Arizona disability advocates seek to improve crisis response

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) — Disability advocacy groups say the state’s crisis response system is broken and they’re working on ways to improve it.

The Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, Autism Society of Greater Phoenix, and Arizona Center for Disability Law have released a new report examining the issues people with disabilities face during a behavioral health crisis.

“It’s even more front and center nationally than it’s ever been. It is both a curse and a blessing. We started hearing more and more from people in our community,” said Melissa Van Hook, president of the Developmental Disabilities Planning Council of Arizona.

Van Hook shared stories from families who described how their loved one’s crisis was handled.

“He has been sitting in restraints in the emergency room for three days because they cannot reach the health plan and the behavioral health care provider. It’s a broken system. They are not little children. They are big kids,” she said.

A Tucson dad, Jonathan Dinegar, feels that situations need to be handled differently for his elementary-age children.

“I asked them to call the cops about my son as well for talking about a deer hunting video game. I said he was autistic and he had an IEP, you can’t cross those lines,” he said.

Advocacy groups want mental health experts to be called upon more than the police when handling a crisis involving a disabled person. Tucson police set up a mental health support team after seeing the need in the community.

“A lot of these officers are in a position where acting on nothing is less of a risk or liability than actually intervening,” said behavioral analyst Diana Davis Wilson. “A lot of them don’t have the skills to intervene appropriately.”

She said more behavioral health training for law enforcement is also needed, especially in rural areas.

“While many trainers are there to join them, they are understaffed and underfunded,” she said. “There are a lot of missed opportunities to work in the specificity needed to train in the rural community.

The report says people with disabilities often lack adequate primary care, which can lead to untreated underlying health conditions and increased emergency room visits.

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