Is there anything we can do to prevent parents murdering their disabled children?


Photo taken from Shorpy


Trigger warning: this discussion centres on the murder of disabled children by their parents.

I’ve written before about how I feel towards parents who murder their children. Since I wrote What will survive of us is love in March 2012, more children have died or been attacked at the hands of their parents or caregivers. In our society it’s still all-to commonplace for people to more easily excuse the act and to evoke sympathy and understanding for the parent when the murdered child was disabled.

This post is written in reaction to the news I read this morning that Kelli Stapleton attempted to kill both herself and her 14 year-old autistic daughter, Issy. I’ve also read some of the reactions to that news. For some people their reaction has been muddied by the fact that they knew Kelli well – she is a blogger and so many parents of autistic children who are active online are familiar with her blog and many of those folks also viewed her as a friend.

If you’re wondering where to start in terms of processing all this then I highly recommend Paula Durbin-Westby’s post. She concisely summarizes why the response to these acts of violence, both in the media and elsewhere, is so problematic. Defending or excusing violence simply makes the situation worse going-forward, so please, don’t be tempted to do that.

I do understand though that there are a lot of people out there feeling helpless in response to this particular story. How could someone we thought we knew do something like this? Isn’t there anything we can do to stop this happening again? Both these themes have cropped up in my social media feeds.

In trying to respond to these questions I decided, as I have a tendency to do, to first seek out some data. What do we know about the people who commit murder-suicide and filicide-suicide in particular? Does this knowledge help us at all in trying to identify ways we can stop these events from taking place? Here’s some information I found:

  • Like most violent crimes, the majority of both murder-suicides and filicide-suicides are committed by men. Unlike other homicides however, the victims of murder-suicides are predominantly female.
  • In the case of filicide-suicides the victims appear to be equally likely to be boys as girls.
  • The majority of perpetrators would not be considered ‘mentally ill’ but a greater proportion of them are when compared to other examples of violent crime.
  • If mental illness is present it is much more likely to be a disorder related to either personality or mood than it is to be psychosis.

After mulling over this data for a while here are my thoughts:

  • If most of these crimes are committed by people who are either mentally healthy or are able to comprehend that what they are doing is wrong, the only ‘prevention’ strategy we have is to do everything we can to change attitudes – both personal and societal. More on that below.
  • However, if you are in close, regular contact with a depressed person, please consider the following:
    • If the person depends on medication in order to function (as I do), make sure they are consistently taking their meds.
    • Cognitive behavioural therapy can be very effective in countering depression – encourage them to contact a therapist and attend sessions regularly.
    • Make sure they are eating healthy food, getting outside and exercising.
    • If they are abusing drugs or alcohol, don’t wait to act.
    • Don’t push them to talk or try and tell them things will be ok. How loved or supported they are has no impact, either on a person’s depression or their decisions with respect to suicide and/or violence.
    • If they talk about suicide, being at the end of their rope or use similar language, take them seriously and act accordingly.
    • If they seem a lot calmer or happier all of a sudden, don’t wait to act.
    • Don’t rely on what they say, look at their behaviour. I am a notorious under-reporter when it comes to depression. It’s necessary to look at the things I do in order to discern whether I am healthy and functioning.
  • In terms of those attitude changes I mentioned, I have a few suggestions. I believe we must be clear and unequivocal in our condemnation of these violent acts. Allowing people to talk about lack of services and supports in the context of violent crime only perpetuates the idea that the crimes themselves should somehow be excused. When we see media reporting that focuses on these kinds of excuses, we must speak out. You can start right now by signing this petition against CBS’ recent deplorable coverage of Alex Spourdalakis’ murder.
  • We need to do everything we can to share and support the fact that disabled people are valuable members of society; they are not broken and they are not burdens.
  • Let’s reserve our sympathy for the victims of these crimes, not the perpetrators. Let’s remember Issy Stapleton, Alex Spourdalakis, George Hodgins, Tracy Latimer and others. No Guile wrote about this today and I agree with her perspective.
  • We all need to constantly examine and re-examine our own relationship with our children.

I’d like to finish by elaborating on that last point. I came across an article on murder-suicides by Hugo Schwyzer, a man who, earlier in his life, attempted to both commit suicide and murder his girlfriend. I encourage you to read the article in it’s entirety as Schwyzer has some frank things to say about both the misplaced compassion for murderers and attempted murderers that we often feel and the excuses we make for acts that are inherently unconscionable. The point he made that particularly resonated with me though is the misogyny of the crimes that occur when men murder the women they supposedly love:

“This is what makes murder-suicide an inherently misogynist act: It’s based on a man’s assumption that a woman’s body belongs to him. That’s as true when it’s motivated by a perverse chivalry as when it’s driven by hate…Whatever the surface motive…murder-suicides are almost always about men’s belief that they have the right to make the most irrevocable decision of all for women whose chief crime is poor taste in men.”

All parents know how it feels for their children to be dependent on them – financially, emotionally and physically. For some parents of disabled children those dependences can continue into adulthood. However, it is especially important for those of us who have disabled kids to be constantly reminding ourselves that our responsibility as parents is to facilitate, foster and encourage our children to be independent.

The case of Jenny Hatch, a young woman with Down Syndrome who fought in court against her parents in order to be allowed to make her own choices with respect to her living and work arrangements was encouraging because the judge in that case agreed with Jenny. This is what we should be fighting for as parents, for our adult kids to be living independently from us with the services and supports they need to do that successfully. The potentially fatal error I see some parents making, and in my experience this is especially true of mothers, is when they fail to view their disabled children as separate, sentient individuals. You see it in comments like “I’m his voice”, when they talk about their ambitions and goals for their child’s future, their claims to know what their child thinks and the way they infantilize their adult children.

I freely admit to having said or felt some of those things but I recognize that these attitudes aren’t healthy and they are ones I need to guard against. It’s why I’m such a huge advocate for ensuring my children are given the tools they need so they can communicate their own thoughts and aspirations. In the case of typical children, parents that won’t let go can be unhealthy, frustrating, even a source of comedy in the case of certain sitcoms I can think of. Where disabled children are concerned, having a parent who sees their child’s identity as inextricably entwined with their own can have deadly consequences.

We don’t have the right to live our children’s lives for them. We don’t have the right to end our children’s lives either. I make no apologies for quoting Kahlil Gibran here:

Your children are not your children.

They are sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you.
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For thir souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the make upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness.
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He also loves the bow that is stable.

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6 Responses to Is there anything we can do to prevent parents murdering their disabled children?

  1. Carisa Kluver September 5, 2013 at 7:06 pm #

    Powerful and persuasive piece, Deanne. I had not heard about this incident but you make some exceptional connections – thanks for sharing!

    • OMum22 September 5, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

      Thank you Carisa.

  2. gingerheaddad September 5, 2013 at 8:21 pm #

    I know I shouldn’t be surprised that another parent tried to murder another child, but it is still so shocking. I love the passage from Khalil Gibran.

    • OMum22 September 5, 2013 at 8:46 pm #

      I think Gibran is the most quoted poet after Shakespeare, or something. He can be a bit new-agey for my taste but I just felt this was so apposite. Thanks for commenting and sharing Jim.

  3. Nina Lim April 25, 2014 at 9:10 pm #

    Beautiful, eloquent post Deanne.

    • OMum22 April 25, 2014 at 9:12 pm #

      Thank you, Nina <3

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