The Irving Tragedy

Posted: July 24th, 2010 under disability issues, opinion, parenting, politics.
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A woman in Irving, Texas killed her two autistic children, then called the police and turned herself in, saying she didn’t want them to live like that.
The story, and the reactions to it (both here and the Star Telegram: reveals a lot–but not enough–about the woman, her situation, the state’s social services, and the attitude of the public towards women who kill family members, including children, v. men who kill family members, including children.

Of course, the killing of the children was horrific act, carried out brutally.  I’m not denying that.

But is this a woman who casually killed her children because they were autistic?    Just an evil, evil woman who has no reason for killing her children other than selfishness and cruelty?    The reaction of the press, law enforcement, and the public (the public who don’t have autistic children) seems to be that she’s 100% wicked and there are no extenuating circumstances.  She should be killed off.  It is almost certain that she will be indicted, tried, and convicted of the capital murder charges already brought against her, and very likely that she will be executed.

It’s instructive to note that men who kill family members are rarely vilified in the same way as women who do so, and this is true even with men who kill small children; they are often prosecuted for lesser offenses (not murder) while women who kill a child are invariably prosecuted for murder.   (In the neighboring county, a man who killed an infant was charged with “injury to a child” and not murder;  an underage female babysitter was charged with murder for essentially the same action.)  A man killing an estranged wife/girlfriend and their children is not that uncommon–men have shot them, strangled, them, set fire to the house to burn them alive, etc.  Yet this very rarely causes the kind of public outrage that a woman killing a child does.    Had this woman’s husband killed her and the children, and then said he did it because he didn’t want his children to grow up disabled and miserable,  the tone of the reporting, and the reaction of the public, would have been different.   (In fact, when a man killed his disabled child, on those grounds, there was a lot of sympathy expressed for him–he was wrong, but people could understand his anguish over the future of that child.)

How could a mother possibly kill her children?    How a mother comes to that point varies, but ignorance, poverty, hopelessness, and poverty are often involved.  The ignorant, poor, and mentally ill (including depression from stress in that last) all have diminished capacity to think of, or arrange, alternatives to a situation.  They cannot see more than one or two ways (one of them being death) to change an intolerable circumstance.  The ignorant simply don’t know enough; the poor don’t have resources enough; the mentally ill can’t think well enough.  From what we know about this case, this woman could have been affected by all three.

And the alternatives that we might think of (and some have mentioned), like seeking help from CPS, are often not real alternatives in real circumstances–they are how things are *supposed* to work, but not how they really work.  CPS in Texas is an under-funded, over-loaded, agency in a state where the governor and legislature and much of the state’s judicial system are actively hostile to people in need and distrust and dislike CPS for “interfering with families.)    Its main concern is butt-covering:  children in Texas die (not just these) because CPS lacks the resources to check up on children considered at risk–not enough social workers, not enough money, not enough time per client–and because judges favor “keeping the family together” over protecting children, and because the foster-care system is also underfunded and overloaded, especially for kids with disabilities.   CPS workers are under attack from all sides (“interfering with families” by investigating, and the horror stories that eventually come out when they don’t.)

Realistic alternatives take money, and Texas does not fund basic services at a level sufficient for normal kids, let alone kids with special needs.  Unless parents have the  knowledge and resources to cope by themselves,they and their kids are SOL.  (I posted on LiveJournal about Texas and social services, and then  talking about autism )

Family, friends, and one’s faith community, if any, are similarly limited in what they can and will do.  Most parents of autists have experienced disapproval and rejection by some if not all family members (happened to us, too) and friends (ditto.)  If you come out of it with a few good friends, you’re lucky (we were lucky.  But I also lost friends who could not or would not accept M’s diagnosis or how we handled it.)  Faith communities often have explanations for a child’s behavior that a) are wrong (some refuse to “believe in” autism and insist it’s just bad parenting)  and b) result in the condemnation of parents and the rejection of a child with autism.  This is not limited to one religion.  In talking to parents of autists, I’ve seen this in three major religions and several fringe groups.  We experienced it in several congregations before finding a church home for our son.

Autism in the family also causes social  isolation–it is difficult if not impossible (impossible at some stages) to do the “normal” family things because either the child can’t handle it, or the outside world can’t tolerate the child.  Parents as well as the child face constant negative pressure from society.  It’s hard to make new friends,  go out to eat, to community events, etc. , when everywhere you go, you can expect to be stopped and questioned and lectured about your child’s behavior.

From various news reports, we know that this woman ‘s husband died within the past two years.  Death of a spouse is a major cause of stress (even without children, but more with children, disabled or not) and the grief process impairs clear thinking.  We know she had lost her house to foreclosure, another major cause of stress, and a greater one when you try to move autistic children (for whom transitions and change are very difficult)  into an apartment.  She had been investigated at work (major cause of stress: criminal investigation, whether guilty or not), she had been investigated by CPS for alleged neglect/abuse (major cause of stress: investigation by government agency.)    Two-parent families with multiple autistic children find it difficult–a widow could easily be overwhelmed (autistic children require much more from parents than non-autistic children.)

There is no evidence that she had the resources–financial, educational, social–to provide what she needed and what her children needed. There is no evidence that she had any support system in place–that she had family or friends who were helping out financially and with child care, that she had a supportive faith community providing her with emotional, spiritual, financial, or social support.

If you wanted to create a situation in which a parent might see no hope of help in any direction, no alternatives to killing her children…you’re looking at it.   And if you’re convinced “there was help if she’d only asked for it”–prove it.  Go talk to other single parents of autistic kids, those who don’t have college degrees, those whose jobs have disappeared in the current recession, and see just how much help they’re getting, and how desperate they feel.  (Some of them have posted on my LiveJournal entries.)

It is a tragedy that those two youngsters died as they did.  It is a greater tragedy that their mother felt she had no alternative…that this society, in Texas and elsewhere, is willing to let parents of disabled kids struggle alone, without help or hope, as if they were undeserving criminals who needed to be punished for having an “imperfect” child.


  • Comment by Kerry (aka Trouble) — July 25, 2010 @ 7:48 am


    Wow. I was feeling overwhelmed yesterday (off and on all day) after reading your LJ, but got over myself REAL fast reading this today.
    I DO get (some) services from my state (IL) and while I am a single parent, my extended family is at least mostly supportive (my BIL doesn’t *quite* get it) and I get by from day to day because that’s what needs to happen.

    The kidlet is starting high school next month – where DOES the time go?

  • Comment by Elizabeth — July 25, 2010 @ 8:00 am


    I’m convinced that “parent time” has only two speeds: too fast and too slow, and they can occur on the same day. Contemplating your kidlet’s progress, and the world’s expectations of development…it creates a weird sort of time-warp in both directions at once.

    I’m so glad you’ve got supportive family. It makes a huge difference.

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