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Man With Down Syndrome Dies In Hot Car After Caregiver Takes Drugs, Falls Asleep

A man with Down syndrome died after being left in a hot car while his caregiver took drugs and then fell asleep, according to a police report. His death highlights a fear many loved ones of people with intellectual disabilities face: recognizing, preventing and reporting caregiver neglect and abuse.

On Friday, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced at a press conference that caregiver Joshua Russell was arrested charged with aggravated manslaughter for the death of 35-year-old John Lapointe. A Florida resident, Lapointe had Down syndrome and was nonverbal and deaf, according to Lapointe’s funeral notice.

In May, Russell drove Lapointe to a doctor’s appointment outside of Crossroads of Pinellas group home where Russell worked and Lapointe lived. However, Russell decided to stop by his house on the way back to the group home to take kratom, an unregulated substance that can be used recreationally and cause a “high” despite dangerous side effects.

According to a news release from Pinellas County Sheriff’s office, Russell began to feel nauseous and tired so instead of driving Lapointe the rest of the way back to the group home, he turned around and parked the van in the driveway at his house. Russell then fell asleep for two to three hours, according to detectives, while Lapointe was seat-belted in the back of the hot van with the engine turned off.

Detectives said the temperature inside the van reached 125 degrees Fahrenheit, and the medical examiner determined the extreme heat was the cause of Lapointe’s death. Police were unsure why the heat did not affect Russell in the same way. Police said the investigation will continue now that Russell has been charged and arrested. Lapointe’s family called his death a “tragedy.

“John has an infectious smile, angelic sweet gentle spirit and so enjoyed watching Barney cartoons on his tablet,” his family wrote on a funeral page, adding:

He also enjoyed music, magazines, puzzles, blocks, and riding in the van. He had a mischievous side to his nature and was happy to think he had gotten something over on you. John was a beautiful human being loved by all and will forever be in our hearts.

According to a 2012 research brief from the National Center on Elder Abuse, approximately 30% of people with disabilities who rely on personal assistance services reported at least one type of mistreatment by their primary provider. People with disabilities are more likely than non-disabled people to be victims of abuse.

People with intellectual disabilities may not always be able to communicate that something isn’t right with their caregivers. To prevent or stop potential caregiver maltreatment, the Special Needs Alliance outlines warning signs to look out for that may indicate a person with a disability is being neglected, abused or exploited:

  • Changes in behavior, such disliking places or activities that were fine before
  • Emotional changes, especially seeming more anxious, sad or withdrawn
  • Unexplained injuries or major health changes like losing a lot of weight
  • Unexpected medication changes or overmedication
  • Increased isolation from others
  • Poor personal or home hygiene, like unwashed hair, dirty clothing or uncleaned home or laundry
  • Unpaid bills or unexplained new credit cards or accounts
  • Lack of appropriate medical care or treatment
  • Sudden over-reliance on a caregiver who has no prior relationship to the individual

If you’re concerned someone you love is being taken advantage of by a caregiver, there are several things you can do. This starts with knowing the warning signs of abuse or neglect and then asking lots of questions, according to the Special Needs Alliance. The actions you can take so authorities can intervene will be slightly different state by state, but you should be able to connect with the following types of agencies:

  • Make a report with the caregiver agency, group home or long-term care facility or other organization that helps oversee your loved one’s care
  • Contact local police or a lawyer familiar with disability issues
  • File a report with Adult Protective Services or Child Protective Services in your state or local area
  • For people who live in a long-term care facility, you can make a report to your local long-term care ombudsman, whose office is responsible for advocating for long-term home residents
  • Connect your loved one with a social or case worker or other community agencies that support people with disabilities or abuse and neglect survivors

People with disabilities deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. They also deserve safety when they’re assisted by caregivers.

“The child or adult who has the disability is an individual with the same feelings, intellect and rights to safety as anyone else,” wrote Mighty contributor Jessica Grono, adding:

They need advocacy. If abuse is suspected or documented, then it’s time to help and not wait until someone dies. Punishment for abuse or murder doesn’t need to be less because the victim has a disability. Value of human life needs to be put back in its rightful place.

Header image via Sorensen Funeral Home