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Forum aims to reduce tragic deaths

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POSTED March 18, 2014 12:55 a.m.

LATHROP – Law enforcement officers and MedicAlert representatives will be there. So too will a mental expert and the parents of special needs children.

The hope, says longtime advocate Connie Lum-Perez, is that this meeting of the minds dubbed Project Safety will curb a disturbing national trend. 

About this time last year, Lum-Perez was haunted by the number of deaths involving young men with Down Syndrome and their fateful encounter with first responders.

“They were unfortunate tragedies,” said Lum-Perez, a driving force behind the Justice for Jeremy Foundation, a mental health awareness campaign now in its fifth year and a sponsor for Project Safety on April 29. “Their actions were perceived to be aggressive and it resulted in death.”

Project Safety will look at ways parents of children and young adults with autism, Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities can work with community partners to address areas of concern.

The forum will take place at the San Joaquin County Office of Education in Stockton from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. It is free to all professionals, as well as parents and primary caregivers of children with special needs in five counties: San Joaquin, Amador, Calaveras, Stanislaus and Tuolumne.

Seating is limited and a reservation is required.

“The first step is being better prepared. As our young people come into age as young adults, our children, we want them prepared to have better interactions with their first responders,” Lum-Perez said. “Lots of times there could be developmental or mental health issues that could prevent (care). We want to prepare them for a possible emergency.”

The event is sponsored by the Justice for Jeremy Foundation, the Family Resource Network, San Joaquin County SELPA and the State Council on Developmental Disabilities. 

Lum-Perez believes an open dialogue will create a culture of understanding and pro-active measures among all parties, especially the first responders.

“Anytime they can get a family’s perspective on how to help their children or young adults with special needs or mental illness, I think they embrace it,” Lum-Perez said. “There are things both sides can learn from each other. We’re asking law enforcement ‘What are the things you need?’ “

For Lum-Perez and her entire family, the tragedies of yesteryear hit close to home. 

The Justice for Jeremy Foundation was founded in memory of her nephew, Jeremy Lum, who was bipolar. He lost his life mysteriously and tragically three days after he was detained by the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department while in the throes of a delusional episode.

Lum was found dead in the San Joaquin River after being released from the rural jail bare-footed and without transportation.

His death prompted the Lums – a bedrock family in the city of Lathrop – to begin advocating for mental health awareness. Justice for Jeremy soon blossomed from a feet-on-the-street campaign into a foundation, with off-shoots like Project Safety.

There’s an even deeper connection for Lum-Perez, whose 25-year-old son, Geoffrey, is autistic. 

“I cringe thinking of how easily something could go very wrong in an emergency situation or confrontation with law enforcement,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Bulletin. “Autism is currently at epidemic levels and growing. The current population of autistic children will grow into an adult population, just as Geoffrey and his friends have.

“We’re hoping Project Safety is just the beginning of speaking to both sides of this issue – on training our disabled/mentally ill population and also law enforcement/first responders on how to appropriately interact with one another should the need arise.”

 

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