Cognitively impaired admitting to crimes they say they didn’t commitFebruary 25, 2021
No one told Dorothy Armstrong in her first ever police interview she was allowed a support person; someone to help understand the jargon, comfort her, encourage her description of who attacked her and how.
Neither was she given this information in any of the near-dozen police interviews that followed in later years as both victim and suspect: situations in which her complex personal history had given rise to such fear of the uniform she would agree – and confess – to any suggestion put to her if it meant she could just leave the room.
Dorothy Armstrong, who sustained an acquired brain injury as a teenager, has sat through multiple police interviews without being an Independent Third Person support. Credit:Justin McManus
Only when Ms Armstrong, who has lived with an acquired brain injury since family violence as a teenager, began speaking to researchers about her experiences with police did she learn that she needn’t have been scared, confused and alone.
“It was beyond astonishing,” Ms Armstrong said of finding out about the decades-old Independent Third Person program, coordinated from the Office of the Public Advocate for the sole purpose of protecting cognitively impaired people like her.
The ITP program is built of volunteers who sit in police interviews and help decipher proceedings that people may struggle to decipher themselves.
They are observers, witnesses and buffers between the powerful and the vulnerable.
But while it is Victoria Police policy to call an ITP when someone presents with known or suspected cognitive impairment, it is not law.
“That another human, depending on their attitude, what kind of day they’re having or who they are as a person, has the discretion to let another human being know that help is available to them, is absolutely wrong,” Ms Armstrong said.
Research from RMIT’s Centre for Innovative Justice suggests more than 40 per cent of men in prison and more than 30 per cent of women have an acquired brain injury. Only a small percentage of this large population would have been provided an ITP during questioning, said Centre for Innovative Justice associate director Stan Winford.
“In our Enabling Justice report, which Dorothy was part of, we interviewed 20 people with a [cognitive] disability who had extensive involvement with the justice system,” he said. “Only four of them had access to the ITP program.”
Advocates said some police stations were excellent and called ITPs to almost 200 interviews a year. Other stations rarely, if ever, picked up the phone.
“It’s not an anomaly that a police officer will come across someone with a cognitive impairment – it’s often the norm,” said Michael Haralambous, a senior adviser with the CIJ. “If you have an extremely low take-up of the ITP program, it begs the question ‘why?’
“If you have some police stations where it is the case and some where it isn’t, that’s no way to run the justice system.”
Victoria’s Office of the Public Advocate, the statutory body empowered to protect the rights of people with disabilities, has “repeatedly” called for the ITP program to be legislated.
“People with disabilities are vastly over-represented in the criminal justice system and much more likely to be sentenced,” Public Advocate Dr Colleen Pearce said.
“They need the trained support that ITPs provide at the beginning of their contact with the system.
“All young people under 18 years of age have a legislative right to have an independent person support them in a police interview but people with a cognitive impairment do not and can be at a greater disadvantage than young people.”
Ms Armstrong spent 16 months in prison. She admits to one offence, which she wishes to keep to herself. But alone, confused and frightened, she says she falsely agreed to everything police put to her.
The Andrews government went to the 2014 election with the promise to “ensure” ITPs sat in every relevant interview. Advocates are disappointed with what they say is a lack of follow-through.
The government did not answer questions about legislating ITPs.
“Sharing your story with the police can be a daunting process, and we know it’s even more challenging for those with a cognitive impairment,” a spokeswoman said.
“We’re continually working to ensure that people with disability are appropriately supported and protected when interacting with the criminal justice system, including looking at ways we can improve the Independent Third Persons program.”
A Victoria Police spokeswoman said the use of ITPs could vary from station to station for reasons including “some cognitive impairments not always being apparent or disclosed to police”.
Advocates agree that people with cognitive impairments are often embarrassed or have learned to mask their disability. Police are told by Public Advocate staff, “if in doubt, call an ITP”.
While police were not expected to know someone’s diagnosis, they had access to a “range of resources and training available” to help them identify the signs, the spokeswoman said.
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