Judge Robert Gets His Day in Court
(Editor’s Note: We have changed names of the victim and his mother to protect their identities. This story deals with the issue of sexual assault of a person with a disability. This is an underreported crime. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rate of violent victimization (which includes rape or sexual assault) of people with disabilities is more than three times higher than the rate for people without disabilities.)
Not every man gets his day in court. Robert Smith got his day in a Spokane courtroom, and it changed his life for the better.
Robert has Down syndrome. His mother and guardian, Judy Smith, tells his story. She insists it’s an important story, because what happened to Robert happens a lot, and nobody is willing to talk about it.
For more than a decade, Robert attended an adult day program in Spokane. When his behavior changed, Judy learned he was being sexually abused by another client. When confronted, the alleged offender denied it happened. There was no witness, and nobody else said they knew anything about the alleged abuse.
Judy reached out to different people and services for help, but came to frustrating dead ends. The local Ombud for the Office of Developmental Disabilities told her to call Lutheran (Lutheran Community Services Northwest). She called our Sexual Assault Hotline, and she told the entire story to Victim Advocate Erin Carden. Erin listened, validated what Judy said, and scheduled an appointment at LCS that would include Kristina Hammond, our lead Advocate for Later-in-Life and Vulnerable Adults Victims. Judy and Robert met with them, and left that meeting with hope.
“We were in a place that got what was going on,” Judy said. “They met Robert in a place where he’s at. They understand his language abilities and his trauma.“
Robert wanted to file charges with the police. Erin and Kristina had to be frank. Going to court would be a lot of trauma for Robert, and without a witness, charges would be difficult to prove. Robert insisted that he had to tell his story to a judge, so Erin and Kristina hatched an alternative plan.
On a Thursday afternoon with court not in session, Robert and Judy walked into a courtroom where Judge Patti Walker was wearing her robe and Spokane Police Sergeant Jordan Ferguson was wearing his uniform. Also on hand were Erin and Kristina. The judge was clear, this was not a legal proceeding. She asked Robert if he would like to tell his story, and assured him she was there to listen to him.
“He did a good job of expressing himself about how he had been hurt,” Judy said. “It was a very validating experience because important people were listening.”
When Robert had spoken his piece, the judge asked him if he would like to try on her robe and sit in her chair. Once attired and seated at her bench, Judge Robert figured out the microphone was on. That’s when everyone found out Robert knew about the legal system from watching television. He called every person up to the stand and asked questions.
“It was the most perfect thing that could happen,” Judy said. “Having the judge and police hear his story was a really big deal. Then he had us dancing to his tune. The whole courtroom experience changed his attitude. He got his pride as a man back that day.”
Robert still has down times, but cries less and has more strength. He’s started playing drums again. Robert is moving on with life and is off to school. He’s learning life skills, how to set personal goals, and improving wellness.
Most importantly, he’s learning sign language. Robert has two deaf aunts. He can practice at home because Judy knows sign language too. Soon, he’ll be communicating with the entire family.