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Kevin Riordan: Gloucester County trains police to deal with the mentally challenged

With the number of private group homes rising across New Jersey, more adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities can live in their communities with relative independence.

With the number of private group homes rising across New Jersey, more adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities can live in their communities with relative independence.

Many do well in the supervised settings, which typically house four adults.

But the emotional displays, unusual behavior, and communication difficulty sometimes associated with autism and other conditions can lead to confrontations between residents and the public - and with police.

Officers are learning how to handle "these individuals when they come into the criminal justice system," Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean Dalton says.

"Someone is out of control, the police don't know what to do with them, so they bring them to us," says Vicki McFadden, clinical coordinator for Gloucester County's psychiatric emergency services provider. "But they don't fit our [hospital admissions] criteria."

Often, that trip to the ER could have been avoided, McFadden says.

Since 1990, the population of the developmentally disabled - a term that includes autism spectrum disorders and congenital neurological conditions - housed in large, state-run centers has fallen to 2,340, a decline of more than 50 percent.

A series of federal court decisions tied to the Americans With Disabilities Act has propelled New Jersey's efforts to integrate clients into the "least restrictive" settings.

In the last 12 months, with two of the state's seven centers set to close, the number of licensed, privately run group homes jumped to 1,143 statewide, up from 843. In Gloucester County, there are 58, compared with 36 at this time last year.

Educating police about special-needs residents enables law enforcement to better handle incidents, reduce injuries, and the use of force, minimize ER referrals, and avoid the arrest of clients who simply may be upset, Dalton says.

"We're trying to make it easier for law enforcement officers to do a good job. It's also to protect the [entire] community," says Jessica Oppenheimer of Arc of New Jersey, which produced a training DVD.

People with developmental or intellectual disabilities are neither inherently dangerous nor prone to commit crimes.

"Many don't have the mental capacity to form criminal intent," Dalton notes. "But they may do something that may be a crime, like shoplifting or disorderly conduct."

The new Gloucester County training is provided through the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey School of Osteopathic Medicine. It is similar to training that officers have received for a decade about interacting with the mentally ill.

The developmental-disability component focuses on recognizing behavior and techniques to inspire calm and ease communication. Avoiding inflammatory language (terms such as retarded, for example) is a key.

"I feel like the local police are really trying," says McFadden-Novak, a mental-health professional for 15 years. "I've gone on [calls] with them, and they are soft-spoken."

They want to communicate with the developmentally disabled individual, she says. But that is frustrating when they're called to intervene with someone who has been the subject of repeated calls.

In Deptford, which has about 10 group homes or apartments for the developmentally disabled, officers are trained to develop personal relationships with the facilities' staff and clients.

The homes "have become much less of an issue in recent months," township police Sgt. John Storms says.

Says Pam Ronan, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services: "Training to evaluate and de-escalate situations involving people with disabilities is a valuable tool."