Concerns Raised Over Response To Murder Of Woman With Disability
DALLAS — When a child is killed by a parent, people are typically outraged — unless the victim has a disability. Then, there’s a tendency to rationalize the slaying, disability advocates say.
“These comments often take the form of saying, ‘I understand why the perpetrator did what they did,'” said Zoe Gross, a spokeswoman for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “We don’t hear those comments when a parent kills non-disabled child. Because when a parent kills a child, a horrific crime has been committed.”
On Sunday, Donald Zriny, 58, strangled his adult daughter who had disabilities and then hanged himself in the family’s Lucas home, officials said.
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The former Lucas City Council member was described by former colleagues as a devoted father to 26-year-old Amanda Zriny. She was born with mental and physical disabilities that prevented her from walking, talking, reading or writing, court records said.
Her father’s colleagues said she appeared happy and well-cared for when the two were out and about.
Officials haven’t said what motivated the deaths.
Some who have heard about the murder-suicide have blamed a lack of resources for families caring for loved ones with disabilities, or they point to the burden and stress on the caretakers.
Parents who kill typically-developing children don’t get the same forgiving responses, Gross said, noting that these reactions can help normalize violence against people with disabilities.
She encourages people to be aware of signs of abuse or premeditation and call authorities if they suspect a person with disabilities is being abused.
A 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report, based on data from 2009 to 2015, showed that people with disabilities were 2.5 times more likely to be victims of violence than people without disabilities.
People with cognitive disabilities experienced the highest rates of violence: 57.9 out of 1,000 people were victims of violent crime, the report said.
These deaths shouldn’t be used as talking points for increased disability services, even though additional access to services for people with disabilities is important, Gross said.
“These murders aren’t caused by lack of services,” she said, noting that many families who care for relatives with disabilities don’t kill the people in their care.
“All of us, when we’re growing up, we’re taught that disabled people’s lives are less worth living and less valuable,” Gross said. “We get taught that disabled people are a burden on their loved ones.”
Part of that is because of media coverage, said Miriam Heyman, a program officer at the Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for societal inclusion of people with disabilities. Coverage of people with disabilities often paints them as either superheroes or objects of pity, Heyman said.
“I think the idea that they’re sources of sadness for themselves and for the families is pervasive,” she said. Rationalizing killings of people with disabilities by overstressed caregivers fits the “pity” narrative, she said.
A paper published by the foundation says a person with a disability dies in what is often called a “mercy killing” by a parent or caregiver about every week in the U.S., according to its analysis of 219 reports of such deaths from 2011 to 2015. That’s a conservative estimate, the foundation says.
When a person with a disability is killed by caretaker, the focus shouldn’t be on a parent’s burden or a lack of services, advocates say. Instead, it should be on the victim, remembering his or her personality, likes and dislikes — the way any other murder victim would be remembered.
Caregiver parents can face anxiety about what will happen to their children after they die and can even wish to outlive their children, said Laura Warren, executive director of Texas Parent to Parent, a nonprofit that advocates for families of children with disabilities of all ages.
Warren encouraged caregivers to find and bond with others in similar situations.
“When you have a child that’s different, you’re isolated,” she said. “We want to get to families early on, before they’re desperate.”
Staff writer Jacquielynn Floyd contributed to this report.
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