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Florida Bill Would Protect Developmentally Disabled During Police Interviews

Cheetah Club interior
Cheetah Palm Beach

Florida could soon be the first state to require a mental-health expert to be present during police interviews of developmentally disabled suspects or victims.

That’s if lawmakers approve a bill called the Wes Kleinert Fair Interview Act.

Five years ago, Ellen Kleinert-Cohn’s autistic son Wes was being driven home by his coach in South Florida. On the way there, his coach made a pit stop at a strip club.

“It was called the Cheetah lounge. They were supposed to go out for a bite to eat,” she says. “We had a lot of faith in this person who went places with a lot of the kids.”

Kleinert-Cohn says the coach paid for Wes to get a lap dance, despite his protests and repeated requests to leave. He was in his mid-20s, but Kleinert-Cohn says her son is essentially a child with the mentality of 14-year-old. But that’s not the way he was treated when he tried to report what happened to law enforcement.

“We went to the police at that time, and they pretty much laughed it off because, I guess, he had autism they didn't get it,” she says. “They didn't really care, and this was 14 months after the incident, which occurred in January 2010.”

Kleinert-Cohn says if police had taken him seriously, charges for sexual abuse may have been brought. She and her husband eventually took their case to their local lawmakers, Rep. Bill Hager (R-Delray Beach) and Sen. Jeremy Ring (D-Margate).

She says, “Our goal is to lessen the probability of this happening to people like Wes during the interview process. The people that are similarly situated to Wes with autism, mental disabilities, shouldn’t be taken advantage of like this."

If passed, the bill would mandate a mental-health expert be present during any interview of a developmentally disabled person, whether he's a suspect or a victim. If approved, a pilot program would first be set up in Broward County to test the proposal’s effectiveness. 

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.