities in the criminal justice system. A long-standing challenge has been the equitable and meaningful participation by persons with developmental disabilities in the court process.

Take for instance the case of Robert (pseudonym), a young man with a very severe level of autism. He became violently aggressive towards one of the staff members at his group home, which resulted in his arrest. Robert’s autism prevents him from expressing himself or communicating outwardly and makes it difficult for him to understand the criminal charges he faces and to fully participate in a court hearing. Unfortunately, Robert’s experience is common to a cluster of related disabilities that when ignored, or not accommodated for, frequently contribute to court delays, missed appearances, failed peace bonds, courtroom outbursts and frustration.

Persons with developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), acquired brain injury (ABI), fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), intellectual disabilities and/or dual diagnosis (development disability with mental health/addictions) present challenges for the criminal justice system because clients rarely understand the various roles of the players in the courtroom, such as the Crown, defence counsel and judge and the way to address each of these players. They may be unclear on the nuances of courtroom procedure, the solemnity of the process and the behavioural expectations that many of us take for granted. The result is that they are not able to participate in the criminal justice system effectively and meaningfully.

The Justice Clinic is a unique program that was created to bridge the gap between persons with developmental disabilities and the judicial process. The Justice Clinic is a collaboration between the Centre for Behaviour Health Sciences (Mackenzie Health) and Community Networks of Specialized Care-Central East (CLH Developmental Support Services) and aims to ensure its clients — persons with developmental disabilities — are afforded full and equitable participatory rights in criminal justice proceedings. 

Vicky Simos is one of two dual diagnosis justice co-ordinators through a provincial position with Community Networks of Specialized Care-Central East and the current co-ordinator of the Justice Clinic through the Centre for Behaviour Health Sciences. She explained to The Lawyer’s Daily: “The Justice Clinic supports clients with a developmental disability by utilizing applied behaviour analysis (ABA), so that they are able to meaningfully participate in the court process from beginning to end. Clients may be the accused, the victim, or a witness.”

Vicky Simos

Justice Co-ordinator Vicky Simos

Clients referred to the Justice Clinic will usually undergo a functional assessment to determine what supports they require followed by the implementation of an ABA justice plan. Simos stated, “ABA is data driven. During the functional assessment, we collect baseline data, which means we want to know how much the individual knows about the specific skill we want to teach them. For example, how many conditions of their 810 peace bond do they know? Are they familiar with any justice professionals and their roles? Do they understand appropriate courtroom behaviour for in person as well as virtual court appearances? Can they sign in to virtual court?

“Once baseline is determined, we prepare an ABA justice plan and begin implementing it. The ABA justice plans can take many shapes and forms, and most are implemented on a weekly basis, with the majority currently conducted virtually over BlueJeans, a videoconferencing platform. We have successfully supported individuals with ABA justice plans for the aforementioned situations, as well as preparing for an Ontario Review Board hearing, trial or court ordered curriculum-based content such as anger management, anti-theft and partner assault response programs. All ABA justice plans are based on the individual needs of the client, but we do not coach on any evidence related to court matters.

“For example, Max (pseudonym) was referred to the Justice Clinic by his support staff and lawyer. The Crown in his case offered resolution of an 810 peace bond. Max’s lawyer explained what a peace bond is and provided him with a letter outlining the upfront work he needed to do. Max agreed to an 810 peace bond. The justice specialist (behaviour consultant with the Justice Clinic) was able to take over where Max’s lawyer left off by implementing an ABA justice plan that enhanced his understanding of the peace bond by creating various cues to prompt him on the conditions of the peace bond, such as avoiding person “X.”

Simos stated: “One of the many benefits of the program is that it alleviates parts of the workload of the Crown, the client’s lawyer and the court.”  

Charlena Claxton, an Ontario-based lawyer at Claxton Law, had a client who was referred to the Justice Clinic, and found that the supports provided genuinely helped her client. She told The Lawyer’s Daily, “as an adviser, lawyers provide clients with an informed understanding of their legal rights, but we don’t always appreciate how much the individual knows and understands about the judicial process as a whole. In especially one of my cases, the program was instrumental in helping my client navigate and better understand the justice system, through their weekly personalized sessions that explained the various roles of justice participants, by fielding my client's questions about what to generally expect at their trial, and creating a mock practice courtroom.”

The Justice Clinic is even more important as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced court hearings to be held virtually. Persons with developmental disabilities are now expected to learn to navigate a virtual justice system and new technology all at once. Currently, navigating virtual court and virtual court platforms form a part of many ABA justice plans.

Data collected by the Justice Clinic supports the success of this program. Simos stated, “ABA justice plans have been shown to be successful in as little as three to six sessions and 100 per cent of the clients have met their goals. The effects are lasting for second, third or even fourth court appearances as well as everyday interactions thereafter.

“Joe (pseudonym) was a client of the Justice Clinic. Joe successfully met the goals of his ABA justice plan and applies the skills he acquired through the program daily. On his experience with the Justice Clinic, Joe stated to The Lawyer’s Daily, “It was excellent. Helped me with everything for the court. I learned about court.”

Further funding is required to expand the Justice Clinic provincewide to meet the community and court needs. Currently, there is only one justice specialist employed by the Justice Clinic for the province of Ontario, despite a large population of vulnerable persons who require this type of support.

Ultimately, access to justice for persons with developmental disabilities must include the opportunity and ability to meaningfully participate in the justice system. For persons with developmental disabilities the creation and expansion of the Justice Clinic is the first step in the right direction.

Hariklia Simos is a content lawyer with LexisNexis Practical Guidance.

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