A special needs teen was formally indicted by a grand jury in Cherokee County this month for allegedly committing elder abuse against his disabled uncle, though advocates for his case claim he doesn’t belong in the court system.

Dawson Crowe, 18, was indicted on Feb. 13 on one count each of exploitation and intimidation of a disabled adult, elder person or resident, aggravated assault family violence and aggravated battery family violence, according to court documents. Family members claim the Cherokee High School student has an IQ of 52 and the maturity of a 10-year-old.

Crowe was arrested and charged Sept. 14 with one felony count each of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and exploit, inflict pain and/or deprive essential services to an elderly adult after allegedly pouring hot grease on his disabled 78-year-old uncle, Curtis Sykes, at their home in July 2017, according to court documents.

Family members, friends and special needs teens protested on the steps of the Cherokee County Justice Center in October after Crowe was denied bond twice and kept in the Cherokee County jail for more than a month in the medical ward.

Days following the protest, Superior Court Chief Judge Jackson Harris set bond at $20,000 with conditions for Crowe. Under terms of his release, Crowe is prohibited from threatening and endangering any witnesses, possessing firearms or residing in a home or car where firearms are present, consuming or possessing alcohol, consuming or possessing controlled substances or residing in a home or vehicle where those substances are present, contacting any witnesses with the exception of his grandmother, Wilma Fay Harbin, and leaving the state. He was not allowed to return to school but could continue receiving instruction at home.

Family friends Peter and Nadine Psareas of Canton agreed to keep Crowe at their home with their own special needs son, Phillip, during his house arrest. The Psareas have previously told the Tribune they’ve known Crowe for years and often invite him to spend time with their son.

In January, the couple became Crowe’s official guardians and have continued advocating for his case.

After his release on bond, defense attorney Jay Wall said Crowe doesn’t appear to fully understand the consequences he faces. Wall said it didn’t surprise him that Crowe had been indicted.

“It was something I was expecting and I don’t think it’s inappropriate for him to have been indicted,” he said.

Wall plans to file a special pleading of incompetency upon Crowe’s arraignment day, an action that addresses his mental disability.

During his bond hearing, Harris also ruled Crowe would undergo a mental evaluation ordered by the state, which is under seal, according to court documents.

Another psychological evaluation conducted by the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Disabilities ordered by the Psareas found that Crowe has a mild intellectual disability.

“During testing, Dawson often responded in an impulsive manner,” the evaluation states. “Responses were concrete and socially immature. He was also quick to give up if he perceived a question to be too challenging. However, based upon his responses, it is unlikely that this affected his performance in a significant manner. Thus, these results are deemed to be a valid indication of his current level of functioning.”

Stacey Ramirez, the executive director of The Arc, a national organization with community-based chapters, that advocates and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said people with intellectual disabilities often have a disconnection between their actions and reactions. She said she could envision her own son, who is autistic, admitting to a crime if it meant he could go home.

“So what I’ve seen happen over many years of working with people in the criminal justice system, people who have intellectual developmental disabilities, is…many are over accommodating to say ‘Yes, I did it,’ because they’ve had a history of wanting to do the right thing that they perceive the person wants them to say, whether it be their family or a teacher. In this case, a police officer,” she said. “It’s commonly known that people with intellectual developmental disabilities just want to be accepted. There seems to be some people, there’s not a connection from the action and the reaction. Meaning if I say ‘Yes, I did it,’ the reaction to that is I’m going to jail. I don’t know that everyone with an intellectual developmental disability makes that connection. Especially when they’re under stress and in a different type of environment.”

Ramirez said she often sees cases like Crowe’s where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are put through the same court system as people with normal intellectual ability. She said there is a court system in Albany completely separate and dedicated to serve people with disabilities that could function as a model for what lawmakers could do statewide. Recently, Gov. Nathan Deal’s push for criminal justice reform to encompass mental health is a step forward, she said.

“There’s an awareness that things need to change and it’s coming from the top,” she said.

Crowe is set to appear for his arraignment at 9 a.m. March 15 in courtroom 2C, according to court documents.

Madison Hogan is a reporter for the Cherokee Tribune and Cherokee Ledger-News and lives in the county. You can reach her at mhogan@cherokeetribune.com.

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