Before you say "poor mum" …
Last night three children were found dead at their home in New Malden, at an address half a mile from where I live. Olivia Clarence, aged four, and twins Max and Ben Clarence, aged three, had a form of muscular dystrophy; their mother Tania Clarence was also found with minor injuries, but has been released from hospital and is under arrest. As often happens in this case, the mainstream and social media commentary has included a number of suggestions that this was a really dedicated mother who must have cracked under the strain. For example, the Independent said that their mother “was the full-time carer for the children, but had been under immense pressure looking after children who had been struggling to sleep, according to acquaintances”. (More: Same Difference, Life with Hollywood, My Daft Life. Update: Tania Clarence has been charged with the three children’s murders.)
I don’t want to prejudice the trial that will obviously result from this, but I do want to give a message to all the people who will readily identify with the mother rather than the three dead children. It’s normal to assume that the parent who killed was struggling financially as well as with the burden of looking after a “difficult” child, and that there were no services available. This claim is made in the Independent’s article: that the council had been “judgemental” and told her to pull herself together. Residential care had been suggested, but the mother had refused and said she would “see it through”.
In many of the cases where parents kill disabled children, the child is autistic and presents severe challenging behaviour. In this case, however, the children had spinal muscular atrophy, which is a hereditary, progressive muscle-weakening disorder. It is not generally a cause of learning disability or challenging behaviour; indeed, a physically disabled child is likely to present less challenging behaviour than ‘normal’ children, as they are far less capable of violence. The Independent states that the disorder meant that the condition “meant they were likely to spend their short lives in wheelchairs”. In truth, although it usually does lead to wheelchair reliance, people with SMA can live into middle age, access higher education, work, marry and have children. I am not sure how far progressed the condition was in this case, but I have seen videos of children with SMA using power-chairs at their age, and I have not seen such children in New Malden.
The family were also wealthy enough to afford a five-bedroom house in a fairly decent part of New Malden (which is a sought-after area because of better-than-average transport links) and then refurbish it and outfit it with wheelchair ramps. The father is a director in an investment bank and the family have the services of carers and a nanny. So, not a poor single mother in a council flat struggling to raise a disabled child on her own.
The Independent also mentions the case of Felicia Boots, the mother with severe post-natal depression who smothered her two children in 2012 after suffering paranoid delusions that they were to be taken into care. That case bears a superficial resemblance to this in that a mother killed (or appears to have killed) her children, but in fact has no relevance to this, because there is as yet no suggestion that the mother had psychosis and because Felicia Boots’s children were not disabled. It was a completely different category of murder.
There have been many disabled children murdered by their parents over the years (see previous posts: , ,  and this one from another blog about a well-documented Canadian case), and there seems to be a few reported every year. A lot of them are autistic and presented challenging (i.e. violent) behaviour, but not all; some have physical disabilities and parents who are convinced that they are in pain and would be better off dead, and all too frequently there is a chorus of agreement in the media. Sometimes the parent is stressed and cannot cope; other times they are ashamed of having a disabled child. Sometimes the murder is a domestic matter and the murdered children’s disabilities are irrelevant. It’s true that this mother is innocent until proven guilty, but please remember before you jump to identify and empathise with the parent that the children were also innocent, and the children are now dead.
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