Neighbors Sue To Declare Boy With Autism A Public Nuisance
SUNNYVALE, Calif. — When neighbors complained about Vidyut Gopal and Parul Agrawal’s young son with autism pulling children’s hair, biting a woman and other menacing behavior, the couple said they did what they could to make it stop.
They hired caregivers, gave the boy special medication and put him in therapeutic classes. But instead of bringing calm to their street, Arlington Court, the Silicon Valley couple got slapped with a lawsuit that called their son a “public nuisance” — and ultimately drove them out of their home of seven years.
Now, Gopal and Agrawal find themselves in the midst of a legal battle that has sparked outrage among parents of children with autism everywhere, and raised troubling questions about how to coexist with neighbors with kids with special needs.
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“This has been pretty devastating for us, but we are doing our best to cope with it,” Gopal, an engineer at a Silicon Valley company, said Thursday.
The lawsuit — filed last summer by two couples who lived in homes that flanked Gopal and Agrawal’s house — alleges that the boy’s disruptive behavior also created an “as-yet unquantified chilling effect on the otherwise ‘hot’ local real estate market” and that “people feel constrained in the marketability of their homes as this issue remains unresolved and the nuisance remains unabated.”
To Gopal and Agrawal’s dismay, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge last October issued a preliminary injunction against them to ensure their son does not strike, assault or batter anyone in the neighborhood or their personal property. The case returns to court Tuesday, when a judge will hear arguments about whether the plaintiffs should have access to the boy’s school and medical records.
Gopal and his wife, a research scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, said they remain focused on helping their son. But they hope this case “will raise awareness about autism and educate the public” about the challenges that families of children with autism face.
The plaintiffs could not be reached for comment. But some neighbors not involved in the legal case said they feel compassion for Gopal and Agrawal. Still, they believe the lawsuit was necessary after communication with the couple — and requests that the parents better supervise and control their son’s behavior — broke down. The lawsuit claims that over the years the boy, now 11, had struck a baby with his hand, spit at and tried to ride his bicycle into neighbors, and repeatedly sat on a neighbor’s cat.
“It was painful,” said Sue Alford, a 61-year-old retired registered nurse who has lived for decades with her family in a home next to one of the families that sued Gopal and Agrawal.
“We all met with them and talked to them about their son, but they didn’t see our point of view,” Alford said. “We wanted the street to be a safe place for other children.”
While she said she “didn’t want to make enemies of any of my neighbors,” she said outsiders should not judge the residents on Arlington Court.
“We went out of our way to be understanding and kind to him,” Alford said. “When you see everything, all of the pieces will fit together and maybe there will be an understanding.”
Nieves Diaz, 63, who lives across the street from Gopal and Agrawal’s house, said the ordeal has “been very unsettling.”
“It was awful, because he couldn’t play outside with the kids,” Diaz recalled of the times she would see the couple’s son looking forlornly out of the front window at the other neighborhood children playing on the street.
“It was kind of sad,” said Diaz, adding that any claim that the boy’s presence in the neighborhood would threaten property values is unproven.
“They should do their research and make sure it’s a fact,” she said of the plaintiffs, Robert and Marci Flowers and Bindu Pothen and Kumaran Santhanam. “If not, they should keep their opinions to themselves.” The Flowers last month moved from their rental home on Arlington Court.
Bay Area parents of children with autism, meanwhile, fear the lawsuit could lead to copycat cases.
“What scared us in the Bay Area is that there are thousands of kids just like this one,” said Jill Escher, president of the board of the Autism Society of the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Imagine if lawsuits like this were allowed to proliferate on such allegations. This could happen to all autism families at the drop of a hat. They would not know where to go.”
Stephen Rosenbaum, a lecturer at the UC Berkeley Law School, who specializes in disability rights and is familiar with the lawsuit, said he is surprised the case has continued as long as it has.
“This is something that should never have gone to court, in my view,” said Rosenbaum, who is also an associate professor at Golden Gate University School of Law. Instead, he said, it should have been resolved through an informal dispute resolution process or mediation; sources, however, say that route failed.
“The plaintiffs make it out to be that there’s a monster at large in the neighborhood, but I know from the standpoint both as an attorney and as a parent myself of a young man who had a disability that there may be things that are the perception by the rest of the community that can be at odds with reality.”
No matter what happens with their legal case, Gopal and Agrawal say they have lost hope of returning to their former home, which they now rent to another family.
“We have no intention,” Gopal said, “of coming back.”
© 2015 San Jose Mercury News
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