The family of an 11-year-old boy with autism who was falsely accused of stealing from a Woolworths store in Sydney, Australia, have shared their dismay over his experience.
Emmitt Crear and his mother, Karen, went to the chain’s Emu Plains store on Thursday to get groceries. Emmitt, who also has sensory disorder, typically heads to the toy aisle, where he feels most comfortable.
“He will stand in that one spot until his mom or I tell him it’s time to leave,” his sister, Tiani Crear, told Yahoo7 News.
But on Thursday he was approached by an employee who believed Emmitt may have stolen a Lego figurine after he was seen empty packaging on the shelf. Crear said Emmitt, who rarely speaks with strangers, refused to answer the man.
As the boy’s mother signaled that it was time to check out, the employee and other staff members escalated the situation, according to Crear.
“Three staff members followed him and physically grabbed him,” she said. “My mom proceeded to ask what was going on, and they then accused my brother of stealing this [Lego] figure.”
Crear told Yahoo7 News that the employees began to check Emmitt’s pockets, at which point their mother demanded to speak to management.
Crear claimed that they watched over her family at the check-out counter, treating them “like criminals.”
After realizing that Emmitt had not stolen the item, the store manager apologized and said the store’s security footage would be reviewed to confirm there had been no theft.
“Emmitt is very literal and said to the manager, ‘Why would I steal something when my mom buys everything for me?'” Crear said.
She added that her mother and brother were traumatized by the ordeal and that the treatment they had received was unacceptable. “My mom felt very embarrassed, and my brother was stressed, anxious, and emotionally distressed,” she said.
The incident was a devastating blow to Emmitt’s confidence, which Crear said has taken years to develop.
“Due to this situation unfolding, Emmitt’s anxiety about attending that local shopping center is through the roof,” she told Yahoo7 News. “This has undone years of therapy he has had just to get him into a shop.”
The Crears will now shop at another supermarket in the next town to ensure that Emmitt feels comfortable.
Woolworths has since contacted the family to apologize for the incident, but Crear said the message seemed “generic” and insincere.
A company spokesperson confirmed to Yahoo7 News that Emmitt had not stolen the piece of Lego.
“It was a clear error in judgment and doesn’t reflect how we expect our teams to treat our customers,” the spokesperson said. “We’ve contacted the family to offer our sincere and unreserved apologies for the way they were treated in our store.”
The spokesperson said the members of staff had been spoken to regarding the incident.
“We’ve addressed the matter with our store team directly and reinforced the need to treat all customers with courtesy and respect,” the spokesperson said.
Crear said the store manager had been in touch with her mother to arrange a face-to-face apology with Emmitt.
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