This list of October 2010 media reports about people with disabilities murdered or dying under strange circumstances is presented without commentary, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing people may want to discuss about it in comments. I do not believe for a moment that this list is complete. It is sorted alphabetically by last name. Almost all links are to news reports.
Salvatore Agostino, 73, undefined disabilities, Tampa, Florida, October 20. “Upper body trauma”, Agostino’s store was robbed as well.
Karandeep Arora, 18, blind with difficulties walking, Delhi, India, October 24. His parents strangled him before killing themselves. [More details about this case.]
Alan Atkin, 62, undefined disabilities, Darlington, United Kingdom, April 2010. Beaten to death in his home. [More about this case]
Zahra Clare Baker, 10, Deaf, cancer, prosthetic limb, Hickory, North Carolina, sometime after 9 October. As of this writing, Zahra’s body hasn’t been found.
Jessie Buchsbaum, 17, learning disabilities, Boyertown, Pensylvania, October 25. Jesse committed suicide after being bullied by classmates for being disabled.
Damian Clough, 12, autism and “learning difficulties”, Keighley, England, April 4, 2009. Died in a deliberately-set house fire. The inside handle on Damian’s bedroom door had been torn off. [More details about this case.]
Byron DeBassige, 28, schizophrenia, Toronto, Ontario, February 16, 2008. Shot by police in a confrontation over two stolen lemons.
Mario Eder, 55, spinal cord injury, speech difficulties, unspecified cognitive disability, Waianae, Hawaii, US, October 1. House fire.
Linda Gibbs, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, October 5. Hit by a car while crossing the street.
Brian Goh Kah Heng, 19, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, October 23. Severe internal injuries and bruises, ruptured spleen and severe injuries to his anus. The care center where Goh was living has since been closed.
Kevin Geyer, 19, undefined cognitive disabilities, Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, October 26. Shot in the back during an apparent robbery.
Francecca Hardwick, 18, “severely disabled”, Barwell, England, 2009. Mother killed herself and Francecca after years of bullying, police are currently being sued for not doing anything to end it.
Ernie Hernandez Jr., 37, “developmentally disabled”, Modesto, California, August 14. Stabbed to death.
Philip Holmes, 56, undefined physical disabilities resulting from a work-related accident, Rhyl, Denbighshire, United Kingdom, April 16, 2010. His body was discovered by his caretaker, having been “severely assaulted.”
Patrick Johnson, 18, “had the intelligence level of a 5- to 7-year-old”, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Died after police used a “stun gun” twice on him, after being called to assist the family.
Courtland Lucas, 32, heart condition & pacemaker, St. Louis, Missouri, May 25, 2009. Died in jail because he was not given the medication he needed to survive. Other cases of people with disabilities in prison not receiving the health care they needed are also discussed in the news report.
David Lauberts, 50, undefined disabilities, Greeley, Colorado, Sept. 25, 2009. Apparently died sometime before the house fire his brother set to hide the death, Lauberts was found to have bedsores that had eaten through to his bones.
Jonathan Lowbridge, 20, undefined psychiatric-related disabilities, Reading, Berkshire, UK, May 23, 2008. Lowbridge was a voluntary patient who was supposed to be under close supervision due to suicide attempts, he escaped from the hospital and killed himself.
Shannon McLean, 39, “a rare disorder that left her immobilized and in bed nearly 24 hours a day”, Caesarea, Ontario, October 3. House fire.
Wieslawa Zofia Pytlinski, 57, undisclosed disabilities, Knox County, Tennessee, October 4. She died “of multiple blunt force trauma to the upper body”, murdered by her boyfriend.
Donnie “Butch” Phillips, 50, “developmentally disabled”, Wilkesboro, North Carolina, September 29. Choked to death on an outing from his group home. His caregiver has been charged with second-degree murder.
Brian Sinclair, 45, “double amputee with a speech impediment”, Winnipeg, Manitoba, September 19, 2008. Died of a bladder infection while waiting in the emergency ward of Winnipeg’s largest hospital.
Jaffar Shah, “lost his legs in a car accident”, Nazimabad, Sindh, Pakistan, October 22. Shah, a disability rights activist, was shot while playing with his 2 year old son outside his home. His death sparked multiple protests.
Joanne Sexton, 56, undefined disabilities that included being hooked up to oxygen tanks, Springfield, Massachusetts, October 19. House fire.
Henry David Vernon, 55, “deaf, mute, developmentally disabled and mentally ill”, Tacoma, Washington, July 29, 2009. Hyperthermia while in a group home. His temperature had reached 107 F/41.7 C.
Leonard Alfred Willson III, 53, paraplegic, Bath, South Carolina, sometime in the week before October 7. Murdered. Two people have been charged in his death, one of whom Willson was tutoring in school.
Lemuel Wallace, blind and cognitive disabilities, Baltimore, Maryland, February 4, 2009. Gunshot to the head. “A year and a half after Baltimore police uncovered a murder-for-hire scheme in which they say two men conspired to kill a blind and mentally disabled man for insurance money, detectives believe they have found the man who pulled the trigger.”
News Reports regarding allegations of abuse in long-term care homes:
Group Homes Owner Faces Loss of License
Daphne Campbell: Big Debts, Shady Dealings
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This list of September media reports about people with disabilities murdered or dying under strange circumstances is presented without commentary, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing people may want to discuss about it in comments. I do not believe for a moment that this list is complete. It is sorted alphabetically by last name. Almost all links are to news reports.
Joseph Abdo, 68, multiple sclerosis, Castleton Corners, NY. Died in a house fire.
Shah Amin, 19, “intellectually disabled”, Marsiling, Singapore, September 26. Found strangled in his hotel room after the body of his father was found in a nearby park.
Leosha Barnett, 17, epilepsy and undefined mental disabilities, Fort Worth, Texas, May 21. Starved by her mother and sister.
Deborah Boudreaux, 60, cerebral palsy, Houston, Texas. Strangled in her bed. 2 people have been charged, one of whom lived in the same building.
Jeffrey Bishop, 53, undefined physical disabilities, Louisville, Kentucky, sometime in the first week of September. Strangled by roommates/care-givers, who left his body in the basement so they could collect his disability cheques. [Indictment]
Kimberly “Kimmie” Daily, 16, developmentally disabled, Puyallup, Washington, August 17. Raped and murdered. A neighbour is charged in her death.
Jennifer Daugherty, 30, “mentally disabled”, rural Pennsylvania, February. Tortured to death by “friends”, one of whom wants charges dropped.
Payton Ettinger, 4, “mental and physical disabilities”, Greensburg, Indiana, May 17. Malnutrition and dehydration. He weighed 12 pounds at his death.
Earl Handy Jr, 39, Deaf, Conroe, Texas, September 24. Found dead in his cell from suicide. [He was in isolation to protect him because he was Deaf]
Ernie Hernandez, Jr., 37, “mentally disabled”, Modesto, California , August 14. Stabbed to death.
Gerren Isgrigg, 6, unstated “severe medical issues”, Wylie, Texas, April 15. Left exposed in a wooded area by his primary caregiver, his grandmother, he died two days later. “She felt like she was being punished by having to take care of the child.”
Albert David Jenkins Jr, 53, undefined disablities, Mobile, Alabama, May 2008. Shot in the back 7 times; the shooter plead guilty.
Reyal Jensen Jardine-Douglas, 25, undefined mental illness, Toronto, Ontario, August 29. Shot by police called by family for assistance.
Frederick Jones, early 20s, “outpatient care”, Kansas City, Kansas, September 3. Fatally shot at a gas station, died in hospital.
David Lauberts, 50, “developmentally disabled”, Greeley, Colorado, September 2009. His brother pleaded “no contest” to charges of criminally negligent homicide. Cause of death included “active caretaker neglect”.
Teresa Lewis, 41, “She’s not mentally retarded, but she is very, very close to it”, Jarrat, Virginia, September 23. Lethal injection.
Tia McShane, age at death unknown (would now be 11), cerebral palsy, Pensacola, Florida, remains found September 30. “A disabled child’s remains appear to have been found in a Pensacola storage unit, bringing a heartbreaking end to a month long search for a girl whose absence raised no alarm for years.”
Darren O’Connor, 19, partially paralyzed, South Tyneside, UK, July 7. He was discovered with breathing difficulties while in police custody and died in hospital.
Jeremy Price, 18, “had an IQ at the level of mental retardation” and had escaped from a mental health facility, Mattapan, Massachusetts, September 6. Shot by police officers.
Richard Roy, Down Syndrome, St. Jude, Quebec, sometime before September 6. Starved to death after his brother and caretaker died. [More details]
Rylan Rochester, 6 months, “thought to be autistic”, Boulder, Colorado, June 1. Smothered by his mother.
David Skelly, 53, “learning difficulties”, Liverpool, England, September 14. Punched to death by an unknown assailant.
Rohit Singh, 7, “physically challenged”, Bathinda, Punjab. Hammered to death by his father.
Regina Wynn, 87, Alzheimer’s, Richmond, Virginia, Early September. Abuse and Neglect, she died in hospital with bruises on her chest, abdomen, arms, hands and on the front of her head.
John T. Williams, 50, deaf in one ear, arthritic, Ditidaht member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations of Canada’s Vancouver Island, living in Seattle. Shot four times in the chest by police officers. [Hundreds Protest police shooting of Native American Carver, Here is a petition you can sign]
Two unnamed men, 87 and 83, “wheelchair bound” and “senile dementia”, Madrid, Spain, September 18. Died after being left in a hot van for 11 hours.
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This post is going to talk about the murder of children with disabilities by their parents. I would recommend avoiding comments in most of the news links, because the comments generally turn into a referendum on whether or not it’s okay to kill disabled children.
Tracy Latimer, who had Cerebral Palsy, was 12 years old the day her father, Robert, waited until the rest of their family was at church and then carried her out to the garage, stuck her in the cab of the truck, ran a garden hose from the exhaust pipe into the cab, and left her there to die of carbon monoxide poisoning. Whenever I talk about this case, I feel the need to remind the reader: this is a means of killing we have made illegal when killing dogs, because it is considered to be so painful. This is the murder people would like you to believe is a “mercy killing”.
Tracy Latimer’s murderer, Robert, then put Tracy to bed, burned the hose that he had used to murder her, and lied to the police about how she died.
This case went to trail twice, and both times Tracy’s murder was found guilty of murder and sent to prison. He has done the bulk of his prison time according to Canadian law, and is currently doing a form of parole where he spends five days in a half-way house, and two days in his own apartment in Vancouver. This is how the law works here – in fact, I would agree with critics that Tracy’s murderer is being treated harshly by the parole board, but I also understand they want Tracy’s murderer to admit that maybe killing a child and trying to hide the evidence is a crime and that he should show some remorse. But we don’t really send people to prison here in order for them to show remorse. It’s done, let him go home.
But let’s talk about how Tracy Latimer’s murderer and the court cases around him are typically treated by the press, since Robert is in the press again, having been denied a loosening of his parole.
You’ll notice, I’m sure, that I keep referring to this as “Tracy Latimer’s murder”. If you read the newspapers from across Canada, you’ll instead see it referred to as “Robert Latimer, a Saskatchewan farmer, who was convicted of second-degree murder of his severely disabled daughter”. You will also find it referred to as a “mercy-killing”. Often Tracy’s name will only appear once, as “his 12 year old severely disabled daughter, Tracy”.
May 21, 2010: The Vancouver Sun: Latimer mercy-killing inspires new Ozzy Osbourne song: “The 10th track of Osbourne’s solo album entitled Scream, due out June 22, is Latimer’s Mercy which describes what Latimer may have felt in putting his daughter to death. The lyrics are poetic yet brutally graphic.”
July 28, 2010: The Montreal Gazette: A Wise and Sensible Verdict (This article is actually about an entirely different case, but felt the need to compare it to Tracy Latimer’s murder): “One need only remember Robert Latimer’s killing of his severely disabled 12-year-old daughter. He did it, he said, to release her from her suffering, to mercifully end her life.
Does anyone believe Robert Latimer was a cold-hearted killer?”
July 29, 2010: The Victoria Times-Colonist: Mercy killing can sometimes be honourable: (Same case as the one discussed above) “Similarly, Robert Latimer had no moral choice but to end his daughter’s agony at once by one means or another.”
August 19, 2010: The CBC: Robert Latimer wins parole review “Latimer was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1993 death of Tracy, his severely disabled, 12-year-old daughter, an act he described as a mercy killing.”
August 20, 2010: The Globe & Mail: Give Latimer More Latitude in his Day Parole: “The board needs to accept that he has paid his debt to society. He killed from compassion, according to a jury and a judge, who knew all the details of Tracy’s life and death, and was punished as a deterrent to others.”
The case is fairly consistently presented to the Canadian public as a “mercy killing”, and as the end of Tracy’s suffering. Often Tracy’s life is described as unbearable. Sometimes she is referred to as a “vegetable”. The only person who’s “side” of this story is consistently told is the man who murdered his daughter, and he is painted by the press as a man struggling against impossible odds, doing the only thing he could.
This is not what you read in the press:
In the trials, both Robert and his wife Laura claimed that Tracy was experiencing constant and uncontrollable pain. If this were true then why were they allowing Tracy to suffer when her pain was medically controllable? Their testimony conflicted with the writings in Laura’s own diary pertaining to the daily condition of Tracy. Laura’s diary stated that Tracy was often happy and smiling, and lately she had been eating well. Tracy’s teacher described her as a happy and loving person who did not show signs of extreme and uncontrolled pain, even though she had a dislocated hip. Tracy was scheduled for surgery to repair her dislocated hip which would have alleviated the pain and discomfort she was experiencing. In fact, Robert Latimer was charged with homicide on the same day that her surgery was scheduled to happen (November 4, 1993).
Many people are under the impression that the Latimers were overly burdened and lacking in support and respite service to care for Tracy. In fact, Tracy had lived in a respite home in North Battleford from July until early October, 1993. Tracy had returned home because she was scheduled for surgery. Tracy was also at school everyday. On October 12, just twelve days before Tracy was killed, Robert Latimer was offered a permanent institutional placement for Tracy in North Battleford. He rejected the placement because he said he had ‘other plans’. At this time, he had already decided to kill Tracy.
I harp on the way Tracy’s murder is treated in the press for one simple reason: The number of murders of children with disabilities by their parents has drastically increased in Canada since the Latimer case.
December 5, 1994 – Ryan Wilkieson, 16, Cerebral Palsy, Carbon monoxide poisioning similar the Latimer murder, which was in the news at the time. Friends of Ryan’s murder, his mother, said she was distraught by the Latimer case. Murder/suicide.
May 28, 1996 – Katie Lynn Baker, 10, Rett Syndrome, starved to death. She weighed 22 pounds at her death. No charges were laid, as no one believed they could get a conviction.
November 6, 1996 – Charles-Antoine Blais, 6, autism, drowned in his bathtub by his mother. Charles-Antoine’s murderer was publically offered a job fundraising for the Autism Society of Greater Montreal, and and the head of Canada’s national autism society described her life as a total misery before Charles-Antoine’s murder. Suspended sentence.
November 21, 1996 – Andrea Halpin, 35, cognitive disabilities – shot to death by her father in a murder/suicide. He didn’t think she could live without him.
December 11, 1998 – Cory Moar, 29, cognitive disabilities – years of abuse by family members. I couldn’t find any more details after the lengthy description of the long-term injuries he sustained, because I had to throw up. You can read the inquest results in this handy PDF. Trigger warning.
May 19, 2001: Chelsea Craig, 14, Rett Syndrome, lethal dose of prescription drugs (attempted murder/suicide) Rachel Capra Craig, diagnosed with paranoid delusional disorder, later killed herself. She had been found incompetent to stand trial.
December 30, 2001 – Reece Baulne, 34, “learning difficulties”, carbon monoxide poisoning. In the suicide note that his parents wrote, they said they were killing themselves and Reece because they couldn’t care for him anymore, having been turned down for government funding.
July 12, 2004 - Jia Jia “Scarlett” Peng, 4, autism, drowned in bathtub by her mother who has been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Scarlett’s murderer was initially sentenced, but the sentence was put aside due to an error on the part of the judge. She was recently sentenced to 5 years, but was released because of “time served”.
July 31, 2004 – Ian Carmichael, 11, epilepsy and undefined “learning difficulties”, choked to death by his father who was diagnosed as having psychotic delusions as a result of side-effects from taking Paxil incorrectly. You can read David Carmichael’s webpage in which he discusses (briefly) how he murder his son (most of the page is about how Paxil made him do it). Trigger Warning.
September 25, 2004 - Charles Fariala, 36, “assisted suicide” – he first took a dose of medication and then his mother tied his hands and covered his face with a plastic bag. Wikipedia says his mother had Borderline Personality Disorder and this was a factor in her light sentence (3 years probation), but I haven’t found any other reference to her having a mental health condition, just that there were “extenuating circumstances”.
These names are part of the reason why I think Robert Latimer should always be referred to as a murderer, why I think think Tracy’s death should never be referred to as a “mercy killing”, and why I will invite Robert Latimer apologists to kindly find their way to the Globe & Mail website, since they obviously will welcome your comments far more than I will. They will not be published here.
We convict and vilify people for murdering their children all the time. Unless their children are disabled. Then, then, then, it’s “mercy killing”, and they should be defended at all costs.
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Disability and domestic violence are intersecting issues with very serious consequences. People with disabilities are more likely to experience domestic violence and we are also less likely to receive assistance. We may be afraid of reporting, we may not be believed when we do report, and when our cases do go to court, sometimes the attorneys supposedly prosecuting our abusers engage in domestic violence apologism.
A recent court case in England is a classic example of what often plays out when people with disabilities are abused and report it. Two pensioners were married for 37 years. In 2003, the wife1 experienced a stroke. Seven years later, her husband started abusing her, because he apparently decided that her disability was an ‘act.’
On May 9 at about 11am [she] was sitting at the lounge table doing some paperwork. Earlier she had put some logs on a woodburner. He came in and said was she trying to burn the house down and then hit her around the head three or four times. She grabbed the phone to call the police but he took it off her and threw it in the fire. She then left the house and tried to get in her car but he took the keys.
‘She got in anyway and locked herself inside. He then drove his car in front of hers to block it, not that she could get anywhere as she didn’t have any keys. She called the day centre and her daughter for help. After about half an hour her daughter and son arrived.’
The next day, she reported her abuse to social services, and it ended up in court. Here’s what the defense said about the husband’s actions:
‘He couldn’t get any help with her because where they live is so remote so they were stuck together and the frustrations built.’
This type of apologism comes up a lot. ‘She made me do it’ is a classic excuse used for domestic violence regardless of disability status, and with disability in particular, it’s very popular, evidently, to make claims that it was the disability that drove the abuser into becoming abusive. This naturally legitimises abuse, because while people condemn it on the surface, they secretly think things like ‘well, he was under lots of pressure’ or ‘I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a caregiver’ or ‘it must be so hard to have no help.’ Caregiver abuse becomes acceptable because, well, disability is just such a burden and it’s so hard and they didn’t get the services they needed.
Caregiver abuse doesn’t stop with cases like the one above. There have been a number of cases this year alone where caregivers have killed people and it’s reported in the media as a tragedy for the caregiver. Courts tend to return more lenient verdicts to abusers and murderers when disability is involved, because of ‘unusual circumstances.’ And people wonder why some people with disabilities are concerned about caregiver abuse. When abuse of people with disabilities is painted as something sad or hard for their families to deal with, instead of abuse of human beings, when caregivers are given lenient sentences because ‘the disability drove them to it,’ it normalises caregiver abuse.
It’s bad enough that the defense and, apparently, the court in this case thought that the husband was somehow justified in behaving abusively towards his wife because she was disabled. The prosecutor also had to join in:
That day when he told her off about the fire, she gave him cheek so he slapped her.
Where have I heard this before? Oh, only in every single reported case of domestic violence ever. Was it really necessary for the prosecutor to hop on the victim-blaming bandwagon too? When the media and defense attorneys constantly parrot lines like this, it reinforces the idea that some people just deserve domestic violence, and when the prosecution joins in, it, well, it makes me really angry.
Because, guess what? No one deserves domestic violence. No matter how much cheek or lip or sass or anything else is involved. No person deserves to be hit. No person deserves to be deprived of mobility. No person deserves to sit in court while the attorney supposedly acting in her interests suggests that, well, she kinda deserved it.
Oh, but this case gets worse.
The 68-year-old was ordered to pay £150 compensation to [her] but he told the court that, as they had a joint account, he would hand it over to her and she would simply put it back in the bank.
Economic abuse is extremely common in domestic violence situations, especially when they involve people with disabilities. The fact that this man openly admitted in court to the fact that he would do this shows me exactly how much contempt he had for the court, the law, and his own wife. And the fact that the court didn’t sit up and take notice is a sad but not surprising reminder of how often people turn their heads in the other direction in the face of domestic violence and abuse.
The victim has been relocated and, from what I understand from the article, is living independently with an aide. That’s the one bright spot here: Too often in cases like this, the victim is forced to return to the abuser.
©2015 FWD/Forward. All Rights Reserved..]]>
Even thinking about everything that’s overwhelming feels overwhelming. (And this, of course, is part of the effect of the kyriarchy – to be so overwhelming and monolithic that it forces conformity, punishes people for differences like being a PWD, and places immense pressure on them to conform as much as possible to the norm.)
So when this happens, I notice myself avoiding disability related topics. I keep posts on disability issues unread until they start building up in Google Reader. I somehow don’t get around to reading that article or book on disability activism I had bookmarked. Someone I’m around in a casual setting says the R word and I let it go by. I pass as much as possible for TAB and neurotypical – even to myself. I just ignore disability – in general and mine specifically – as much as possible.
I noticed that my avoidance started right around the time I started working on a work project related to domestic violence. Working in that area always makes me aware of how many people, predominately women, are subjected to horrifying abuse on a daily basis. In the past, I’ve had the same kind of overwhelmed/avoidance response to feminist issues, when it feels that the patriarchal structure is too entrenched and too powerful to fight.
In other words, feeling vulnerable about domestic violence and sexual assault makes me feel like I cannot risk being vulnerable about disability, so I try as hard as possible to ignore it. I know that I am doing this to protect myself. But I do not like that protecting myself means ignoring disability issues or feminism. That protecting myself means, to an extent, ignoring part of who I am. Not just in the way I present myself to the world, but even in how I think about myself in the privacy of my own head.
That makes me angry. It makes me angry that retreating into my shell is coping mechanism brought on by the infinitely-headed hydra of ableism and sexism. It makes me angry that a necessary reaction to the frustration of engaging in disability activism is to take a break from that activism and to momentarily stop identifying as a PWD. (Or as a DV survivor. Or as whatever else is making me a target for kyriarchical oppression.) Basically, I get angry that the kyriarchy works, that even my efforts to stop being hurt by it are intrinsically shaped by it. That my life is inherently a response to it. That I cannot seem to exist outside of it.
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My local paper has been abuzz with righteous taxpayer outrage over the State paying for a tattoo removal for a woman, who I’ll call JMN.
The story of JMN disrupts a number of neat stereotypical societal narratives about domestic violence, about victimhood, about killers, about the meaning of ‘healthcare’.
To go back to the beginning, at least to the beginning of the public part of the tale, JMN is a convicted murderer. She was found guilty nine years ago of murdering her “Internet lover”, MW.
According to published accounts of the trial, JMN’s husband MH, an abusive, violent gang member, found out about her relationship with MW, and “punished” her repeatedly. He violently cut off her hair, leaving her needing skin grafts to her scalp and hand. He beat her repeatedly, with fists, with pool cues, with a belt. He poured boiling water over her. He forced her to have a tattoo reading “Property of [MH's full name]“. He punched her and choked her, leaving her needing hospital treatment.
And after all of this abuse and intimidation which left her in fear for her life, he visited and threatened the lover, then ordered JMN to kill him.
JMN shot MW under her abusive husband’s orders, backed by this violent intimidation, and she was convicted of wilful murder. She has been in custody ever since, with a minimum sentence of fifteen years.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, JMN now has mental health issues. (These are not described in detail in the press, nor should they be.) She was a victim of unspeakable violence (as well as being a perpetrator under duress), and is currently seeking criminal injuries compensation – which is what has triggered off the righteous-taxpayer-indignation. Her criminal injuries compensation was initially refused, and the case is now under appeal.
But the Righteous Indignant Taxpayers haven’t stopped there. The papers are now pawing over the rather insigificant detail that the State may partly fund tattoo removal for JMN. The Department of Corrective Services has committed to paying for half the cost of the procedure, which is expected to cost only $2000.
The shadow attorney-general is outraged, he says, outraged! How dare the Precious Indignant Taxpayer be asked to fund “cosmetic surgery”! The Corrective Services Commissioner has responded in sensible and general terms, saying that he “was acutely aware he had to take into account many factors when making difficult and sensitive decisions in cases that involved complex social, psychological, cultural and physical health considerations”, and that he made a judgement call, as he does on a daily basis.
JMN is statistically at very high risk for mental health problems, self-harm, and suicide. She is incarcerated, and suicide is the leading cause of death in Australian prisoners. She has been the victim of horrific domestic violence, and victims of domestic violence are five times more likely to commit suicide than average. The Commissioner took into account psychological reports and his personal interview with JMN when making the determination that the State would fork out a grand or two to take off the tattoo she was violently forced to get, the tattoo that is reminding her constantly of her abuse and contributing to her mental health difficulties.
Let’s get a little perspective. One acute psychiatric bed-day in Western Australia costs just over $1000. The cost of this tattoo removal equates to around one weekend stay in hospital for a relatively minor psychiatric crisis. We’re not talking huge pots of cash here. We’re talking about a sum that is absolutely tiny in the scale of costs involved with healthcare and with the justice and corrections system.
We expect, as a society, to provide healthcare for prisoners. Western Australia is committed, on paper at least, to providing prisoners with the healthcare they need, including mental healthcare. The general level of care we as taxpayers have committed to equates to the level of care that people should be provided in the public healthcare system. Tattoo removal is on the proscribed “cosmetic surgery” list for State hospitals, but that list comes with one very important caveat – that the procedure should be denied State funding if there is no “clinically significant” indication.
I can’t think of any more “clinically significant” indication than a tattoo someone was forced to get at the hands of her abuser, a tattoo that is making her sick. A tattoo that reminds her around the clock of his attempts at intimidation and dehumanisation. A tattoo that states outright that she is the “property” of this violent man. A tattoo that contributes to her greatly increased risk of self-harm and suicide.
Cannot we, as fellow humans, can find enough shreds of compassion to be comfortable with spending this trivial sum on what is likely to be a cost-effective contributor to the health of someone we are, as a group, responsible for?
This case is a touchstone for a whole pile of prejudices. It makes people particular uncomfortable, I believe, because it disrupts the nice little myths that nice little Indignant Taxpayers like to indulge in. The neat little “innocent-victim” narrative of domestic violence is disrupted by the fact that this women is also a perpetrator. The neat little “evil-murderer” narrative is disrupted by the fact that she was the victim of horrendous abuse, and that she committed the killing under fear for her own life. The neat little “nasty slut” tattooed-woman narrative is disrupted by the fact that she was forced to get this tattoo in the course of her husband’s abuse. The neat little “adequate healthcare” narrative is disrupted by the fact that tattoo removal usually lies outside of what some of us might usually consider to be “healthcare”.
All of this is adding up to a situation where the Righteous Indignant Taxpayers want to wash their hands of it altogether, though it’s clear they’d rather have a set of public stocks and rotten tomatoes to throw. They shout in comments “Give her nothing but bread and water”, “Why am I responsible?”, and “This woman knew what she was marrying into – hard cheese, I’d say”. Revolting.
Australia’s National Mental Health Policy states that as a nation, our key aims in mental healthcare include the prevention of the development of mental health problems and mental illness, the reduction of impact of mental health problems, and the promotion of recovery from mental health problems. These aims apply no less to people in custody, who are at extremely high risk and have particular mental healthcare needs that are all too frequently dismissed or actively resisted by people in a society that wants nothing more than to inflict as much suffering as possible on prisoners.
There’s an interesting wider question here, which is about our definitions of healthcare, and about the fact that the determinants of health often lie outside the very narrow systems and procedures that we label “necessary healthcare”. For example, we know damn well, on a macro scale, that poverty and inequality is a more important determinant of health than doctors and nurses and public education programmes aimed toward “behavioural modification”. Could not a piece of marked skin be a more important determinant of health in a single person than all the psychologists and pills in the world?
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For women with disabilities, domestic violence is a very serious issue which is complicated by disability. It can take many forms, including insidious ones which outsiders would not necessarily recognize as domestic violence, and intervention becomes complex when you realize that many crisis and counseling centers are inaccessible. The limited resources available to able women are even more limited for disabled women.
When I worked for a domestic violence and sexual assault hotline/crisis center several years ago, one of the questions I was most commonly asked by outsiders was: “well, why don’t women just leave?” Many people are aware that the answer to this question for able women is: “it’s a complicated situation.” Take that to the power of 12 for a woman with disabilities: How can you “just walk out the door and don’t look back” when you’re a wheelchair user being kept on the inaccessible second floor and you’re dependent on your abusive partner to get out the door?
For women with disabilities, leaving an abusive relationship may mean losing a carer. It may mean losing children, because the courts are often reluctant to award custody to women with disabilities. It may mean being deprived of autonomy by people who think that people with disabilities cannot make their own decisions. It may mean institutionalization. It may also end with being forced back into that abusive relationship.
Women with disabilities who experience domestic violence can be made financially and physically dependent by their partners. Patterns of abuse can include depriving women of medication and routine care. They can include total isolation from friends and family members. They can include sexual abuse, ranging from rape to forced sterilization. They almost always involve total control and the use of coercion and threats; physical violence does not have to be present for a relationship to be abusive. They often involve deprivation from financial and social independence, including economic abuse in the form of confiscating funds which belong by rights to the disabled partner.
People with disabilities often literally lack access to domestic violence resources in their communities. They may not be aware of domestic violence services and may be unable to label what they are experiencing as domestic violence. If they attempt to report abuse, they may face disbelief, even from people like members of law enforcement who are supposed to take such reports seriously. Indeed, women with disabilities may encounter social attitudes that suggest that they actually deserve to be abused; “caregiver fatigue,” people say. “It looks abusive but it’s really not,” they also say. The abusive partner may in fact be praised by members of the community, and viewed with sympathy by people who view the disabled partner as a burden and who are not seeing the dynamic at home.
Help is increasingly available for able women in domestic violence situations. The same is not true for women with disabilities. There needs to be a greater push for accessibility in shelters. A greater push for intervention services specifically targeted at women with disabilities, including training for counselors and advocates which includes discussions of the unique axes of oppression experienced by disabled women. There needs to be a greater awareness of the fact that trans women are even more likely to experience intimate partner violence in their relationships, and that abusers often target disabled trans women. There needs to be a recognition of the fact that, for abusers, disabled women make a particularly appealing target.
Is your local domestic violence center accessible? Is it trans-inclusive? Does it focus on heterosexual relationships, or does it recognize that abuse can occur in a broad spectrum of relationships? Does it specifically offer disability services? Does it respect neurodiversity? Do representatives of disability services in your community know how to look for the signs of domestic violence and receive training in intervention? What is your community doing for disabled women experiencing domestic violence?
The feminist community at large has made domestic violence an important issue, but what is it doing for disabled women?
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