Philly Disability Day of Mourning a step toward honoring those killed by caregivers

Philadelphia City Councilmember at Large Al Taubenberger

Philadelphia City Councilmember at Large Al Taubenberger is shown in council chambers on Thursday, March 1. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia City Council on Thursday passed a resolution introduced by Councilman Al Taubenberger for the city to recognize an annual Disability Day of Mourning. This is a step toward truly valuing the lives of people with disabilities who have been murdered by their caregivers. Of the 50 sites internationally that are holding a vigil on March 1 for Disability Day of Mourning, two are in Pennsylvania — Pittsburgh and Collegeville. Next year, add Philadelphia to the list.

In March 2012, Zoe Gross of the Autism Self Advocacy Network read about George Hodgins, a 22-year-old California man who had autism, whose mother shot and killed him. The murder itself alarmed Gross, but so did the media coverage.

A San Jose Mercury News article quoted neighbors as saying Hodgins was “low functioning” and “high maintenance,” and a parent of an autistic teenager as saying “A lot of people, they get pretty desperate … We don’t know what caused this mother to do this. But every mother I know who has a child with special needs has a moment just like that. I am heartbroken.” In the same article, another parent of an autistic child likened his care to being in a ‘prison.’

I have a disability, and my child has autism. It is wholly untrue that that “every mother” has a moment where she considers killing her child with a disability. Many mothers, myself included, cannot fathom hurting our children. Individuals with any disability, whether intellectual or physical, are not burdens. Not all caregivers feel imprisoned or driven to murderous desperation.

A white paper from the Ruderman Foundation on news coverage of people with disabilities murdered by their caregivers shows Pennsylvania as having the 4th largest rate of intra-familial homicide in America. The study estimates that one person each week is murdered by their caregiver in the United States, but Gross says the most recent statistics she is aware of put the number closer to two per week. Because of some obstacles — medical privacy laws, how authorities classify the deaths, and the lack of a national standard for identifying the murders of people with disabilities — collecting information is difficult.

“People came out of the woodwork saying negative sounding things about George Hodgins,” said Gross. “It is one thing to talk about someone’s disability bluntly and honestly. It is another thing to be that dismissive of someone’s needs when talking about their murder. It almost becomes like a justification.”

She said media coverage of the homicide normalized the abuse of disabled people and the desire to act violently towards disabled relatives. She was concerned Hodgins would be memorialized in a way that blamed him and his disability for his murder.

“There is a narrative people want to hear: that a lack of services drove them to it. Whether or not that is truthful, or whether or not that is relevant, it is where you see people going. It feeds into a cycle of justification of this kind of violence,” she said.

So Gross decided to hold a vigil for him in 2012 “that could really be about him and who he was.” The vigil became a yearly event and grew internationally. She believes people should be more aware that people with disabilities are often targets of violence and abuse, and that eliminating prejudice against people with disabilities is as necessary as eliminating racism and sexism.

“The view of abuse of disabled people as justified by our existence and by our disabilities is so normalized,” Gross said, “that people can describe these murders as acts of love with seemingly no reflection on that.”

Media coverage and prosecution must change

Gross says there are a few ways this could change, starting with the way journalists talk about violence against people with disabilities: ending reporting in a way that uses disability to justify violence; considering whether the murder would be handled the same way if the victim did not have a disability; interviewing people who knew the victim, not just those who knew the perpetrator; and not giving a platform to the perpetrator.

Apart from media coverage, Gross says that the way some cases are prosecuted reinforces prejudice. She has seen charges reduced, or maximum sentences not being pursued, for the murders of people with disabilities.

“Disability is a federally protected class, and murdering someone for reasons of their disability constitutes a federal hate crime,” Gross said. “Whether that is enforceable depends on the specifics of the case, and that is complicated. But I am not aware of any of these cases that have been prosecuted as hate crimes.”

Without sentencing parity, our judicial system places a higher value on the lives of non-disabled people, she said.

Philadelphia needs a Day of Mourning

The Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy is hosting the city’s fifth vigil for Disability Day of Mourning, featuring local advocates and speaker and interactions with therapy dogs.

Jessica Benham, director of public policy at the center, said that it’s “a day to bring awareness to the alarming number of these tragedies in recent years, and to demand justice for all people with disabilities. We’re holding this vigil to say no. It is never justifiable to kill.”

Jennifer Stevenson, an assistant professor of psychology at Ursinus College in Collegeville, hosted on Thursday her first Disability Day of Mourning event, featuring a recorded reading of the 1,000 names of people with disabilities around the world who have been victims of filicide and intra-familial homicide since 1980, and handouts and posters with information about some of the victims.

She said that, while she wanted to have an event over the years, she felt that she alone could not coordinate it. “However, this year,” she said, “it was just simply something I needed to do. I was tired of just talking; I wanted to do something.” She asked for help from a colleague and her students.

What is being done in Philadelphia?

The deaths of Danieal Kelly in 2006 and David Hess in 2016 have made Philadelphia more aware of the harm being done to people with disabilities. 

Kelly, 14, was living with her birth mother at the time of her murder. She was neglected, allowed to waste away, and died during a summer heat wave. She weighed 42 pounds. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office went on to charge eight additional people connected to her death, including her father and DHS workers who were supposed to ensure she was being properly cared for.

Hess’ murder at Wordsworth Academy occurred when staff assaulted him over an iPod. Hess was an unarmed black 17-year-old. His last words, “I can’t breathe,” recall those of Eric Garner, a black man killed by New York City police in 2014, words that became a call to action for oppressed communities calling for systemic change.

Philadelphia on the right track

In October 2016, just a few weeks after Hess’ death Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution to re-evaluate the DHS Community Umbrella Agencies scorecard. On Feb. 7, 2018, the Committee on Public Health and Human Services began to hold hearings related to the resolution.

For Councilman Taubenberger, the death of 10-year-old Ethan Okula, who was in foster care, in 2016 was his inspiration for co-sponsoring the resolution. “I would like to see deaths like this eliminated,” Taubenberger said, adding that the responsibility of understanding the murders of those with disabilities by their caregivers needs to be a concern for all people in Philadelphia.

“The population at large and the able-bodied population should know more about it and put it as a priority,” he said at the time. Thursday’s Disability Day of Mourning resolution will move the city in the right direction.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article indicated that Danieal Kelly and David Hess were under the care of umbrella agencies of the Department of Human Services. Community umbrella agencies did not exist in Philadelphia until 2013. It was, in fact, Kelly’s death that led to the community umbrella agency model. Hess was not under the care of Philadelphia DHS, as he was not a resident of Philadelphia County.

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