The murder of a 14-year-old nonverbal autistic boy, Alex Spourdalakis, has made national news. It didn't make national news because his mother and godmother, by their own admission, killed him. It didn't make national news because they overdosed him with sleeping pills, stabbed him multiple times, and slit his wrist so deeply his hand was nearly severed.
It made national news because both the National Council on Disability (NCD) and the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) have called for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Alex's murder as a hate crime under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.
The horrible thing is, Alex's story isn't the only one we should be reading about right now. There are too many other stories of death, neglect, and abuse being swept aside as "local" stories - sad, tragic, but not deserving of our attention, apparently. And all too often, arguments are made that the parents, the caregivers who are supposed to care for and protect these individuals, were stressed out from caring for autistic or disabled people.
In other words, our society doesn't want to blame the parents. Instead, in essence, the victims themselves are blamed: for being disabled, for simply existing.
Police found 14-year-old Alex Spourdalakis of River Grove, Illinois stabbed to death in bed, reports local ABC News. Police had been called to the apartment to conduct a well-being check after the boy's father and uncle failed to get in touch with him or his mother.
Alex's mother, Dorothy Spourdalakis, and godmother, Jolanta Agata Skrodzka, have been charged in Alex's death.
"Their initial plan was to give him an overdose of drugs so he would die. The defendants took turns in the evening to check the victim's breathing and pulse. After several hours, Dorothy Spourdalakis took a knife from the kitchen, went to the victim's bedroom and stabbed him four times in the chest," said Brittney Burns, assistant Cook County state's attorney. Burns said the mother also slit the teen's wrist.
According to the Chicago Tribune: "Spourdalakis then gave the knife to the caregiver, who killed the family cat, which the two women said in the letter they did not want sent to a pound after their deaths. The women then cleaned the bloody knife and returned it to the butcher block, prosecutors said. When the women were assured Alex was dead, they took several pills in an attempt to kill themselves, prosecutors said. They then went into the boy's bedroom and locked the door."
Police said that both women were found semi-conscious in the room with the slain boy. Prosecutors say they have both signed statements admitting their roles in the murder.
Police also found a three-page letter detailing what ABC News described as "the ordeal of caring for a severely autistic - and sometimes violent - teenager."
In March of this year, Dorothy Spourdalakis accused Loyola University Medical Center of not providing adequate care for Alex. In a television interview with Fox Chicago, she said "They're treating the behaviors with meds, but they don't know what causes the behaviors, they refuse to give him the medical care he needs."
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Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) spokesman Dave Clarkin said the agency received an abuse allegation regarding the youth in January but determined the accusation to be unfounded, reported the Tribune. The agency offered the family support services, but the offer was not accepted, he said.
Let's distill that information:
This mother declined medical advice in treating her son.
This mother declined free family support services.
So let's not for one moment think this is a story about lack of services or the stress of being a caregiver. I know plenty of mothers, fathers, and full-time caregivers who have autistic children, many of whom are on long wait lists for wrap-around or respite services. Not one of them would think that murdering a child is an option.
An opinion piece by columnist Eric Zorn in the Chicago Tribune offers sympathy for the two women, saying that "the tragic circumstances here suggest desperation, sorrow, confusion and helplessness in the hearts of these women." Dozens upon dozens of comments, while not excusing the act, agree with the advice to "feel pity rather than rage…to seek to understand even as we condemn."
I don't. I don't feel pity. Just the rage. I don't understand this as desperation, because when you're desperate, you take the help that is offered.
Both the National Council on Disability (NCD) and the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) have called for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Alex's murder as a hate crime under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.
"To do otherwise sends the message that the short life of Alex Spourdalakis was worth less than the lives of other children and reinforces the notion that killing one's child if they are disabled, while regrettable, is understandable," said NCD Chairperson Jeff Rosen in astatement. "This way of thinking should not go unchallenged, and the fervor with which we investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of crimes against people with disabilities should not be diminished."
ASAN, an advocacy group run for and by autistic people, stated:
"In truth, Alex's murder is about a reprehensible and repulsive ideology all too common within our society that preaches that it is better to be dead than disabled. As long as our society treats the lives of disabled people as worth less than those of the general population, more disabled children and adults will be subject to acts of violence and murder. As a result, we call for the prosecution of Alex's killers to the fullest extent of the law."
In contrast, Autism Speaks offered the following statement:
"On Sunday, 14-year-old Alex Spourdalakis was found stabbed to death in his suburban Chicago home. Alex was severely affected with autism and his mother and his caregiver have been charged in his death.
"We are deeply saddened by the incident involving Alex Spourdalakis. Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone involved in this extremely unfortunate situation. In light of this tragic event, we encourage individuals with autism and their families who are experiencing a crisis situation to visit beta.samhsa.gov/find-help, or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)."
With all due respect to Autism Speaks, the premeditated, gruesome, and cold-blooded murder of a 14-year-old is more than an "extremely unfortunate situation."
Across the U.S.
Elsewhere in the nation, other deaths and abuses of autistic and and disabled individuals were reported recently-they just didn't make the national news. They are painful to read, but to ignore them is worse.
June 20: Susan Gensiak, 59, and her daughters, Joan, 35, and Rebekah, 24, all from the Scranton area of Pennsylvania, were charged Wednesday with third-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and neglect of care for a dependent person in the death of their son and brother, Robert Gensiak, who had Down Syndrome. Authorities say the 32-year-old man weighed just 69 pounds and was covered in skin infections at the time of his death, reports MSN.
June 25: Also in Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia-area mother was arraigned on charges of assault for allegedly hitting her 6-year-old autistic son in the head and neck with her fist, and with keys. Police say the boy's father noticed scratches on his face and took him to the hospital after the mother, Jennifer Lynn Reitmeyer-Naylis, dropped him off for visitation. The Delco Times reported: "According to the affidavit prepared by Criminal Investigator John Cunningham, the victim told his father, "Mommy punched me in the eye. Then she stabbed me in the neck with her keys."
June 26: New York City police are investigating a mother's claims that her 4-year-old autistic son was choked and beaten by an assistant teacher at Birch Family Services in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx on June 17. Carmen Lucchesse says she picked up her son from the bus to find him "hysterically crying and had a black eye, bruises near his neck and scratches on his face and arms," reports The Riverdale Press. Ms. Lucchesse also said during the past three months he has come home with bruised testicles, a bump on his forehead and other marks, all injuries that have occurred when her son was in the care of one assistant teacher. Each time she questioned the school about the injuries, Ms. Lucchesse said her son had fallen down the stairs, bumped his head in the bathroom or had other accidents.
July 1: A 4-year-old autistic boy died "as a result of blunt force trauma to the head and body" in Richland County, South Carolina. His parents, Antonio Guinyard and Courtney Shante Thompson, have been charged in his murder, reports local NBC News.
July 1: Courtney Plummer, an elementary school teacher in South Mifflin, Ohio, has been charged with child endangerment related to an incident in which a 10-year-old boy was injured after being placed in a therapeutic body sock while wearing a coat and backpack, which is not consistent with protocols that protect children using the body sock, reports 10TV. (Therapeutic body socks are a sort of stretchy tube of knit fabric that are often used in occupational therapy and physical therapy; my kids have used them under the careful supervision of qualified therapists.) The child's mother, Amatullah Shields, said the school knew she didn't want the body sock used with her son.
July 1: Two educators in DeKalb County, Georgia are facing possible criminal charges after a specialist observed a paraprofessional using a broomstick to "terrorize" an autistic teen student, reports WSBTV. The boy's parents had questioned the school after noticing behavioral changes in their son, as well as scratches and bumps on his head. The school district, which brought in the specialist to observe, has already fired the teacher and says the paraprofessional resigned. The boy's father still wonders what else happened to his son, who is nonverbal. "If they had the audacity to use a broom handle in front of a third party, what are they doing when someone isn't there? John Malone said to local news.
Don't Whitewash Murder and Abuse
As a society, we cannot defend these horrific stories of abuse, neglect, and murder with excuses of stress, of lack of services, or of the challenges of caring for a person with disabilities. It is intolerable for the abuse or death of someone with disabilities to be seen as somehow less horrifying than the abuse of death of someone without disabilities.
First of all, if you're an educator or other professional working with individuals with disabilities and you can't handle the stress, for God's sake find another field of work. And if you're the parent or full-time caregiver of a child or adult with disabilities and you're overwhelmed, access the help that exists, even if perhaps it's not the very best solution. If you're that stressed, crappy wrap-around service is better than no wrap-around service. If you're that frustrated and angry, go to therapy and maybe take some Ativan, because you're the parent and harming your child is simply not an option.
But don't whitewash murder and child abuse with platitudes, and don't ask me to sympathize with child abusers and cold-blooded killers.
I simply cannot wrap my head around the idea that we're supposed to feel anything other than disgust and rage for people like Dorothy Spourdalakis and Jolanta Agata Skrodzka, who declined both medical treatment and support services, and instead chose to plan and commit the brutal and gruesome murder of a 14-year-old boy.
-By Joslyn Gray
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