MIAMI — Gladys Soto learned that her adult son was at the center of a churning national scandal over the excessive use of police force and the rights of people with disabilities when a church friend called her last Monday. Was she watching television? Was that Arnaldo, her son with autism, clutching a toy truck next to a caregiver who had just been shot?

It would be hours before 60-year-old Gladys Soto learned the truth: Her son, Arnaldo Eliud Rios Soto, had wandered away from his North Miami group home. His behavior aide, a man Rios loved, had been shot by police as he desperately tried to warn them that Rios had autism, was not a danger to anyone, and was wielding a toy truck, not a gun. As Charles Kinsey lay on the ground, hands raised above him in a sign of abject submission, a bullet from a police sniper pierced his leg.

The head of Miami-Dade’s police union later insisted the bullet had been meant for Rios.

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“I feel like my wings have been cut off, and it’s the end of everything,” Soto told the Miami Herald over the weekend. “It’s too emotional to see your baby caught up in something like this.”

It was more than her son could endure, as well. Last Tuesday, Rios wandered yet again. He returned to the blood-stained sidewalk where his caregiver had been shot the day before and threw himself to the ground, his mother said. Rocking rhythmically, he shouted: “I hate the police. I hate the police.”

Rios has been in the psychiatric wing of Aventura Hospital since then, said Soto, who visited her son Friday night. For days, Rios had remained hospitalized in the same dirty clothes and blood-stained jacket he was wearing when his image was seared into the national debate about race and policing and the senseless shooting of unarmed men.

Soto only wanted to protect her son — not for him to become a national symbol. “It is me against an entire system,” she said. “I feel alone and weak, like a little soldier fighting against an entire army.”

Rios, 26, was diagnosed with a complex and disabling form of autism as a small child. He is largely nonverbal, though he can use a handful of words — “police” and “blood” and “hate” are among them. He’s big and he’s tall, and all that bigness can be a danger when Rios loses his temper.

“We don’t have enough high-quality, well-supported, evidence-based places for people like this to live and get better,” said Michael Alessandri, who heads the Center for Autism and Related Disorders, or CARD, at the University of Miami. “These are not throwaway individuals just because they are behaviorally challenged. They can get better.”

Soto spoke to the Miami Herald partly because she had become weary of watching the controversy unfold while her son remained a mystery, or worse, a caricature.

“He can’t be just ‘the autistic man’ anymore,” said the family’s attorney, Matthew Dietz. “It makes his life have no value.”

“His name is Arnaldo Eliud Rios Soto.”

In June, state disability administrators, who declined to discuss Rios, said that Rios would be safe and well-cared for in a group home managed by MACtown, a private service provider for people with developmental disabilities. But, Soto said, she wasn’t really offered any choices. There are very few programs in Florida for people like Rios, whose autism or intellectual impairments can lead to often severe behavioral outbursts.

It seemed like a poor fit to Soto almost from the beginning. On July 4, she said, she called MACtown to tell staff members that her son was fascinated by fireworks, and he would want to see a local display. She said she also warned them to be “alert” to challenging behaviors.

On July 5, a behavior analyst from the group home called to tell her she needed to go to an urgent care center immediately. Rios had been injured while he was being restrained the day before, she said, and doctors could not treat the young man without her medical consent, as she was his legal guardian. “He was trying to get out of the house and he became aggressive and he was not allowed to get out of the house,” Soto said. Rios had broken his nose while being restrained. He also had broken his finger, an injury the group home says probably occurred earlier.

When Soto saw her son he had a purple bruise covering his left eye. His chest was a swirl of yellow and red marks. “First I felt guilty. It was my responsibility to protect him, and I failed,” Soto said.

Soto wanted her son moved to another group home. But, she said, she was told the transfer would take some time. Soto had not heard from anyone about the transfer for two weeks. Then her church friend called.

Rios had decided to remain home last Monday from a day program he usually attends. Kinsey stayed home, too, to supervise him. When Rios left the group home — his toy truck, which he clings to for comfort, in his hand — Kinsey followed him. “We can’t prevent people from going out the door; they have rights,” said MACtown’s director, Clinton Bower. “All we can do is try to ensure their safety.”

North Miami police say they received a 911 call saying someone was in the street armed with a handgun — a call police have yet to release. Bower said he believes it’s more likely officers were told Rios, his client, was having an altercation with Kinsey, who is African American. Kinsey was trying to coax Rios from the middle of the street “and into a safe spot,” Bower said, when officers arrived.

MACtown caregivers are “highly trained” in ways to de-escalate risky and violent encounters, which are not uncommon among people with autism, Bower said. But, he added, “we certainly don’t expect to be dealing with this everyday.”

After Kinsey was shot, the caregiver was rolled onto his belly and handcuffed — an image that badly exacerbated the public relations nightmare North Miami police faced. But Rios, too, was treated like a criminal, said both his mother and Bower.

For at least three hours, the young man remained handcuffed in the back of a police squad car. Soto’s church friend begged officers to see Rios, as did Bower. But officers kept Rios under wraps until about 9 p.m., Bower said.

Police told Bower that Rios “was acting loopy,” Bower said, adding Rios kept talking about Disney characters. “They clearly couldn’t see he was a person with autism, or another disability.”

Dietz, the family’s lawyer, said Rios’ three hours in a police car might have been nearly as traumatic as the shooting. “This is a person who calms himself by slapping his hands and rocking,” Dietz said. But he could do nothing as waves of anxiety cascaded over him in police custody.

After police returned Rios to the group home, the young man’s behavior deteriorated, again: “Police shoot! Police shoot! Police shoot Charles,” he kept shouting, Bower said. “It was horrible.”

At her home near Zoo Miami, Soto had become frantic. “I was looking for the remote for my TV, and I got desperate, so I called MACtown. When I called, the person who answered the phone said they couldn’t talk, because they were in a crisis.” Soto called disability managers, and they wouldn’t talk to her either, she said. “I wanted to talk to someone, for them to explain to me that my son was the one involved in that incident. I was going crazy.”

So she dispatched her friend to the group home. He arrived just as an ambulance was pulling away with Kinsey. He couldn’t get any answers, either, until Rios was returned to the home hours later.

Bower said he was kept in the dark by police, too, and had no information to give her.

When Soto was able to speak to her son by phone the next day, the 26-year-old could muster only “baby talk,” Soto said. “He was crying. He kept saying, ‘Mom! Mom!,’ trying to tell me what happened. ‘Shoot, shoot. Police, police. Blood.'”

“I was telling him ‘Papi, I love you. Don’t worry. Everything is OK. Mommy loves you.'”

Bower readily acknowledges that, “in this situation, it appears we didn’t do our job.” And his program is paying for it: Employees have resigned. The families of clients have asked to have their loved ones transferred.

“I clearly understand where Ms. Soto is coming from,” Bower said. “I empathize with her. I am 100 percent behind her. I feel her pain and I feel her shock. This had to be the hardest thing in her life to see. It was for me.”

For her part, Soto said she feels terribly about Kinsey, the behavior aide who was shot. Kinsey was the person at MACtown with whom her son felt most at ease. His darker skin reminded Rios of his mother’s last boyfriend, and Kinsey had always treated Rios with kindness. Rios sometimes called him “Daddy.”

When their worlds collided, and exploded, Kinsey was doing what he always did, trying to protect his client.

Both men landed in hospital beds, anyway, trying to heal.

“Charles was shot physically,” Soto said, “but my son has been traumatized by that incident.”

© 2016 Miami Herald
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