From left are Self-advocate Dwayne Cox II, UCLA Psychiatrist-Anthropologist Dr. Helena Hansen, mother of Miles Hall Taun Hall, aunt of 15-year-old Ryan Gainer Sheila Sylver, Special Needs Network Founder and President Areva Martin, mother of Oscar Grant Wanda Johnson, Associate Vice President of Clinical Quality and Outcomes for Special Needs Network Carolina Gonzalez, California Department of Developmental Services Director Nancy Bargmann, and Chief of Airport Police Cecil Rhambo Jr. at the Town Hall at California State University, Dominguez Hills on April 13, 2024. (Photo by Diamond Dust Photography courtesy of Special Needs Network)

In an impactful and enlightening town hall at the annual Tools for Transformation Conference hosted by Special Needs Network (SNN) at California State University, Dominguez Hills, thought leaders, advocates, and community members gathered for a Town Hall on Autism, Mental Health, and Policing. This pivotal event, led by SNN’s president and founder Areva Martin, addressed critical issues affecting the intersection of law enforcement and the autism community.

The town hall saw a packed auditorium where emotions ran high and vital conversations took place. Areva Martin expressed her profound connection to the day’s events, stating, “Some days in life you get to do something so meaningful and powerful that you have to pinch yourself and ask has God really chosen me for this assignment. Today was one of those days.” Her leadership underscored the urgent need for dialogue and action in areas where autism, mental health, and law enforcement intersect.

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The session featured powerful testimonies from individuals directly impacted by police interactions, including Sheila Sylver, the aunt of 15-year-old Ryan Gainer; Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant; and Taun Hall, mother of Miles Hall. Their stories not only highlighted the personal toll of these tragedies but also fueled the conversation about systemic change and the need for enhanced crisis intervention strategies.

The funeral service for Ryan Gainer will be held on Saturday, April 20, at 10 a.m., at the Burning Bush Church, located at 14849 7th Street in Victorville. The Special Needs Network has contributed to the memorial service through a GoFundMe page where others can contribute as well.

Expert panelists included Dr. Helena Hansen, a psychiatrist from UCLA; Nancy Bargmann, Director of the California Department of Developmental Services; Cecil Rhambo, Chief of Police at LAX; Carolina Gonzalez, a board-certified behavior analyst from SNN; and Dwayne Cox, Jr., an SNN self-advocate. Together, they discussed the disproportionate impact of police violence on Black and brown communities, the critical need for first responder programs that do not involve traditional law enforcement, and preemptive support for children with autism and mental health conditions.

Areva Martin further emphasized the role of Special Needs Network as a leader in this vital area: “We are just getting started. We will not stand by and watch our kids and loved ones be senselessly killed. We are mobilizing and taking action. Watch this space.”

This town hall marks a significant milestone in Special Needs Network’s ongoing leadership at the forefront of advocating for and implementing changes that will ensure safer, more understanding interactions between law enforcement and the community, particularly those who are most vulnerable.

As a result of the town hall, Special Needs Network is developing new strategies and partnerships to expand and fully fund programs that provide alternatives to police response during mental health crises. These initiatives are part of SNN’s broader mission to support, educate, and advocate for children with autism and related conditions and their families.