A siren and flashing blue lights suddenly behind you. A car accident. A fire in the home. Police officers are involved with elements that are unfamiliar and scary. These moments can be especially traumatic for someone with autism. I wanted to bridge that gap and show them that officers are not scary, and that we are there to make a situation better, not worse.
EFFORT (Enabling Friends For Our Response Teams), a program of the Montgomery County, Virginia, Sheriff’s Department, began when a woman working for the sheriff’s office, who has a son who is autistic, came to me and requested that we do something for the special needs community, including individuals with intellectual disabilities. There had been a few incidents between law enforcement and her teenage son, and they were pretty scary for her. At one point, he had a comfort item in his hand and was commanded to put it down. He didn’t respond, not because he didn’t understand, but because he was afraid. The situation escalated pretty quickly. She was concerned that maybe in the future, as he got older, that situation could have gone really badly. She said that for some parents, the last thing they want to do in any situation is involve the police, because parents don’t trust the police to make the situation better.
She came to me a few times and I started to think about it. We had had a meeting at the beginning of the year with the sheriff, and he’d laid out his community-driven vision for the office. Clearly, we were going in a different direction. I know her son on a personal level, and it struck a chord that we do need to do this. Why not me?
I approached Sheriff Partin with the idea of having a fun day at the sheriff’s department. I quickly realized that I was out of my element with the special needs community, and I needed help and guidance. I invited a lot of people from the special needs community, from schools, Special Olympics, DARS (Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services), IDA (Individuals with Disabilities Association), and other agencies in our area that work with special needs, along with law enforcement and first responders for a big brainstorming session. I told them some of my ideas and we went forward, always with the guidance of the people in the special needs community to make sure that everything was going to be helpful and right, and that we wouldn’t do anything silly that would make the situation worse.
My vision was to bridge that gap between the special needs community and law enforcement because there wasn’t a lot of trust between individuals with special needs and their families toward law enforcement, due to bad experiences. It was not just law enforcement, but fire and rescue, as well. Those can be really scary situations for anyone, and then you throw in the special needs aspect. Even a parent getting a parking ticket could be traumatic for somebody with autism. I wanted a day with fire trucks, ambulances, police cars, and everybody in uniform. Folks got to interact with us on a fun level, and they got to learn about the jobs that we do. They did the obstacle course that the officers do at the academy. They got to use the fire hose. They got to see the back of an ambulance. They took home photos of themselves with the cops. They got certificates, medals, and awards for doing the obstacle courses.
Throughout the year, we train new officers who come in, and it’s open to volunteers. Anyone can come to us or to the fire and rescue departments and provide training. We need ongoing training about the needs that we have in our community. We need to be better trained to handle individuals with disabilities. We want those families to trust us. Continuing training will be the key part of keeping this going.
The organizations that we have developed relationships with have been phenomenal. I was really surprised at how important those connections with DARS, IDA, and Special Olympics have been. We’ve partnered with them in some things before, but it’s been small. This partnership has been huge, and I see that continuing to grow. Various programs will change because we have established this partnership. That will make transitions easier for future programs.
To create a program like this, you don’t have to be the expert in everything. You are the visionary, and you bring in people with expertise to fill in those gaps. If you want to do something, find people who are really good at it and partner with them. Sometimes those of us in government agencies, churches, and charities think that we have to do it all, but collaboration really enables us all to do a whole lot more.
We extended our work through a program called Growth Through Opportunity (GTO), enabled by a local donation, which was really positive for the sheriff’s office and for three individuals through the DARS relationships. We took in three cadets with intellectual disabilities, and deputies, serving as coaches, taught them job and social skills. They spent several hours a day with us, Monday through Thursday, for four months, to become job-ready. Under the supervision of the coaches, the cadets did jobs for other police agencies and fire and rescue departments in the county. They learned about office skills, eye contact, shaking hands, filling out applications, interacting with strangers, and talking to business leaders. These three individuals are interviewing for jobs now. That is a huge thing that has come out of the EFFORT program and the training we have done.
I have also seen the positive impact on our deputies and their experiences with individuals in the community. They’re now comfortable when they go on calls and encounter someone with autism or another disability. They know that it’s more difficult for citizens with disabilities. It’s harder for them to reach out and shake someone’s hand, even if they know they are supposed to.
One deputy called me after an interaction with a teenager who was out of control. You never really know, when you are going on those calls, what you are going to encounter. Are they just acting up, or are they really out of control? When he got there, he found out the young lady was autistic. His training made him more confident in handling the situation. It was a positive experience for mother, daughter, and deputy, and they have an ongoing relationship. We now know some of this young lady’s triggers, and some of the things we can do or say to calm her down, and it is a positive all the way around. We’re better trained to handle these situations. The parents see us as somebody who is coming in to help and not make a situation worse.
Vision for the Future
I see this growing and impacting more people. I would love for it to grow into other counties and states, with them either coming here for training or opening up their departments for training for the GTO program or something similar to EFFORT. I would like to see all departments realize there is a whole segment of our community that we don’t normally deal with unless it is an accident or something similar. There are citizens in our community that really desire to have a relationship with us and they need to be able to trust us to handle that situation well.
Fighting crime is a huge part of what law enforcement does. We enforce the laws of the land and we have to interact in that way. But that is not all that we do. We are here to serve the community and there was a need in our community to connect with special needs individuals. We are trying to bridge that gap and fulfill that need.
If there is a need, look for ways to address it and move forward if you can. If you see someone who is better equipped to move with it, you can hand it off. But you’ll still want to follow through and make sure that need gets met. It doesn’t take much. Get people around you who are experts, point out the need, and tell them how you see to fix it. Then start getting some advice and a good team, and get it done.
I’m going to promote EFFORT any place that I can because I really think this is going to change lives. We got no negative feedback from the event, which was huge. This was a pilot event, and we stepped into uncharted territory for a law enforcement agency. The only thing that I have gotten is comments from other organizations and individuals saying that they really want to be a part of it the next time, and people asking when we are going to start again.
We are meeting and planning the next EFFORT event. Nearly everything was donated: a hot dog vendor, ice cream, drinks. We will start making the rounds and get all those things lined up, and look for donations. We really won’t change much, other than the layout. Between now and the next event, we will get our flyer ready, make our contacts, and get the word out. Several months later, we will look at doing the GTO program again.
We also have a leadership group, now called Project 14, begun by Lieutenant Louie Hesslup and me. We meet once a month for two hours, with individuals from the community, clergy, and other agencies. Louie passed away, and now his wife is on board. We have changed the name to Project 14 because Louie’s number was Unit 14. We invite speakers in or do a leadership project, with people from the police departments in our county’s towns and the adjacent city. This has been a great collaboration with different departments and us working together in a different way.
One of the great things about the leadership project is the different topics that have come in. Preparing for some of the events has been pretty challenging, in getting all the departments and law enforcement members to attend, but the collaboration has been pretty amazing. Nobody is really in charge. It’s sponsored by the sheriff’s office, but it’s really a collaborative teamwork effort. It’s getting people around you, who know how to get things done or have expertise where you don’t, and then working together and putting on a good project.
Kimberly Haug is a captain with the Montgomery County, Virginia, Sheriff’s Department. Kim is the Chief Correctional Officer at the Montgomery County Jail and serves as the Sheriff’s Alternate on the Western Virginia Regional Jail Authority. She was a nominee for a 2017 Community Builder award from the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.
This article is reprinted from Issue #9 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!
Join Hugh Ballou and Russell Dennis and their guests on our weekly Tuesday afternoon Nonprofit Exchange at 2 pm Eastern time.
If you already have a nonprofit or are thinking of starting one, this will be very helpful. Put it on your calendar NOW! It’s a session that you don’t want to miss! Discover what’s blocking your success!
The Nonprofit Exchange on Tuesdays at 2 pm ET has been quite beneficial for many participants and we have enjoyed sharing thoughts and tips for moving past the stuck places we all find in leading an organization to achieving its mission.
Learn more and access archives HERE.
As the famous British Composer and Conductor Ralph Vaughan Williams once said, “Music does not reveal all of its secrets to just one person.” If you replace the word “Music” with the word “Leadership” or “Team” or “Strategy” etc., then we all give and receive value from others. That’s the spirit of the Tuesday afternoon Nonprofit Exchange encounters, sponsored by SynerVision Leadership Foundation’s “Community for Community Builders.”
You can join the conversation on Zoom or watch on Facebook Live Video. It’s your choice. You can comment on Facebook and on the Zoom chat box on any device.
Put this on your calendar NOW! It’s a session that you don’t want to miss! Discover what’s blocking your success!
We’ll “see” YOU on the call. Here’s to your greater success!