Day of Mourning 2015: Murder of the Disabled Q&A
On March 1st, I joined an online vigil for the 2015 Day of Mourning. The point of the vigil is to commemorate people with disabilities who were murdered by their families and caretakers–killed by the people who were supposed to protect them.
“Filicide” is a subcategory of homicide. It refers to the killing of a child by the parent. This vigil focuses on disabled people who were killed by their caregivers–usually the parents, but sometimes siblings, relatives, or unrelated household members. Technically, these aren’t all filicides, but there’s no word for “the killing of a disabled person by their caregiver”. Maybe there should be. Or maybe we can just use the term “murder”, because of course, that’s what it is.Murder is already a crime. Why is murder of the disabled a special case?
Because the disabled are much more likely to become murder victims. That implies that there are factors in our lives that make us more vulnerable, and by extension, it implies that if we were to analyze and address those factors, we might be able to protect potential victims and save lives. In a weird way, it’s a hopeful sign. Improvement is possible. What is it about being non-disabled that lowers a person’s risk of becoming a murder victim? Can we give those same protective factors to disabled people?
So how often does it happen?
We know that the risk is much greater, but we don’t know exactly how much greater. I’ve seen figures as low as double the general population’s murder rate, and as high as ten times. Homicides are recorded, but whether the victim was disabled often isn’t.
We also don’t know how often homicides go unreported. Disabled people often have health problems on which their deaths can easily be blamed. Many disabled murder victims have their deaths recorded as “heart failure” or “sudden death”. Sometimes, one family member covers for another. Some disabled homicide victims simply vanish.
What happens to the offenders?
You’re probably aware that when someone kills a person with a disability, they often go unpunished or receive a lesser sentence than someone who kills a non-disabled person. That’s still the case today, but it’s getting better. The attempted murder of Issy Stapleton was prosecuted about as severely as any other attempted murder, partly due to outcry by the general public. The London McCabe case is drawing a similar demand for justice.
How the offender is punished often depends on how the court (and the media) see the crime. Is it a nefarioius villain taking advantage of the vulnerability of a disabled innocent, or is it a loving but distraught parent who has “snapped”, “reached their limit”, and killed their child because of “lack of support”? Personally, I would prefer that they go to neither extreme–that the disabled victim be treated like any other murder victim, neither a martyred saint nor a loathesome burden, but simply a neighbor, a friend, a fellow person who was killed and who deserves justice.
Awareness is improving. Incidents that used to be unreported are now reported; incidents that used to be secret make it to the news, and increasingly to the national news. That means that as things get better, for a while they will seem to be getting worse as we learn more and more names of those killed, essentially, because they were disabled. But awareness is necessary, and the horror we feel as we realize the scope of the problem is a step on the road to solving it.
How does it happen?
There are a few basic types of deaths.
Murder-suicide or attempted murder-suicide is the case of a caregiver killing the disabled person just before they take their own life. An example is the case of Robert Robinson, whose mother poisoned him and then herself. She left a note about “lack of services”. Sometimes, the murder is completed but the suicide is not. This combination of a murder and a suicide gesture could be seen as an attempt to justify the murder to others (“See, I was so upset I tried to kill myself too!”), or to oneself, (“I’m not a killer; I just couldn’t stand to leave my child alone.”). Murder-suicide is a psychological phenomenon different from suicide and murder, but it shares more factors with murder than with suicide.
Deliberate Neglect is a more subtle type of murder, but no less excruciating for the victim. These people die because their basic needs aren’t cared for–whether that’s the typical needs that everyone has, like food and warmth, or needs associated with the disability, like medication or supervision. Neglect has, for the killer, the benefit of allowing them to pretend that they are not actually killing their victim.
Jarrod Tutko Jr. died alone in his attic, starved and dehydrated, denied medical care or therapy. His parents had rejected offered nursing care and did not enroll Jarrod in school, where he could have gotten therapy and education. Like Jarrod’s parents, neglectful parents have the resources to care for their children–but they don’t use them. They may even steal and spend money designated for the disabled person’s care on themselves.
Abuse-related killings happen when child abuse causes injury or illness that eventually kills the child. The intent to kill isn’t conscious, but the intent to torture, terrorize, and dominate are there, and the killer’s actions result in the death of the disabled person. People with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to abuse because it is harder for them to find help; sometimes they cannot communicate very clearly, and other times they are simply not believed. Once a person with a disability is stereotyped as “manipulative”, it can be impossible to find someone who will believe them when they say someone is hurting them. Other disabled people have been abused for so long that they have difficulty understanding that what is happening to them is wrong. And some are abused openly, with the abuse called “therapy”.
An example of an abuse killing is that of Otto Smith, an eighteen-year-old young man who was so terrified of returning home from a residential center that he tried to jump out of a car. He was justified; only weeks after he returned home, his mother’s boyfriend killed him. Despite his obvious fear and a hospital visit for abuse-related injuries (which were blamed on his autism), no one seems to have seen the problem.
“Mercy-killing” is a type of deliberate homicide justified by the killer, to themselves or others, by the belief that the victim is better off dead. When we talk about “mercy-killing”, the mental image that many people have is of someone in horrible pain, whose existence is a living hell, and whose loved ones make the wrenching decision to commit murder to relieve them of that pain. But that’s not the reality. What makes a “mercy-killing” homicide happen is actually the killer’s viewpoint–not the victim’s. The killer is the one who is making the judgment that the victim’s life is not worth living; in reality, the victim is often living a very happy, fulfilling life, or at least they’re living a life they’re as satisfied with as the average person is with theirs. But the killer doesn’t see it that way.
(I should touch on voluntary euthanasia here: Truly voluntary euthanasia is a choice made by a competent individual. It is neither forced nor imposed on them by anyone else. Opinions on its legality and morality differ, but in any case it is a very different thing from an externally-imposed “mercy killing” or “euthanasia”, which is a type of murder and is based on the killer’s evaluation of the victim’s life, regardless of the victim’s actual opinion or experiences. Even people living with chronic pain or locked-in syndrome can describe their lives as happy and fulfilling; “quality of life” cannot be judged externally.)
Ten-year-old Katie Lynn Baker was described by everyone who knew her as a happy child who loved life. Like many girls with Rett syndrome, she had trouble with constipation, which would cause her to lose her appetite. In response, her mother starved her to death, and was never punished. She could not see her daughter’s happiness; she only saw her daughter’s disability, and interpreted her loss of appetite as a desire to die.
What causes people to kill their disabled family members?
This is a complex question that no one has fully answered yet, but I can give a rough, simple answer that I think we should all keep in mind: When someone kills a disabled family member, it is because they chose to kill their disabled family member. I know that sounds simplistic, but we shouldn’t lose sight of it. Deliberately killing, abusing, or neglecting another human being is a choice made by the perpetrator.
Murders of disabled people are often not so different from murder in general. All the same risk factors apply. The biggest one, as always, is that the killer has usually been abusive in the past. Murders happen more often when the family is isolated, when abuse is seen as normal, and when there is a murder weapon easily available.
When a disabled child is involved, there are other factors that relate to the disability.
Some killer caretakers seem to love not the child they actually have, but the child they imagine they would have if the child were not disabled. There’s a lot of talk about the disability “stealing” the child, about the parent having to “rescue” the child. Many of these caretakers will have spent a lot of time and effort trying to cure their child–perhaps through alternative medicine, or perhaps through intensive therapy. They may make statements like, “I love my child, but I hate their disability.”
Other killers have identities that seem to have enmeshed themselves with their disabled child’s. They do not see the child as a separate individual, and seem unable to understand that the child has a separate existence and a separate perspective. When they kill themselves, they also kill the child because that child has become a part of them, and they cannot conceive of anyone else possibly taking better care of the child than they can. Some of these killers take the disabled person out of a residential placement to kill them, or kill them just before such a placement is to occur. The threat of separation leads them to reason, “If I cannot have them, then no one will.” Or, “I couldn’t stand to leave them alone.”
Some homicides happen simply because the caretaker doesn’t care. These are the neglect killings and some of the abuse killings, as well as some of the premeditated murders. The disabled person is a hassle, an obstacle, or an unwanted “burden”. Neglect killers often ease into things slowly–at first, they give the person the bare minimum, then a little less, then a little less; then when people start to notice, they lock the disabled person away in a room, and eventually, they ignore them altogether. Each small step is easy once the one before has been performed. The more the disabled person is neglected, the less the killer sees them as lovable. They become dirty, unkempt, upset; they try to ask for help and become “annoying” to the caretaker. As time goes on, murder becomes less and less inconceivable.
Some killers seem to have started out with the idea that living as a disabled person is unacceptable, and they impose that idea on their victims. When it becomes clear that the disabled person will stay disabled; when the disabled person will clearly need to live in a group home; when the disabled person is getting older and not getting better–that is when they decide that death is better. These are the “mercy killings”, the murders that are justified by the killer’s belief that disability is worse than death. As though they are living in a movie, these killers seem to think that a disabled person’s story must end either in cure or in death–that it is unacceptable for a disabled person to live, as a disabled person, past the ending credits.
Can we predict it?
Yes and no. There are red flags… but not every killing is preceded by red flags, and most red flags don’t mean a killing is inevitable.
What should we watch for?
If you see any of the following danger signals, a disabled person may be in trouble:
- A jealous or possessive caretaker is threatened with separation from the disabled person.
- A parent who sees residential placement as “worse than death”.
- A suicidal caretaker who does not believe that the disabled person could live without them.
- A family that isolates itself, or the disabled person in particular, from the community. (Most home-schooled children participate in their communities. It can be used as an excuse to isolate the child, though.)
- A child is withdrawn from school after neglect or abuse is noted.
- Caretaker spends a great deal of time and effort trying to “cure” the disabled person, and seems to see continued disability as “not an option”.
- Warning signs of suicide in a caretaker who seems to be preparing for death, but does not make any effort to ensure the safety of their disabled family member.
- A child whose condition worsens over weekends, vacations, or summer. An adult whose condition worsens after graduation from high school.
- Disabled person is withdrawn from institutional placement by caretaker who has no plans for the person’s future.
- Caregiver does not seem to see the disabled person’s perspective as separate from their own. They may share personal, private, or embarrassing details about the disabled person without their permission, talk as though the disabled person is not there, or “speak for” the disabled person.
- Frequent use of restraints; marks of restraints on the body.
- Disabled person is constantly searching for food, hoards or steals food, eats food from the trash.
- Disabled person has been missing doctor’s appointments, therapy visits, etc.
- Caregiver seems to be primarily focused on being “stressed out” or “trapped”.
- Child’s absenteeism from school worsens.
- Disabled person shows fear of a certain person or location, or persistently leaves that location. “Wandering” may be used as an explanation.
- A disabled person tells you they are being mistreated. Seriously. Believe them and do something.
- Behavior changes, especially fearful, fearful-aggressive, or becoming unusually trusting of strangers.
- Deterioration in coping skills or functioning level.
How can we prevent murder of disabled people by caregivers?
- Keep disabled people involved in our communities. Don’t segregate; instead, make public spaces available to everyone. If we don’t know that someone exists, we won’t know when they’re in trouble.
- Make it clear to caretakers that they always have a “last resort” that doesn’t involve killing the disabled person. Many killers feel “forced” into killing; if we give them an outlet–such as leaving the disabled person at a hospital, for example–we might prevent some of them from going through with it.
- Train caregivers. Not only does this help them become better caregivers, it also creates social connections that make warning signs more obvious to others. But beware: “Support groups” composed primarily of caregivers who spend most of their time talking about the “burden” of disability can become poisonous.
- Reform institutions. And I’m talking group homes here, too; they’re mini-institutions and there’s no semantics that can change that. People who live in group homes should know their neighbors, and their staff should be staff rather than overlords.
- A residential placement should not be something that a possessive caretaker fears so much that they will kill rather than allow a disabled person to live there. To accomplish that, we need to make group homes and other residential placements visible and familiar–to give the general public a real picture of a decent place to live.
- Listen to the disabled. When we say we’re being hurt, we’re not “acting out”; we’re asking for help. For some of us, the cognitive struggle of even understanding that we are being hurt and that we can ask for help, and the logistical problem of how to ask for help, is an extremely difficult accomplishment. Don’t throw it away. Some disabled people don’t talk or have been silenced so repeatedly that they no longer know how to protest abuse. These people have only their behavior to communicate to you. Listen to it.
- Make it harder for a disabled person to “vanish”. When a person misses a doctor’s appointment, are they still getting the care they need? If a child isn’t in school, are they still learning? There’s a birth certificate, but no medical records; why? Yes, the family moved away, but where are they now, and are they connected to medical and social support in their new location? This young adult just graduated from high school; what will they do next (or, even better: This fourteen-year-old just entered high school; what will they do when they graduate)? Complaints of abuse need to be recorded and accessible so that when sixteen different reports come in, anyone receiving one of them knows about the other fifteen.
- Take crimes against disabled people as seriously as any other crime. Most crimes against people with disabilities go unreported and unpunished. When one does get reported, the criminal often gets away with very little punishment. This needs to change. Especially for crimes that take place in schools and residential centers, it’s important that when a crime is reported, it gets prosecuted, and when it’s prosecuted, the perpetrator is sentenced just like someone who committed a similar crime against a non-disabled person.
- Create accommodations and technology that supports a disabled person’s self-determination. Yes, disability means we need help, but that’s not the point. If I am completely paralyzed and I use an eye-tracker to tell my caretaker that I want to wear a pink shirt today, I have made that decision as truly as someone who is fully mobile and pulls that pink shirt out of their own closet. We need to make sure that when we create a space that either disabled people or the general public will use, we make it possible for disabled people to run their own lives, say their own words, and make their own decisions. Making your own decision, as a disabled person, shouldn’t be a privilege that is granted you by a benevolent guarding; rather, it should be a right that you have, by default. Only when you actually cannot make a decision yourself should it ever be made for you.
- Empower disabled people, especially children. Teach them that they have rights, and that they can stand up for their rights. Teach them to be assertive rather than submissive. Teach them, if you have to, that it’s all right to bite someone for being mean to you; that you’re not misbehaving if you’re running from someone who’s hurting you; that you don’t have to earn the right to be treated with decency and respect. Give them technology that lets them make their wishes known and control their own environments. Teach them skills that let them protect themselves.
This isn’t a problem we’re going to solve in a day, a year, or a decade. Awareness is increasing, but it’s better for cute, young, white disabled people than for disabled people who are too old to be cute, or institutionalized, or who for some reason don’t make good poster children. Disabled people still have to seem completely innocent to be seen as not responsible for their own murders; if they were badly behaved, aggressive, rebellious, or just imperfect human beings, many people still seem to think that their murder was justified.
We need to teach the general public to see disabled people as individuals. If they did, then when someone said “autism” they would think, “Oh, that’s like my neighbor; my co-worker; my friend,” rather than thinking, “One in sixty-six. Can’t talk. Lines things up. How tragic.” If they could be taught that “People” and “Autistic people” are not separate categories, they could begin to apply the things they know about “People” to everyone, autistic and not–things that include being valuable, being worth listening to, being capable of happiness and worthy of life.