Ever since Arnaldo aged out of the school system, started cycling through group homes, his mom Gladys has kept a daily log of his care. She brought it to the kitchen table during one of my visits last fall. Arnaldo’s sister Miriam explained.
MRS: Every time that a situation happens, she writes everything down, because we couldn't keep up with all the things that were happening. So she kept a calendar with all of that data and information, for every single time an incident would happen, or a situation would happen that we would confront.
It’s a paper calendar on a legal-sized notepad. In the box for each day she scribbled notes about where Arnaldo was — with her, or at a group home, or hospital psych ward — what he was doing. And what was done to him. By doctors, by teachers, by behavioral assistants, by the people who were supposed to be helping him.
AQ: Do you mind like, telling me some of the days here?
MRS: Okay. Okay. July 16th, Arnaldo was —
MRS: But it was a really bad restraint.
Gladys puts her hand on Miriam’s arm. “Be careful,” she whispers.
MRS: Be careful? You're telling me to be careful? Okay, you need to tell me what you want me to say, and what you don't want me to say. Because I am tired of — of covering shit up for people that are pretending to care about Arnaldo, but they don't. They clearly don't. I'm tired.
You’re listening to Aftereffect. I’m Audrey Quinn. This is our third episode, I’m gonna recommend you listen to one and two first if you haven’t already, this’ll make a lot more sense.
So far, I’d found out everything I could about the incident itself and what happened to Arnaldo just afterwards, but how did he get there? To that intersection with Charles Kinsey, surrounded by armed police officers?
I started putting together a timeline of my own. Making phone calls. Sending emails. Ordering case files, records. Showing up at people’s doors.
What I found buried in Arnaldo’s history, is the story of a developmental disability system starved for funding. And how the first thing to go in a rationing of resources, is concern for people’s humanity. When someone forgets the humanity of people like Arnaldo, anything can happen. And does. They can get neglected, tortured, sometimes within inches of their lives…sometimes to death.
The next part of the story starts with the person who knows Arnaldo best, his mom Gladys. Who needs the certainty of that paper calendar. Because in her head the memories of Arnaldo’s childhood now just come in short flashes. Of painful, specific, images. I start to understand they’re the places her mind goes to when she suddenly checks out of an interview with me. The earliest visions of what was to come on July 18th, 2016. We’re going to focus on three of them.
In the first scene, it’s 1991. Gladys is a 35-year-old emergency room nurse. She’s in a pediatrician's office in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a private clinic.
Gladys looks very small in the big examination room chair, with her somber, moon-faced 18-month-old in her lap. You can imagine them surrounded by pastel-colored walls, maybe a few butterfly decals here and there. It all contrasts with the doctor’s humorless face.
A little after he turned one, her second child Arnaldo had stopped talking, wouldn’t look her in the eye. And she had an idea what might be up with him.
GS: Bueno, soy enfermera.
Well, I’m a nurse.
GS: En mis estudios,
And in my studies,
GS: el profesor pidió que cada cual cojiera un tema.
the professor asked everyone to pick a topic.
GS: Teníamos que hacer un —
GS: Una tesis
GS: Yo escogí autismo.
AQ: You did your thesis on autism?!
She explains this to the doctor.
GS: Por eso le decía al doctor, algo raro esta pasandole a mi hijo.
AQ: You said something rare is happening to my son.
She spoke in medical terms. Walked him through what she’d observed in Arnaldo.
GS:The doctor said, "He is okay.” He said, “You are a nurse, you are a picky nurse — It’s okay, don’t worry, forget it.”
AQ: He didn’t believe you?
GS: No, el no creo en mi, el no creo.
It was one of the last times she’d reveal her medical training ahead of time to Arnaldo’s doctors. Because clinician after clinician disagreed with her autism diagnosis. First they said he’d catch up to other kids...then they just used the “R” word, retarded.
Preschool, kindergarten, first grade, second grade, all pass. Arnaldo does not learn to read. He does not learn to write. He does not learn to multiply. Regular schools wouldn’t take him because he was too far behind. And even though one doctor told Gladys Arnaldo will be in diapers the rest of his life, she couldn’t get him into disability programs because he didn’t have a diagnosis.
So Gladys pays for his speech therapy out of pocket, $45 for a half-hour session, she’s a single parent, it’s a lot on her nurse’s salary.
And the sessions…don’t help. Health insurance doesn’t cover autism-specific therapy, any therapy, because he still doesn’t have a diagnosis. She couldn’t find any doctor in Puerto Rico who’d give him one.
In the second movie that plays through Gladys’s head, Arnaldo’s now eight years old, and she’s talked to a hospital coworker about her son, a neurologist. And the neurologist offered a suggestion.
GS: Ella me dijo, hay un sitio en Baltimore que se llama Krieger Institute.
She tells Gladys, there’s this place, in Baltimore, the Kennedy Krieger Institute. It’s a hospital that specializes in learning disabilities, developmental disorders.
GS: No tenia dinero.
AQ: You didn’t have the money. Yeah.
GS: No tenia dinero.
But Gladys had already made up her mind. She decides this place, fifteen-hundred miles away, this is the place she’s gonna get answers.
She rallies her extended family. They put on BINGO game fundraisers.
GS: Eh, vendimos donas, donuts.
AQ: They sold donuts, to raise money.
GS: Si, chocolate, Hershey. Chocolate, Hershey. Arnaldo loved Hershey Chocolate. He love it.
She has a garage sale, sells most of her housewares. Her coworkers chip in too. And soon, she and Arnaldo are on their way to Baltimore.
But the trip doesn’t go as planned. During the layover in New York, Arnaldo gets anxious — has one of his outbursts — so the airline doesn’t let him back on the plane. He finally calms down after a stay in a local hospital, but the delay costs Gladys her free room at the Baltimore Ronald McDonald house. She’ll have to rent a hotel, something in all that fundraising she didn’t budget for.
For 13 days, Arnaldo goes to appointments, analyses, testing sessions. Gladys starts to run out of money. You can picture them there, holed up in that hotel room, shuttling between there and the Institute. Gladys skipped meals so Arnaldo could eat.
But in the end, she does get an answer.
GS: And in this place, 12 doctors, they make the decision and they make the diagnosis, he’s autistic.
Gladys isn’t excited when she tells this story, it’s not some kind of delayed victory. Instead it’s a story of exhaustion. “This is what I had to do to get Arnaldo what he needed.”
GS: We needed to make a lot of decisions to bring Arnaldo comfort, security, love, because nobody, nobody would, would do it, I don’t know how to say.
AQ: If you don’t do it, there’s not going to be anybody else to do it?
GS: Yes, yes.
When Gladys got back to Puerto Rico from Baltimore she was in bad shape. When a mosquito bite turned into dengue fever, it quickly became the severe kind. Which then turned into acute pancreatitis. She was in an intensive care unit for 21 days. Her health hasn’t been the same since.
In the third scene Gladys thinks back to, Gladys sees Arnaldo at ten years old. He’s sitting in a classroom. His hands are bound behind him. He’s tied to a chair.
Gladys moved the family from Puerto Rico to Miami that year, 2000, because she thought the Florida school system would be better for Arnaldo.
And Arnaldo was able to get into a school for kids with disabilities. That school — The Quest Center in Broward County.
But Miriam and Gladys say things didn’t get better. They got worse.
MRS: That Quest — he was being mistreated and whatnot, so it was horrible.
There was an assistant responsible for riding the bus with Arnaldo, to get him home.
MRS: The lady would push him down the stairs of the school bus in front of us and we would scream and yell for her to stop hitting him.
One time, they saw her punch him in the face as they were waiting for him at the bus stop. Miriam remembers him running at her terrified as he got off the bus, pulling her hair in anger. She says Arnaldo wasn’t the same after The Quest Center. Says he started mimicking the abuse at home. Hitting, pushing, punching.
The woman from the bus was later fired, and Arnaldo’s stepdad started picking him up from school. But at another point when Arnaldo had a behavioral episode three men at the school came and restrained him. Miriam says they twisted his arm ‘til it broke. He had to wear a cast.
Miriam and Gladys said their friend Daisy was around then, she’d be someone I could check this with.
MRS: Yeah. Daisy Ravelo. She used to be our support coordinator back in the day. She maybe has information.
AQ: She's still at APD?
GS: No, no.
MRS: No, she's no longer in APD, no. And it would be best if you let her know that she's gonna get a call from — from Belle.
AQ: Wait, why do you call me Belle?
MRS: Because — because you sound like Belle from ‘Beauty and the Beast.’
AQ: I find that really embarrassing.
MRS: No, it's not embarrassing, I promise. It's so cute. It's so cute. [laughs]
This is not the kind of relationship I’m used to having as a reporter. But I make it clear to them, that I’m here to get facts. So each time I see them, I double check these same stories, make sure the details hold up. And I reach out to anyone else who knew Arnaldo before — to try to figure out the truth behind his story. To try to make that timeline.
I contacted the current leadership at that Quest Center school, they said none of them had been there back then, and they couldn’t comment. I tried reaching out to the district, they couldn’t comment either. So, I talked to Daisy, the woman Miriam and Gladys recommended.
Daisy Ravelo: Hello?
When I reached her by cell phone she was driving from one of her offices to the other, she now has an autism behavior analyst company. I’m one of the many calls she’ll have this morning.
DR: Let me take one second, please. Don’t hang up.
Daisy used to work as a contractor for Florida’s Agency for Persons with Disabilities, APD. She was one of the hundreds of coordinators they contract to help connect developmentally disabled people with services. She did this specifically for Arnaldo so she knew Arnaldo while he was at Quest…around the time he was riding home on the bus.
DR: They did have to put a harness on him so that he doesn't escape because he would try to get out of the school bus. But that he has been abused, yeah. He has been abused. Because they don't know how to handle him.
They who couldn’t handle him, for Daisy, means both the staff at Quest and Arnaldo’s family. She thinks no one knew what to do with him. She says Gladys and her husband at the time had to stand in front of the bus doors when it arrived to keep him from running off. Not that you could blame him.
DR: And the bus driver had to turn off the school bus and take out the key. Otherwise, he would grab the key and run with it, or throw it out.
But, according to Daisy, Arnaldo’s behavioral issues began well before he landed at Quest. Arnaldo was a big kid, she thinks he was dangerous.
DR: I have been in their house. Arnaldo has come out of the bathroom. Miriam has been sitting next to me and he has come in and grabbed Miriam by the hair and you know, shake her up and down. For no reason.
Daisy says Gladys let him get away with a lot of things, beating up her and his sister..
DR: Left and right
AQ: I can't imagine. I've met Arnaldo, I can't imagine him doing that.
DR: Yeah. Especially his mother. Because you know what. He, somehow, he knows that he can overpower her. She's little.
AQ: I mean it's kind of, it kind of sounds like you're blaming Gladys.
DR: I'm not blaming her. But when he gets mad, then, and you have to deal with him.
I later replayed this conversation with Gladys.
GS: Too nice? What means too nice? I did with Arnaldo like I did with Miriam. It’s the same. I try to do the best for both. Sometimes I said no, no you can’t do that, no. You can teach anybody with love, more love than with bad words or with punishment. Punishment don’t help. Punishment don’t help. Don’t do that. I’m sorry Daisy, I no agree, no agree with that.
Daisy doesn’t just blame Gladys though, she also blames APD. She does have a particular axe to grind here. APD revoked her license to operate as a services coordinator about a decade ago. But by her description, the agency has only made it more and more difficult for people and their families to get the services they need.
DR: APD is a mafia. APD, let me tell you, they're so corrupt.
AQ: I'm wondering, is APD a mafia? Or are they just like starved for money?
DR: Yeah they always, they never have money. They always on red and the budget, the budget is always short. And it's a lot of people that needs services and they can't provide services.
This is definitely true. APD has seen its budget slashed year after year after year. Florida spends nearly the smallest fraction of resident income in the nation on developmental disability services, it’s second worst only to Nevada.
And here’s the thing about operating disability services in a state that continually cuts funding. Staying in business can be hard. And this is a business. Where people are trying to make as much money as possible from the people they serve.
How do they do that? Here’s a hint — the worse a client’s issues, the more you can charge the state to provide them services. APD handbooks are full of words like transition and improvement, but if you’re a service provider, improvement in your clients actually means less money for you.
Thomas Ware does what Daisy used to do, a middleman for families that depend on APD in central Florida. He says yeah, if you’re a for-profit provider, there’s a benefit to keeping your clients at a level that requires the most care.
Thomas Ware: Say for instance a person is a moderate. If you're moderate, you're going to, is a certain price that's going to come with that area.
AQ: So what does that mean? Moderate?
TW: Sorry, I'm talking to you like you know all of the verbiage for this. So, moderate is more or less manageable.
AQ: That's such a funny word, like manageable, manageable to who?
TW: Yeah, as a 1 to 10 ratio of oversight.
That means one staff member for 10 clients.
TW: So, that person would only bring in a certain amount of money. So if a person is, is not moderate if they move to more of a behavioral status where it's intensive, need one person overseeing three people or one person to one person.
AQ: So more quote-unquote bad behavior equals a bigger price tag on your head.
TW: Oh yeah, absolutely. Because it caught it, it entails more services. It's business. I mean for a lot of people it's business for people.
And when you make care a business — and subject it to the pressures any business faces — it can lead to some pretty disturbing outcomes. Like withholding therapy that would help people need a lower level of care; like the use of physical restraints; like drugging people so it’s easier to control them.
That’s next when Aftereffect continues.
We’ve heard Gladys’s memories, but I wanted to dig deeper into what had happened to Arnaldo. So I got from her a list of names: past teachers, doctors, group homes. Got more names from records. And one of the most eager people to talk to me was an old teacher of Arnaldo’s, Jeremiah Garza. I found him on Facebook, he jumped on the phone with me right away.
AQ: Do you — do you remember Arnaldo?
Jeremiah Garza: Yeah yeah — yes ma’am, I — I do — he’s — he was he was something else when I when I first met him.
This was after Quest, a period when Arnaldo, Gladys, and Miriam were moving a lot. Florida hadn’t helped Arnaldo the way Gladys had hoped. She then tried moving back to Puerto Rico. Then, in 2007, Texas. Which actually ranks up with Florida as one of the worst states in the nation for disability services. But a friend had a son with autism in San Antonio, said she’d help get them set up.
JG: He was a big kid. Now — I guess he’s a man now, right?
JG: And — and when I saw him he would do these voices. The first thing I noticed he would do voices and I couldn’t understand what it was. He would — later on we figured out what it was, it was — he would watch like Disney shows and he would replay their voices like — one that he would always say is, “I am king — all hail King Richard.” but he would do em in a different voice.
Arnaldo was 17 or 18, Jeremiah was just five years older. They had a good bond. Arnaldo called Jeremiah papa, it’s a name he’d give to a lot of guys he liked.
JG: So when I hung out with him, all I did was just hang out with him. It literally felt like my like my little brother. My big little brother. And Arnaldo — he would pay attention to your facial reactions. And if you were having a bad day or you had whatever — an issue that day, he would come up to you and he’d put he’d put his hand on your back or lean in front of your face and look up to you — and then he would repeat some — female part of some Disney show, whatever it would be. That was his version of, “Hey man, you okay?” You know what I mean? You could tell that’s what he was trying to get at.
I recognized the Arnaldo Jeremiah described. The movie lines, the ever-present collection of toys Jeremiah says he’d carry, the desire to please.
Jeremiah says one time the class had taken a field trip to a park. Arnaldo had been having a hard time, Jeremiah had to take him back to school, wait with him back in the classroom.
JG: And I guess he thought I was mad or something, I have no idea. But the whole time he kept rubbing my shoulder like my left shoulder — he’s like, “Papa I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He even put his hands up and he was just — kept on doing that. Like he was so sorry that he had messed up. That was something that — you could tell he was a good kid, you know what I mean? It’s just when he would get mad, he would he would change voices and he would he would scream, he would yell and — when that guy went at you man, he went at you. It was — it was something but that — specific one it was — that’s why I never took anything he did personal. Because he — he was a good kid, it’s just — you know the — there’s something going on with him.
I wanted to ask Jeremiah more about this. Because from talking to Daisy, digging through Arnaldo’s medical records, I’d seen this other side of Arnaldo. Infrequent but pretty startling violence. Lashing out, even at the people he loved most.
JG: Man. He was a handful. He was definitely a handful. When he would get upset — you could see in his eyes that he had no control, like — he would look at you and he would start tearing up and whenever he would attack, like he literally had no control. Like I knew it, that’s why I never — he hit me a couple times — more than a couple times, and then he did some — you know some crazy things and and I — you know, you look him in his eyes and you knew it wasn’t him — he would just like switch over, and he would just — man that — lack of a better term, man he just, he’d just lose it.
Jeremiah says yeah, sometimes when Arnaldo hit him, it was a real swing. But he learned to recognize Arnaldo’s triggers…and how to avoid them. How to sense when Arnaldo was about to have an episode, and create a space for him to calm back down.
In San Antonio, the family owned a three-bedroom house on the edge of a city park. Miriam worked at the Dairy Queen, she’d sneak home ice cream for Arnaldo. And then as the sun went down, they’d go walking on the park trails. Arnaldo would point out deer. Miriam remembers it as the freest she ever saw him.
JG: When he left, I didn’t know anything at at all. Like I didn’t — next thing I know he was gone, I was like, ‘Oh man’ and — I guess it’s kind of hard, you know, you see em at school and you always expect, oh you’ll see em again, you’ll see em again and then — I never saw him again. Do you know why they moved?
AQ: Yeah his mom — his mom got a way better paying job in Florida.
JG: Oh really. That’s good, that’s really good.
In another scene that floats around in Gladys’s mind when she thinks about what Arnaldo’s been through, it’s 2012. The family’s back in Florida, it’s 2012. Arnaldo’s 22, any services he could get through the school system have gone away, it’s that cliff we talked about last episode. He’s still having behavior issues, and the only place Gladys has been able to get him services is in group homes.
This part of Arnaldo’s story was hard to find people to talk about. There were three different past doctors of Arnaldo’s I called so often I got on a first name basis with their assistants. That doesn’t mean I ever got the doctors on the line. Three past group homes where I did get the owners on the phone, wouldn’t go on record. Just said Arnaldo was “difficult.”
But in this scene Gladys remembers clearly how she snuck into the yard of Comfort Group Home...she’s peeking in the window.
Arnaldo’s been at the home a month. The owner’s asked Gladys to stay away while he settles in. But she has reason to be nervous. She told me that a couple months earlier Arnaldo had ended up in the emergency room after an employee at another group home bashed his head with a broom.
So picture Gladys outside this group home, she cups her hands around her face to see through the glare of the window. And there he is! There’s Arnaldo. Once again, tied to a chair, not moving. She runs in the door. He doesn’t respond. His skin is discolored. Slow shallow breaths. She calls 911 even though the one employee present tells her not to. When Arnaldo gets to the hospital, the doctor said if she’d waited longer Arnaldo would have died. Gladys says he’d been deprived of water while chemically restrained.
Chemical restraint is when providers use medication like antipsychotics to stop someone’s behavior, to effectively slow their central nervous system. It’s against the law to use chemical restraints against someone for convenience, but it happens. Chemical restraints are a common cost-saving measure in group homes, and a national study on restraint-related deaths of developmentally disabled people, found the majority also involved medication.
Tamarra Viquillon, the owner of Comfort Group Home, refused to comment on Arnaldo’s time there. Repeatedly. Just hung up as soon as she heard Arnaldo’s name.
When I talk to disability advocates for this story, the thing they keep emphasizing is, the way things were with Arnaldo, that’s not the way things have to be. It’s cheap and easy to drug people up so they'll sleep their days away. Finding out how to reach them, and help them live fulfilling lives, is hard, and expensive.
But non-speaking people who lash out physically will use other tools to communicate, if they’re given them. I had conversations with non-speaking folks who use tablets to talk, who have companions who help them type their thoughts. Advocates told me intellectually disabled people can still have agency over their lives. Should still get to decide what they want.
AN: Well, I think a lot of it comes down to having people in their life that can interpret their will and preference from the communication they make available.
This is Ari Ne’eman again, autistic self-advocate, co-founder of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network.
AN: You know, I knew one man with a significant intellectual disability and very little functional speech whose support staff would take him to the community pool and help him bring his wheelchair to the entrance of the pool where there was the wheelchair door open button, and if he wanted to go swimming that day, he would press the button, and if he didn’t want to go swimming he wouldn’t press the button and they would go somewhere else and, you know, do something else. Now, in order to do that you’ve gotta have support staff that can familiarize themselves with that person’s unique means of communicating and find what works and so on and such forth. So, it’s difficult, these are hard problems, but it’s, you know very possible.
AQ: Yeah, and I’m even imagining that the support staff would still have to pack up and get him ready for the pool no matter what and I can see a person you know, doubting, well you know we’re already ready for the pool, we should just go.
AQ: And having to check that instinct.
AN: That’s exactly right. You know, basically you need support staff who are really understanding the nature of their mission, which is not custodial care, but it’s really working to tease out the needs of someone who may struggle to communicate in the way that you and I do.
AQ: What, what is a best-case scenario for someone like Arnaldo who does need assistance with kind of day-to-day self care?
AN: Well, you want to bring services to where people choose to live. And it’s important to work with them so there’s a meaningful choice. Some people are gonna want to live in apartments. Some people are gonna want to live in family homes, some people are gonna want to live in a house with roommates. But the idea is, rather than saying, “This is where we have services for you, this is where you get to live.” Services should instead follow the individual to whatever kind of housing environment they choose.
And that’s what Miriam and Gladys hope for Arnaldo. To have his own home, where assistants come help him. And the crazy thing is, staffing someone with round the clock one-on-one companions in their home is usually cheaper than supporting them in a group home. But time and time again, through the way money gets allocated, by lawmakers and state agencies, we decide this is not the way we want things to happen.
For the last part of Arnaldo’s story before the North Miami shooting, there’s a lot documentation. Hundreds upon hundreds of pages of hospital records.
It starts in 2014. Arnaldo’s going in and out of the local hospital psych wards. Bouncing between Gladys’s home and the hospital. It’s the same story over and over. He’ll do something at the house that scares Miriam and Gladys, or be violent with them, they’ll call the police for backup, and the police will commit him to a psych ward.
Miriam described it to me on one of our drives to Carlton Palms
MRS: Arnaldo can get very aggressive, and he blacks out. Like, he blacks out, it's not him anymore. It's like another person, like another..side of his brain takes over and he's no longer him. He doesn't recognize you. He doesn't differentiate if you're the mother or the sister or anybody. He doesn't care. He will bite you. He will punch you in the face. He will tackle and put you in the floor...that's how aggressive he can get. Yeah, he's very strong.
AQ: When, at what point was that the worst?
Each time Arnaldo’s committed, hospital clinicians report Gladys begging them to let him come back home. She offers explanations for his behavior — he’s upset because I wasn’t allowed to visit, or he had a headache, or you’re giving him too heavy antipsychotics. Chemical restraint is also part of the formal records.
And soon, they stop sending him home. And just keep sending him to different group homes.
There’s another change that happens about this time too. When Arnaldo was committed a couple times in 2013 clinicians note his echolalia, it’s a common trait of autism when a person repeats lines of dialog, like Arnaldo does with movie quotes.
In 2014 the framing changes. Doctors note Arnaldo talking to himself. And that’s something they start describing as schizophrenia. Unlike autism, it’s a mental health diagnosis. Which helps justify his stays in the psych ward. Arnaldo carries that diagnosis to this day. He takes the heavy antipsychotic thorazine for it.
Hospital representatives would not provide a doctor to respond to our inquiries about this diagnosis, but it’s something Gladys and Miriam strongly disagree with. It’s not that people can’t have autism and a mental health disability at the same time, in fact that’s pretty common, but there is a long history of autism being confused as schizophrenia. Remember how it’s illegal to chemically restrain someone just for convenience? Totally ok to give heavy psychiatric drugs for schizophrenia.
AQ: ‘Scuse me. Do you know if it’s still a group home here?
Woman: Yes it is.
There was one more stop I wanted to make. In 2016, Arnaldo went through five different group homes in just a few months. He’d last just a few weeks, sometimes just a few hours, before being kicked out of each one.
So for one of his last group homes, I decided to just show up. Precious Dreams Group Home is a pale yellow house in south Miami, bordered by an evergreen shrub and two palm trees.
AQ: There’s a van that just pulled up.
A middle-aged man gets out of the driver seat.
AQ: Hey how's it going?
Owner: Hey how you doing?
AQ: Are you the owner?
AQ: I reached out to you, Audrey Quinn, I’m a reporter with WNYC.
He’s happy to talk, but he doesn’t want to be recorded. Two young men who appear to be developmentally disabled also get out of the van. One walks up real close to me
AQ: How are you?
He gets even closer
AQ: Nice to meet you. Oh, gonna get a hug.
The owner explains he’s affectionate. Suddenly we’re doing a slow motion version of that kiss on both sides thing,
AQ: Oh, it’s the European way.
only better because, unlike usual, I have time to catch on to what’s happening.
AQ: That’s nice.
The owner looks proud.
AQ: Do you remember Arnaldo?
Owner: I know —
AQ: He was here like April 2016?
He says yes, he does, Arnaldo almost killed him — came up to him from behind, tried to bite his neck. His wife intervened. Arnaldo spent only sixteen days at the home, wracked up a string of attacks while he was there.
AQ: They called him The Cannibal?
The owner confirms the nickname, yes, The Cannibal.
There’s this really indelicate question I caught myself asking this group home owner, one I’m not proud of. It was a moment of just how confused I was by everything being said about Arnaldo, when the owner started just listing off what he saw as Arnaldo’s crimes.
AQ: Wow. Do you think — this is hard because — do you think he’s disabled or do you think he’s bad?
I know that this is a ridiculous question. But some version of it kept coming up for me. And I think there’s a lot of preconceptions about disability packed into it. This paradigm that intellectually disabled people are either monsters, or infantile and blameless. I’m catching myself tied up on that dichotomy, I think a lot of people are.
Lydia Brown: Arnaldo is a person. And, frankly, based on what I know of what has happened to Arnaldo, I'm not surprised that Arnaldo has lashed out aggressively in the past. I have done so. Many people I know have done so.
Lydia Brown is a law student, disability justice activist, autistic.
LB: Some autistic people are, violent, and abusive, and terrible human beings. It's not because they're autistic, it's because they're violent, abusive, and terrible human beings. But that's true of any category.
AQ: So, like, the autistic people can be assholes too.
What Lydia’s saying here might seems obvious but — autistic people can be nice people, they can be not nice people, just like anyone else. But unlike everyone else, they’re a lot more likely to get abused. And odds are, the more severe their disability, the more severe the abuse.
So when an abused, autistic person gets violent, what do we make of that?
LB: It's not a matter of necessarily good or evil and that especially if someone is responding to trauma, it doesn't mean they're being a bad person. Even if they're being physically aggressive. For one thing, there's often a power differential. In that the people who have power over your life can shut you in an institution forever. Whereas you might be able to hit them a few times.
And it's not to say that everyone should just go hit people because it's not as bad as being put into an institution, but there is a power differential there.
Lydia has what some people might see as some pretty radical beliefs around personal freedom. We talked about stimming before, repetitive, calming movements that a lot of autistic people like to do. Lydia says if an autistic person’s go-to stim is to stab their hand with scissors, that’s their right to do that.
LB: Well, it's not an emergency, because they're not stabbing themself in the neck and they're not stabbing another person with scissors. So yes.
AQ: Wait, like stabbing —
LB: I wasn't — I'm not done with this.
AQ: Ok, ok. I can't imagine that scene and not feeling like I needed to act.
LB: Well frankly, that's ableist and paternalistic. But secondly, going back to, ok, so somebody is doing that. If someone is doing that, like say they've done this 5 times, so you know that each time they've done it they'll do it for about two minutes and then stop, and then you get them a lot of band-aids and um, the person cries for a while and eventually goes back to minimally existing in the space that you're in.
AQ: I want to know what that looks like. Like, say, um say Arnaldo is living with his family, he's having a behavioral crisis, he's having a meltdown, his mother is physically scared. What, like what happens next?
LB: Well it really does depend on the individual circumstances. I don't know Arnaldo personally, and I think it's inappropriate to be talking about Arnaldo specifically at his worst moments in such a public forum. Because I wouldn't want someone doing that to me. Don't be a predatory reporter.
AQ: It matters to me so much to do this as well as I can. But I also, feel like I, as a journalist, as journalists we try to tell the fullest picture of the story as you we and I'm not going to like not share that there are parts of Arnaldo's life that like, are not beautiful. Like, to me that feels like I need to go there because —
LB: Is that something that Arnaldo has given you permission to talk about publicly? Because that's the really important question.
That IS a really important question. And I hadn’t gotten a satisfying answer yet.
After all I’ve learned about Arnaldo, seeing how he’s been sent here, there, to this group home, to that psych ward, drugged, restrained — all by people with the legal consent to do so, all by people “acting in his interest” — how can I be sure I’m not taking advantage of Arnaldo?
But how do you get permission from someone when you don’t know how to ask what they’re thinking, don’t even know if they understand your questions?
GS: Audrey’s here!
I started this episode in Gladys’s kitchen, looking at her paper calendar. In spring 2016, that period Arnaldo was going from group home to group home, her entries change. They stop being strictly facts… she starts writing more about her feelings.
On the box for April 9th, 2016: “I saw my ‘dear’ son. I’m dying of shame to see him in such bad shape.”
In the margins of that month’s page: “My heart sinks in the most terrible desolation. I am a coward and can’t take anymore.”
July 16th 2016: “This is really hard.”
GS: I lived that. I lived that. Arnaldo, he changed, change and change for group home to another group home to another group home. And he, he lost the stability, he lost the good manner. He lost everything. Only he tried to survive. Inside Arnaldo is a good person, is very good person.
MRS: I don’t know if the things we have said have made sense. Our emotions are still all messed up. We haven’t be able to piece together our emotions. Because it’s a mix of frustration, anger, a sense of impotence that we don’t want to make anybody angry and then take it out on Arnaldo. That is our weakness.
After all this, I had Arnaldo’s history. But after fleshing it all out, filling in the gaps, what I’ve started to see is less a series of incidents…more a pattern, asserting itself over and over again. Under-served, abused, moved, committed, under-served and abused again.
You see Arnaldo’s mom, his sister, trying to help, but not having the means or power.
And what you don’t see in here, really at any point, is Arnaldo having any say in any of this.
I don’t think Arnaldo would choose this, whether it’s being taken from his family or having his caregiver shot. But he didn’t get to, because having choice is the opposite of being controlled.
And the people often ultimately responsible for enforcing that control? Are the police —
Woman: And then they took the handcuff and then when they turned him around I almost fainted. His shirt was full of blood. He was full of blood.
I’ll head back to North Miami, to uncover what the cops there really were up to. With Arnaldo, with disabled people in general. That’s next, on Aftereffect.
Aftereffect by Only Human is a podcast from WNYC Studios.
Aftereffect is reported by me, Audrey Quinn, and edited by Ben Adair. Additional reporting from Aneri Pattani. Production help from Phoebe Wang.
Cayce Means is our technical director with engineering help from Matt Boynton and Jared Paul.
Hannis Brown is our composer.
Our team of talented reporter-producers includes Christopher Johnson, Mary Harris, Amanda Aronczyk, and Christopher Werth. With help from Margot Slade.
Michelle Harris is our fact checker. Our interns are Kaitlin Sullivan and Nicolle Galteland.
Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News.
Support for WNYC’s health coverage is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation.
Thanks also to the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.