Dear Members of the Media,
My name is Zita and I am a mother. I have two beautiful children, my son Sam who is almost-four and my daughter Charlize who is 14 months.
I want to talk to you about Sam.
Sam is a beautiful boy. He has curly blonde hair and big, soulful blue eyes. He loves to swim. He loves to play in parks, especially on the swings and on the slides. He loves trains, and carebears, and puzzles, and building blocks, and music. He laughs- a lot- the kind of big, boisterous laughing characteristic of a four year-old boy. He is learning to read and write and can even spell out his name with puzzle pieces. He adores being outside, and happily takes long walks to commute with nature. He is extraordinary.
And today, you put his life at risk.
Yes, members of the media. You are endangering my son's life.
How, you ask?
Well, aside from being a loving, affectionate child who is full of life and joy, Sam also happens to be Autistic. So "severely autistic that he [can] not speak" (to quote this article from The Province).
Sam's world can be a very intense place to live in. Bright lights, loud sounds, crowded spaces, and strong smells can all lead to very strong reactions in his body. These sensory differences, along with his significant communication challenges, can sometimes create barriers to socializing in a way that is expected and deemed 'typical' for his age. He loves things intensely- some would even describe this as obsessively- and feels just as strongly about the things he dislikes. Sam's world is a complex tapestry of extremes, battling it out with each other.
Sam is, at this time, unable to use any words, signs or alternative communication with consistency or regularity, and communicates exclusively through his body and his behaviour. He has repetitive stereotyped behaviours that he uses to calm his extremely sensitive sensory system, and generally maintains a very happy, calm demeanour.
But sometimes, as we are all prone to doing, Sam gets frustrated.
And sometimes, this means that he has very intense and physical manifestations of his frustrations.
There are many reasons why Sam gets frustrated. Some are related to his Autism and some are not. But without adequate alternatives for expressing himself, Sam is left with little option but to express his feelings in the only way that he is able to do so. To some, this may be perceived as aggression. It may even be perceived to be "violent and out of control" (to quote this article from Global News Vancouver). But violence, by its very nature, insinuates an intention to do harm.
Sammie has no intention of doing harm. To him, his physicality is the only form of communication that is currently within his control. This is typical for many Autistic people.
But he is not "suffering from Autism".
He is a happy, loving and well-adjusted Autistic boy. And the only thing that he suffers from is an extraordinary amount of misinformation, propaganda, and dehumanization at the hands of our society.
And, at the hands of you- members of the media- by virtue of being the primary agents for the proliferation of these stereotypes, propagated under the guise of "news".
Today, I learned of another death in our Autism community. The death of a child at the hands of his "loving" mother.
The murder of a child. Sadly, he is not the first, but his story hit me on a deeply personal level.
His name was Robert Robinson. He was "a big 16 year old", non-speaking Autistic child, and he loved the outdoors. He felt calm and free when walking beside the ocean.
Sam loves the outdoors too...
I would love to tell you more about Robert...really, I would. But I can't.
Because you didn't tell me about who Robert was. All you told me was how difficult he was for his "100 pound, shy, loving mother" to manage.
All you told me was about how his existence was a 'burden'; how he made his family, especially his poor mother, feel overwhelmed; how his death was the result of deficiencies in the 'system'.
Yes, members of the media, you told a story. And in doing so, whether intentionally or not, you propagated the same lie that you have been telling for hundreds of years: That disabled people's right to life is solely dependent on whether or not abled people are willing to grant it.
You see, in your stories, you miss the point: A child was brutally murdered by their parent.
There can be no excuses for this. There can be no sympathy or compromise. There can be no justification that allows for parents to take the lives of their children- the most vulnerable members in our society.
You are spreading a lie when you say that the 'system' failed Robert.
His mother failed him.
His mother systematically planned out and executed his murder.
And then she executed herself, unwilling to live with the consequences of her heinous crime.
You called her 'loving'. You said she was a 'victim'.
Your headlines spoke of her.
"Prince Rupert mom left suicide note saying she could no longer care for severely autistic son."
"Distraught woman killed autistic son then took her own life"
"Prince Rupert family's ordeal ends in tragedy"
"Tragic deaths in Prince Rupert avoidable"
No where in your headlines do we read the word "murder".
Nowhere do we see "Disabled, vulnerable child executed by the one person in the world who was supposed to protect him."
In fact, throughout almost every article, Robert's death is treated as a side-line item, an almost inconsequential aspect of the story. The real story that you are telling is of a 'system' that failed a mother in need- so gravely overwhelmed by her violent, 'unmanageable' son.
And, in doing so, implicitly, you are blaming Robert for his own death. After all, if he had only been easier to manage, this would never have happened.
And while there are certainly questions that need to be asked of the system, not once do you ask what the government is going to do to protect vulnerable children from their 'potentially-murderous' parents- because we know that to imply that all parents are capable of killing children is wrong (Edited to add: implying that all parents of special needs children, if they aren't given the right amount of 'supports' are capable of murdering their children is equally wrong which is another significant issue with the language in these types of articles.)
Not once do you ask what sort of non-violent crisis intervention parents are required to take, despite knowing that the biggest risk of violence towards children is at the hands of their caregivers.
Not once do you examine the need for complete access to family and child counselling services that is free of any economic and/or social barrier.
Not once did you comment on the need to ensure that disabled children are in environments where they are not placed at further risk.
Instead, you are busily portraying the caregiver as the victim, instead of the perpetrator.
Why is that?
I don't know.
Maybe that's the kind of story that will sell newspapers. Or maybe it's just that you have an incredibly difficult time understanding how any caregiver who has a severely disabled son could ever refrain from attempting to kill them.
Either way, here's what I know:
You, members of the media, have a social responsibility. As the ones charged with bringing the world its news, you must be accountable for the information that you are disseminating. And, as such, you have a responsibility to be accountable for the consequences of these stories.
The story you told when Robert Robinson died is one that reenforces that a disabled child's right to life is proportionate to the amount of government services a family receives. That it should be up to the government to ensure that these children are not killed, instead of up to the parents who should be charged with keeping them alive, at the very least. That Robert Robinson was murdered by the state, and not by his own mother.
You have devalued his life down to a dollar figure, and in doing so, you have also devalued my child's life as well. You have painted me out as a victim of the overwhelming burden my child places on my life, instead of as a mother who has the legal, ethical and moral responsibility to provide him with the a life in which he can thrive.
You have placed his life at risk by telling society that violence towards him is understandable. This is a message that is being heard by his peers, his teachers, and every single human being he will have contact with.
When you blame the victim- when you call into question whether their behaviour was an understandable reason for the violence committed against them- you are tacitly exonerating the perpetrator. This is as true for the murder of disabled people as it is for rape, hate crimes, or any other crime against one's person.
When you normalize violence towards disabled people, you tell others that it is ok to do harm to my son. And while his father and I will never harm him, we are- sadly- not the only people who would have the power to do so. He will have other caregivers throughout his life. We will not always be there to protect him.
I am begging you to consider this the next time a child dies at the hand of their caregivers. I am begging you to tell the child's story, to see the world through their eyes, to understand their vulnerability, to care about their humanity.
Robert Robinson was 16.
Sam will be 16 one day.
He was a big, strong teenaged boy.
Sam is big and strong already. He will surely become bigger and stronger with every passing day.
He loved nature and the ocean.
Sam loves nature and the ocean.
He was non-speaking.
Sam is non-speaking.
He was like my child.
And he was murdered because of it.
|Robert Robinson, age 16. You will not be forgotten. RIP <3|
That is the story you need to tell in order to save lives.
A heartbroken and terrified mother.
It should be noted that, at this time, Sam has received the following services from the Alberta government: Early Invention, in which a caregiver came to our home to teach us how to better meet his communication needs, and an early-learning program unit funding that has allowed his to attend a special needs preschool every morning. We have not received any additional services or financial supports for Sam, though these are being made available to us in the near future and will include funding for family coaching in speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and behavioural support, as well as some limited funding for respite care. For further information on the supports available to families caring for children with disabilities in Alberta, please visit the Human Services Ministry page.