Why we shouldn’t blame the murders of disabled kids on lousy services

by Dick Sobsey

Dick Sobsey is the Director of the JP Das Developmental Centre at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

March, 2001 — The murders of a young girl in Montreal and a man in Philadelphia [recently] compel me to write this. It came in the same week that I wrote a letter to a London newspaper on the subject of depressed and underserved parents who kill their children with disabilities — and the same week that, in Vancouver, the report on the Katie Lynn Baker Homicide had focused on how services let a family down and didn’t ask why no one has been charged with that homicide.

There are several points that I feel are essential to make:

1. Clinical depression is an illness that as far as we know is mostly biologically determined and in many cases can be treated successfully. You do not “catch this” illness from having a disabled child or from getting lousy services.

2. The primary service needed by parents who have this problem is not respite care or free diapers or a more inclusive program for their child. They may need these things and deserve all those things and more, but genuine clinical depression has a lot less to do with the circumstances people are in than with internal factors. The primary service these people need is mental health care.

3. Reinforcing the notion that parents are driven to killing their children (and sometimes themselves) by the lack of services is almost certain to do more harm than good. For people who are getting close to the edge of doing violence to themselves and others, certifying their thinking as rational and their behavior as justifiable increases the probability that they will go over the edge.

4. Constructing suicide or homicide as justifiable by the circumstances also stops people in those circumstances, their families, and the people who provide services for them from getting the help they need.

5. I am not saying that these people are necessarily bad people, most are not. I am saying that in many cases they are sick and need treatment not pity that feeds their sickness.

6. After studying hundreds of these killings, I am convinced that like people who are suicidal, displaced anger is often a factor in these cases. Parents who feel that they have been ignored by the system, their friends, their spouses, or whoever and cannot direct their anger at the real target displace that anger on to their children and sometimes themselves. The feeling of being “hard done by” may well be justified in many cases, but it would not justify the parent for shooting the school principal who bars a child from school, or the social worker who cuts their services. Neither can it provide any sense of justification for turning that anger against a vulnerable person.

7. When we as parents exploit these cases by saying it shows what crappy services can drive parents to do, we encourage this displaced anger. I am not recommending that we parents kill anyone but I am recommending that we direct our anger into action to change the system.

8. When we say, “look what this poor parent was driven to do by the system and if things don’t get better more of us parents may just do the same thing,” we are holding our children hostages. We are collectively threatening to harm them if society doesn’t take a little better care of us. The biggest problem with this is that hostage-taking always assumes that the person or people we are trying to influence care more about the hostage than we do. In this case, society does not care more about our kids than we do. Threatening that more parents will hurt kids without better services will not improve services, but it may arouse enough guilt for society to tell us that they understand after parents start killing kids.

9. We need positive image for parents not negative ones. When we rationalize violence as understandable considering the rough situations families face, we are not helping anyone build hope for the future. For every parent who faces “impossible’ circumstances and goes to pieces, there are ten who face rougher situations with faith and hope.

10. I love my kid. I realize that I am a lot luckier than a lot of people who have a lot on their plate but I have good days and bad ones. Last week was a bad one. My back went out and I just couldn’t move. Maybe this has something to do with carrying a 75-pound kid up seven flights of stairs to the water slide or trying to lift him into the van when some jerk has parked 8 inches away and there is no room to lift properly. Maybe it has to do with averaging 4 hours sleep a night for the last 10 years. I don’t really know. May be things will get tougher one day. May be we will lose the little supports we depend on. No matter how bad things get, I don’t think that I will ever want to hurt my kid. If I ever did, it would mean that there was something dreadfully wrong with me and I couldn’t blame that on a lack of supports. I don’t think I’m unusual in this. I think it’s pretty typical for parents of kids with or without disabilities.

11. Murdered children with or without disabilities are typically killed by their parents. May be some parents are just plain monsters. Most of them are stressed, depressed, confused, and generally have mental health issues. A lot of them need help and some of the killings could have been prevented if we got help to people sooner. If we are going to be compassionate to people who kill their children, let’s be compassionate to all of them. If we are going to be punitive, let’s be consistent with that, but let’s stop pretending that killing children with disabilities is any different than killing any other child.