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When Crime Rings Target The Disabled


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a story about one woman's three-year fight to bring her grandchildren home. The story of this Lakota Sioux woman is just one of those told in an NPR investigation about why so many Native American children end up in foster care. Do they really need to be there? That conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to take a closer look at a very disturbing story out of Philadelphia. And I'd like to say right at the outset that the details have been so upsetting that even many adults don't want to hear them. So, please be advised.

The story emerged when a landlord who was checking on one of his properties recently found its basement door chained shut. When he forced his way in, he found four weak, bruised, and malnourished people packed into a stench-filled boiler room. One man was chained to the boiler. Apparently, these adults were just some of the victims of a woman who, along with her accomplices, allegedly targeted vulnerable and disabled people so they could commandeer their Social Security payments. Authorities have charged alleged ringleader Linda Ann Weston and three others with kidnapping, assault, and false imprisonment.

We wanted to talk more about both this case and what we might learn from it when it comes to caring for the disabled, so I'm joined by Allison Steele. She's been covering this story for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Also with us is Dick Sobsey. He's professor emeritus at the University of Alberta in Canada. He also runs the International Coalition on Abuse and Disability. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.



MARTIN: Allison, would you start us off by telling us was there some relationship among all of these people? I mean, how did the alleged ringleader come to have control over these people?

STEELE: That question is one of the questions that police are trying to answer at this very moment. There seem to be some reports that she met one of them at a sort of - perhaps in line for food stamps. Another woman she encountered possibly in her neighborhood in Philadelphia years back. It's quite unclear so far how she, you know, sort of came into contact with all of these folks.

MARTIN: And from what I read from your reporting, which is excellent, she seemed to constantly be on the move. But how did she move so many people around with no one noticing?

STEELE: It is suspected that she was using vans. We know that she moved some people up from Florida using some sort of SUV, possibly another van that they may have left along the way. But I agree with you, it seems impossible to be able to move that many people around to escape and while escaping detection.

MARTIN: In addition to the four adults found in the basement, there were also eight children taken into protective custody. And one of the reasons that this comes to mind is that you wonder, are people reluctant to call for help or to raise the attention of authorities when adults are involved. But when there are also children involved, did anybody see evidence that the children were being abused? And was there any sign that anybody raised any alarms here?

STEELE: This story is increasingly becoming - seems to be becoming about the failings on the level, you know, by many agencies and in the city, you know, on a local and the national level. There are signs that this is something that, you know, my colleagues and I are still working on. There are early signs that the Department of Human Services in Philadelphia, which includes Child Protective Services that they place children in Linda Ann Weston's care despite the fact that she was a convicted murderer.

There are some signs that people were complaining of abuse. That someone had filed a police report several years ago saying that Linda Ann Weston's niece was being abused while in her care, but that that somehow wasn't followed up on. So, elders we're still looking into, but it does seem as though there were not just warning flares but alarm bells going off around Linda Ann Weston.

MARTIN: So, Professor Sobsey, let's turn to you as we mentioned that you run the International Coalition on Abuse and Disability. There was a study of American crime rates in 2007 that showed that people with disabilities are one-and-a-half times more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than those without a disability. As part of your work, you track individual reports of these crimes. Are there some common themes here?

SOBSEY: Well, I think there is more than one sort of sub-theme in this. And when we look at those figures that say, like, the risk is one-and-a-half times as high, in fact, that's looking at a very large group of people who identify as having some kind of disability. And particularly when we're talking about people with significant or severe intellectual or developmental disabilities, the increased risk is actually much more than that, 50 percent over the norm.

We do see one pattern, where we see people who become care providers largely to make money or sometimes specifically because they like to have that power and control over people and either engage in horrible neglect or horrible abuse, and frequently both of them. And so, these kinds of cases are not very rare. Adults are at greater risk because we really don't have Child Protective Services or the equivalent for adults.

Over the last decades, we've had most states that have put in adult protective services or vulnerable adults acts that tries to provide some protection for adults with significant disabilities. Pennsylvania was one of four states that had not done that. A year ago, they passed legislation to provide those services, but they never funded it. And so, effectively there's a law that should help, but it has never been implemented in Pennsylvania.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

We're talking about this very disturbing case out of Philadelphia, where at least four disabled adults were held in awful conditions apparently so that their social security checks could be commandeered by the alleged ringleader of this. We have been talking with Allison Steele, who's reporting on the case for the Philadelphia Inquirer. And who you just heard that was Dick Sobsey. He's professor emeritus at the University of Alberta in Canada. He runs the International Coalition on Abuse and Disability.

And I just want to give people the details. And, again, I have to emphasize this is very disturbing information. But as I understand it from the reporting that you and your colleagues have done, Linda Ann Weston served four years for locking her sister's boyfriend in a closet and starving him to death. And upon her release, she then petitioned the court to have her children returned to her and they were.

STEELE: That's what her family members have been telling my colleague Mike Newall. They say that - they tell him that, yeah, she got her children back and they can't understand what happened. And as far as they remember, they don't remember her murder conviction being raised in court.

MARTIN: And, Professor Sobsey, you can see a situation where you could see where perhaps people don't want to intervene in a situation because they think adults are adults, because they don't want to be paternalistic or because they feel that they don't have any standing to intervene. I just wanted to ask you just from the facts that we know so far about are there some lessons to be learned from this just from what we know now?

SOBSEY: Well, I think there's a multitude of things that can make a difference. And I think often when we see people, particularly people who have severe disabilities, it does become difficult, like we may see somebody who is, you know, more or less forcing somebody into a van, for example, and then we realize, well, that's a person who has an intellectual disability or a mental health issue, et cetera. And the person who is the caregiver, you know, kind of says, well, this is the only we can manage that.

And most people don't have a level of understanding of those disabilities, where they can really sort out is that reasonable or is that unreasonable. And so, you know, people are afraid sometimes to say something because they're, you know, they kind of think: Oh, you know, I'm going to report this person for potential abuse when, you know, some parent who is struggling to take care of a child who has a terrible problem and, you know, there may be more compassion maybe for the family than there is actually for the individual, because it's harder to identify with somebody who's that different.

But, you know, I can speak also as the parent of somebody who has severe and multiple disabilities and there have been things sometimes that have needed looking into or people have raised questions. And being aware of this, I'm happy when people raise those questions. If people are concerned about the welfare of my child, I'm happy about that. I don't want to be wrongly convicted of some crime, et cetera. But people need to be more willing to speak out and say something.

In general, our social attitudes are not very good. There's kind of cultural attitudes and beliefs that these people are damaged merchandise and maybe, you know, you can't expect more. And then finally, there's very little incentives for good people to want to provide this kind of care.

And in many cases, when you look at what goes wrong in the child protective system or the adult protective system, where there are indications of abuse and the person isn't taken out of that home, it's frankly because they can't find another place to place that person. And so, the foster care agency sometimes feels forced to go ahead with a placement that they suspect is not a very good one because there's nothing better available.

MARTIN: And also, the final thought from you if we can. You know, Philadelphia is a complex urban area like many places. And I'm sure that many of the authorities that you have been interviewing have seen quite a few things in the course of their time there. What's been the reaction in Philadelphia to this case among the police officers, social workers, citizens, all these people whom you've interviewed?

STEELE: Generally, horror. I mean, people in Philadelphia are used to seeing some pretty nasty stuff, but I've seen high-level police officers get practically choked up about this. It's a very complicated case, but it's also a sort of relentlessly horrible case. And one of - and part of the reason is that there are so many victims. There are these four adults, there are these children who were being cared for, there's this 19-year-old woman, Linda Ann Weston's niece, who has been systematically tortured essentially for years, according to the police.

The police commissioner of Philadelphia said he's never seen such an extensive range of injuries on a person who was still alive. So, you know, this is something that's even shocked the hardened cops here as well as the hardened reporters, I would have to say.

MARTIN: Well, I hope you'll keep us posted.

STEELE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Allison Steele is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She joined us from a studio in Philadelphia. Dick Sobsey is professor emeritus at the University of Alberta in Canada. He runs the International Coalition on Abuse and Disability, and he joined us from Edmonton. Thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

STEELE: Thank you.

SOBSEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.