FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – An unwanted trip by a man with autism to a Pompano Beach strip club has led to a new law granting expanded protections for people with developmental disabilities.

The new Florida law, the first of its kind in the country, allows people with developmental disabilities to have an expert with them during a police interview to explain what’s happening and to pose questions in a way the interview subject can understand.

It also makes it easier for authorities to know who might need assistance by creating a voluntary new designation on state identification cards.

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The issue arose after Ellen Kleinert, of Coral Springs, accused a business friend of taking her 29-year-old son with autism to a strip club in January 2010. The man paid for her son, Wes, to have a lap dance and when he became upset, wouldn’t let him leave or call his mother.

While Wes does not physically appear unusual, Kleinert says his cognitive functioning is that of a 14-year-old.

“Here he is with a seizure disorder, lights flashing and a woman who was basically naked giving him a lap dance,” said Kleinert, who at the time ran the Florida Special Arts Center. “He was very upset.”

When Kleinert eventually found out about the trip to Cheetah Lounge, she went to the Broward Sheriff’s Office. But when they saw the grown man in front of them, Kleinert says police initially laughed her off.

Wes was eventually taken to a room alone with a detective, but the questions confused him and Wes wasn’t able to provide the sort of evidence needed to charge someone with a crime.

“Our goal was to make it hopefully that this situation would not happen to people similarly situated to Wes,” Kleinert said.

With the support of Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, and the help of her husband, attorney L. Jerry Cohn, Kleinert came up with the idea for the interview part of the new law.

Law enforcement officers must now, upon the request of a person with a disability or their parent or guardian, have a psychologist, therapist or other expert present during questioning. The expert has to be paid for by the requester, but in the case of victims, the money will be reimbursed by a defendant, if convicted.

“If the police brought in someone who spoke Spanish or Creole, they’d have an interpreter,” Kleinert said. “Now, there will be someone who knows about disability and can guide them through the situation.”

But how can police know who has a developmental disability? One way is through the other part of the new law, which allows people with such disorders to have a “D” printed on their state ID cards.

That part of the legislation came from Fort Lauderdale attorney Steve Lesser, whose personal experience formed his idea as well.

He too has a son with autism spectrum disorder and is involved in TOPSoccer, a league for kids with developmental disabilities.

There, Lesser says he met a lot of other parents who “would tell me these nightmare stories of issues with law enforcement. One kid was standing around at the bowling alley and saw some criminal activity. Police came and started asking questions, and the kid didn’t know how to respond. To police, it looks suspicious.”

It’s Lesser’s hope that the voluntary ID cards would clue in law enforcement officers that they need to treat the holder with caution. Taken together with the interview potion of the law, the cards will also let police know who may need help in an interview room.

“A lot of people in law enforcement don’t understand,” Kleinert said. “You don’t have to physically look like you have a disability to have one.”

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