Florida leads nation in disabled Americans ‘murdered’ by family, caregivers; media coverage ‘killer centered’

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A recent study carried out by an organization advocating for the rights of disabled people found that Florida was at the top of a list over a four-year period in which 21 mentally- or physically-challenged persons died as a result of their caregivers’ neglect or malice.

One of the reasons Florida led the nation was because of its Sunshine Law, said Kristina Kopić, who spoke by telephone Friday from Newtown, Massachusetts. She was one of the contributing authors of the report.

“Florida’s media has more permissive access to government databases and information, so there is more reporting on these issues,” she said.

But, she cautioned, 21 was a low figure and didn’t truly reflect the number of disabled people killed in the Sunshine State.

“It is an undercount by all means,” Kopić said. “We only looked at those disabled people who were killed and covered by the media. We did not look for death certificates across the state, so it does not include many others presumably.”

The 43-page report, titled ‘Media Coverage of Murders of People with Disabilities by their Caregivers,’ examined the deaths of 260 people with a wide range of disabilities – requiring  some form of help in their daily lives – from January 2011 to December 2015, according to The Ruderman Family Foundation, Kopić ‘s employer – a Jewish-community focused nonprofit dedicated to integrating those who are challenged into regular society.

Of those, “219 were killed by parents and caregivers,” claimed the foundation, which is based in Newtown, Massachusetts, and does not accept unsolicited proposals, according to its website.

Dubbed a “white paper” by the group, the study’s theme is a critique of the mainstream media for shining the spotlight on the perpetrators of such crimes.

“Journalists, consciously or unconsciously, often write stories that build sympathy for the murderer and the circumstances that led them to their crime, while the person with a disability is erased from the story,” the report stated. “The killers routinely claim ‘hardship’ as a justification for their acts (and) the media rarely questions such claims or asks for comment from disability rights organizations, and especially not from people with disabilities themselves.”

Further, the analysis read, “Spreading the hardship narrative may lead to more violence, rather than changing policy around supports. … Many killers receive little to no prison time. In such cases, perceptions of disability as suffering inform judicial decisions not to punish murder.”

However, it was not immediately clear how their claims were verified regarding the hardship narrative leading to increased homicides among the disabled or that judiciary reasoning favored caregivers.

The foundation did cite a U.S. Dept. of Justice report from 2014 that found people with disabilities were at a higher risk of victimization, sometimes through violence, during the study’s research period from 2009 to 2012.

The study equated so-called “mercy killings” with violent murders but excluded assisted-suicide cases.

“This (study) was not about people in hospitals,” Kopić, the co-author of the report, said. “These were cases involving manslaughter and homicide.

The foundation’s research included several case studies, including one from Chicago, in which Alex Spourdalakis, 14, and was autistic, was killed by his mother and grandmother. They were eventually freed after just three years, as reported by ABC 7 Chicago-affiliate TV station. Among their ongoing coverage, the same station had aired a report on Alex approximately two years before.

The study quoted Channel 7 to support their viewpoint: “The judge sentenced them to time served. The women got credit for the three years they’ve spent at the Cook County Jail, which is why they were released. Spourdalakis, who said she struggled to care for her son, walked out of prison a free woman. Despite spending three years at Cook County Jail, she had to come to Logan Correctional Facility in downstate Lincoln, Illinois, to be processed for her release. She declined to speak to reporters as she left. … Spourdalakis and her son were featured in a film about the family’s struggle by an autism activist group. She said she needed help, but none was available. … Initially, they were charged with first-degree murder, but the State’s Attorney reduced the charge. Their attorneys said the two women feel an immense amount of guilt they will have to live with.”

But the Ruderman Family Foundation’s perspective on this case was firm.

“No media report should simply voice the denials and excuses of two killers who murdered an autistic child in their care without, at least, providing some context and counter views,” the foundation said.

FloridaPolitics.com reached out to Channel 7’s public relations department Friday, but a message was not immediately returned.

A comprehensive breakdown of cases and the charges involved in each killing can be found in a spreadsheet here.

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Les Neuhaus is an all-platform journalist, with specialties in print reporting and writing. In addition to Florida Politics, he freelances as a general-assignment and breaking-news reporter for most of the major national daily newspapers, along with a host of digital media, and a human rights group. A former foreign correspondent across Africa and Asia, including the Middle East, Les covered a multitude of high-profile events in chronically-unstable nations. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, in which he served as a Security Policeman, and graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in political science. He is a proud father to his daughter and enjoys spending time with his family.