Discrimination and Disrespect
By Alex Distefano
According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in every 88 children is identified as having an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Many children and adults with Autism function with the help and services of others. But, now we are seeing an increased need for service dogs and other animals, which offer emotional and physical support and assistance for both children and adults with disabilities.
One local family is accusing Corona based Tom’s Farms of discriminating against a young girl with autism and her service dog, which happens to be a pit bull terrier.
According to Julie Marie Miller-Hernandez, Director of Marketing & Public Relations for Shorty’s Charities Inc., a nonprofit based in Los Angeles, Ed Santos, (also known as his online ‘celebrity’ name of Rock Da Mullet) and his wife were with their young daughter at Tom’s Farms in Corona on Aug. 3, when they were kicked out of the store.
Hernandez, who is an advocate for children with autism, said that the family was asked to leave the premises for being with a certified service dog, which happens to be a pit bull terrier, infamous and mystified in a negative light due to aggressive behavior and publicized attacks against humans.
Mrs. Santos wrote a public letter to Tom’s Farms, and has posted it to their public Facebook page. According to Santos, on Aug. 3, while shopping at Tom’s Farms, the family, including the service dog, was approached by an assistant manager who told them to leave.” When I inquired as to why, she stated that dogs were not allowed in the store,” the letter said. “We informed her that the vested dog was a service animal, offered appropriate identification for the service animal and offered to answer any questions she may have had. Due to my willingness to clear up any lack of understanding that she may have had, I am at a loss as to why she then decided to call security on us all while yelling at my family and repeating ‘leave.’”
The letter also details being treated very rudely and even being aggressively cornered and yelled at, by staff at Tom’s Farms.
“Not only is my daughter mentally handicap she has various other issues as well. Issues that we tried to explain to the assistant manager, however I assumed she could not hear us over her yelling,” Santos wrote in the letter to Tom’s Farm’s. “I would like to assume that any employee of Tom’s Farms would have the basic understanding that if a person has the need for a service animal, their lives are hard enough already without being placed in position to feel as if they are less than anybody else.”
The Facebook letter is open and up front about the stigma attached to this breed of dog, “This is a service animal. It is allowed anywhere my daughter goes as she needs it. When an animal becomes an animal of service the breed is no longer recognized, rather the service they provide. So this is not a pit bull this is an autism service dog.”
Hernandez, who also has a child with autism, was not present when the family was forced to leave, but said that there are laws in place to prevent discrimination against the disabled and their service animals. “The state law is clear,” Hernandez said. “It’s all in California Code – Section 54.1.” The state law details the rights of the disabled and their ‘service dogs,’ and prevents any type of discrimination against them on the basis of their need for animal.
Hernandez also said that Tom’s Farms violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states that “privately owned businesses that serve the public, such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, theaters, concert halls and sports facilities, are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. The ADA requires these businesses to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals onto business premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed.”
Hernandez said that the Santos Family is not about frivolous lawsuits and publicity; they feel this was an injustice and clear form of discrimination against their daughter and her service dog. She said that the family has never intended to sue “They could have already sued over a month ago,” she said. “They have however felt that having their offers be ignored by Tom’s Farms that their only remaining option is to file a complaint with the Department of Justice as a way of ensuring this doesn’t happen to any other families with service dogs in the future.”
Hernandez also works with service dogs, and told the Weekly that she has personally been involved in the rescue, rehabilitation and re-homing of nearly 600 dogs over the past ten years. She wanted to be clear and up front about the bad rap bit bulls get in the media and among the general public and insists that this issue is tragic and unfortunate, but service dogs can be of any breed.
“Almost any breed of dog with the appropriate temperament can become a service dog, if properly trained and is the size needed to perform those tasks,” she said. “There are too many factors that go into determining if a dog has the right personality and/or temperament for service. Some “pit bulls” might be too hyper, some might have a prey drive and would get too distracted to perform the necessary duties; it is a case by case, dog by dog basis.”
The Santos Family really want a formal apology and Tom’s Farms staff and employees to undergo training to recognize service animals to ensure this doesn’t happen to another family, according to Hernandez. Despite the letter being public, the couple has received no response, she said.