Rachel Cohen Rottenberg recently blogged about the recurrent problem of parents of children with severe disabilities (usually autism) murdering them, and the stock response being that the mother (as it usually is, but not always) must have been under so much stress and there’s so little support. She responds that the real reason for both the lack of support and the recurrent murder problem is the devaluation of disabled peoples lives and that there never is any excuse for murder:
All attempts to explain this tragedy hide from view an essential fact about becoming a parent: In having a child, you make a commitment that, even if you end up in the worst extremity, you’ll protect the child’s life. That’s a basic, sacred trust. The child didn’t ask to be born, didn’t ask to be difficult, didn’t ask to be disabled. When people don’t speak to that commitment and that trust, but start talking about how difficult the child was, and how the parents lacked services, I get really scared. Because there will always be people without adequate support. And if people can’t simply say, “I don’t care how bad the parent’s life is. The parent broke a sacred trust with the child and had no right to do so,” I don’t see that there is any protection for disabled people at all. It’s very frightening to me. It means that I live in a society that is nothing short of barbaric.
I have heard of a number of cases where a parent who has cared for a child with severe autism for a long period killed the child and, sometimes, themselves as well — one well-known British case involved a mother with depression who jumped into the Humber river with her autistic child (Ryan Davies) in 2006. There have also been cases of parents killing children with disabilities — not always severe autism — because they were ashamed of them, including one recent British case but also that of Katie Carron in the USA. In that case, the mother was not even the daughter’s main carer, and painted a picture of her being in great pain when, in fact, she was a happy little girl. Similarly, Robert Latimer, who murdered his 12-year-old daughter Tracy, who had cerebral palsy, in 1993, fed the court and the public a similar story, attracting much public sympathy, and continues to do so. As Rachel says, the tone of the reporting often blames the child for being difficult and assumes that they drove their parent to kill them, even if the child was only four years old. It is easy to sympathise with a parent you know is in that situation, and I would not throw the key away (if the person who killed the child is still alive) but we should not forget that a child has died and the child, not the parent, was innocent. We should not rush to make excuses as soon as we learn that a parent killed a severely disabled child, because the “depressed lone parent who snapped” scenario is not the only possibility.
Furthermore, one notices that people are only too aware of the lack of support for parents raising children with severe disabilities when a killing like that of Katie Carron or Daniel Corby takes place, but care much less when it comes to paying the taxes necessary to keep services like this going. On both sides of the Atlantic, services for both parents and the disabled people themselves, including respite care (which is often vital) has been cut to the bone and sometimes terminated, partly because of political pressure to keep taxes down and partly to reduce budget deficits. In some districts in the UK, local councils have done “consultations”, asking people what services they would not mind paying a bit of extra tax for, and the answer often comes back saying “nothing”, so they resort to selling off land (school playing fields, staff car parks and so on) and approving commercial building projects indiscriminately so they can get the business rates, hiking parking rates and fines as well as introducing or raising charges for social care, all to avoid the perception that they broke promises on tax. Councils also contract out services, and the bidding process aims to drive costs down at the risk of quality of service; the risks often cannot be quantified until something bad happens. Nobody is willing to tell taxpayers that they like the services their taxes buy, that they cost money and that sometimes, they will have to pay a bit more. They will happily complain when corners are cut and a tragedy happens, but in the meantime, they just want to pay less tax.
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