No Mystery Here: Call a Murderer a Murderer

On March 10 in Ohio, Barbara Busch fatally shot her developmentally disabled daughter before turning the gun on herself.

“She couldn’t handle it any more,” Fairfield Township Police Chief Matthew Fruchey told news outlets about Busch’s mental state.

Over the course of several days, the media painted a portrait of a mother “depressed” and “overwhelmed” given the level of care required for her daughter, Cynthia.

“People do get to their breaking point, and get to the point where they just, they feel there’s no other alternative for them. It’s a sad outcome,” Fruchey said told local news.

It is a sad outcome, but not an uncommon one.

In the past five years, over 180 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have been killed by their family members or caretakers, according to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

If the media decides to cover the murder of a person with a disability, they often focus on the plight of the parent and the challenges of raising a child with a disability, as is seen in the case of Jillian McCabe after she threw her 6-year-old son with autism, London, off the Yaquina Bay Bridge in Oregon in 2014.

Yet, when Gabriel Fernandez, a neurotypical child, was brutally tortured and murdered at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend, media coverage of the couple and their abuse was straightforward and graphic; and lacked any biased language seeking to explain the parents’ behavior.

The ugly truth is, in the eyes of the media and society, the disability is the murderer. The disability is the reason we can explain away the value of someone’s life.

Even worse is when the murder of a person with a disability is reported as a “mercy killing,” as was the case of a mother who smothered her three disabled toddlers to death in England.

Disability advocates pointed out that it was not just the media in this case, but also the courts who littered the trial with the term “mercy killing,” most likely influencing the lesser charge of manslaughter for the mother in question.

“Mercy killing” implies and perpetuates that belief that it is better to be dead rather than disabled and that the parent is bringing relief to their child – relief that the child never asked for, or, perhaps, even considered they needed.

Gabriel Fernandez’s tragic death resulted in massive public outcry, especially because Gabriel had been documented in the child welfare system. People asked, “How did this child fall through the cracks? Where was the intervention? Where did we go wrong?” The public demanded reform.

And reform they are getting. A blue ribbon commission was formed in Los Angeles County, shortly after the investigation of Gabriel’s death began. Drastic changes for L.A. County’s Department of Children and Family Services have already begun to be implemented in the years since the Gabriel’s death. Four social workers involved have been charged with felony child abuse and falsifying public records, and the case against Gabriel’s mother and her boyfriend continues to unfold. The district attorney is seeking the death penalty.

Many of these children with disabilities are also reported in different government agency systems including disability services and child welfare. But the public outcry for the deaths of Jude Mirra, age eight, Dustin Hicks, age six, or Helious Griffith, age five, is non-existent. No one is asking if there was a lack of services, lack of intervention, or what we, as a society, can do better to preserve these lives.

This is not to say that Gabriel’s death received too much coverage, was overblown or was undeserving. Gabriel’s death was a horrific tragedy that needed to be known. Reform was absolutely mandatory to prevent something like this from ever happening again.

But Gabriel’s story is known. People cried. People cared. Change is being made.

There are another 180 stories that are relatively unknown and they definitely have not resulted in societal introspection that reform must be done – reform that does not necessarily begin with more services, but merely acknowledgement.

The media reports on the struggle for parents, but what about the stories of the victims’ themselves? Who were they as people?

Maybe they loved stuffed animals or eating macaroni and cheese. Perhaps “Goodnight Moon” was their favorite bedtime story and each morning they rushed to give their neurotypical sister a kiss to wake her. We don’t know these details. They weren’t reported. In hearing how their parent was suffering we forgot that a human, with feelings and loves like any other person, was lost.

Hear their voices. Call a murderer a murderer, not an angel of mercy. Demand reform. 180 voices beg of you.

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Victoria Rocha is a candidate for a Master of Public Administration degree at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. She wrote this article while taking the school’s Media for Policy Change course.

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Journalism for Social Change (J4SC), a program of Fostering Media Connections (FMC), is a graduate-level training program for students of journalism, public policy and social work, which teaches them how to use journalism as an implement of social change.