After a number of cases in recent years of parents killing their kids with disabilities, self-advocates are working to focus attention on victims rather than the stresses their caregivers face.
Members of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network say that far too often parents who kill their children with disabilities receive sympathy while little is said of the victim.
In response, the group is planning a national day of mourning this Friday. Self-advocates in a dozen cities are on board to host candlelight vigils where they will read victims’ names and draw attention to how these deaths are treated in the media and by the public.
“I’ve seen articles explicitly ask the reader to ‘put themselves in the shoes’ of the non-disabled murderer, but I’ve never seen an article ask readers to imagine what it’s like to be a disabled person murdered by someone you love and trust, like your parent,” said Zoe Gross, a member of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, who is behind the effort, which is also being backed by the National Council of Independent Living and the Autism Society, among other groups.
Gross, who lives in Oakland, Calif., was spurred to action when she heard about the case of George Hodgins, a 22-year-old with autism who was murdered March 6 by his mother at their Sunnyvale, Calif. home. Hodgins’ mother — who subsequently killed herself — was reportedly overwhelmed by her caregiving responsibilities.
Frustrated that news accounts of the Hodgins case largely disregarded the victim’s perspective, Gross organized a candlelight vigil earlier this month where participants also honored 36 others with disabilities who have been killed by their loved ones since the early 1990s.
One of the victims mentioned at the vigil was Tracy Latimer, a 12-year-old Canadian girl with cerebral palsy who was killed by her father in 1993. Coincidently, on the same day Gross held the vigil, Latimer’s father, Robert who served seven years in prison for his daughter’s murder, spoke out on Canadian television calling for the legal killing of people with disabilities.
When Gross and other members of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network learned about Robert Latimer’s comments, they were inspired to make a national push to honor victims with disabilities.
“We are sending a message that violence against disabled people is unacceptable,” said Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “We are concerned that when acts of murder occur, the folks being killed are written out of their own story. It ends up being the tragic story of the parents, which in a lot of ways legitimizes the act and allows it to occur further.”
In the Hodgins case, experts interviewed by local media emphasized the extreme stress that parents can experience when their child has a disability.
“Parents of kids with autism are under a terrific amount of stress,” Jennifer Sullivan, the executive director of a local autism center that Hodgins attended told the San Francisco Chronicle. “There’s no question these children are difficult, and these families need help.”
But other disability advocates emphasize that parents who resort to violence are outliers.
“These are tragic situations that are irrational responses to very challenging circumstances, and they need to be understood as criminal acts by desperate individuals,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc. “The vast majority of parents of children with disabilities never commit these crimes or resort to murder-suicide. It’s not something done by people of healthy and sound minds.”
Currently, vigils are scheduled Friday in a dozen cities including New York, Washington, Chicago, Boston, Tampa, Fla., Fort Worth, Texas and Portland, Ore., organizers said.
“This is an opportunity to say we need a healthier discussion about people with disabilities in our society,” said the Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s Ne’eman.