Monday, June 17, 2013

Struggling to Understand the Murder of Alex Spourdalakis

Ever since I heard the news early last week that a 14-year-old autistic boy was found dead, I've been struggling to put into words how I feel and my thoughts on the issue. I got the news in rapid succession: he was found dead, he was stabbed multiple times, his mother and godmother were found in the same room, unconscious. More digging through the news: he was stabbed four times in the chest (twice of those in the heart) and his wrist was slashed nearly to the point of taking off his hand. His mother and grandmother were under the influence of sleeping pills, having taken a non-lethal overdose. They left a three-page letter explaining that they had planned over a week to kill the boy. More news reports revealed they first tried to kill him with sleeping pills, but then went for the knife when the pills didn't appear to work. The godmother also killed the cat "for fear he would be sent to a shelter". Then they wiped the knife clean, put it back in the kitchen and took sleeping pills for themselves. The two women reportedly confessed to police that they had murdered the boy, and they have been charged with first degree murder. It also came to light that the boy's mother had filed for divorce from his father in February, with a court date set for this coming Thursday, June 20. It was the father and uncle who caused the boy to be found, after failed attempts to reach the mother and son for a well checkup.

In the months leading up to the murder, the mother, Dorothy Spourdalakis, with help from Age of Autism's Lisa J. Goes, appealed to others for help for her son, Alex. Per Goes' writings (and others), Alex had been taken to the hospital for severe gastrointestinal symptoms (constipation, diarrhea, pain) and had been held in restraints, naked. If their reports are to be believe, he was kept in the ER, strapped down, for 19 days straight. As others have pointed out, the narrative sounds like some key information is either misrepresented or missing. For example, it is highly unusual for a patient to be kept in the ER for an extended period of time. They would either be treated and discharged or they would be admitted to inpatient care. Further, use of restraints on patients is highly regulated. If Dorothy and Lisa's accounts are correct, not one, but two hospitals inappropriately used restrains (three hospitals, if you include Alex's second, more recent admission). Part of Dorothy's petition for help was to get the hospitals to provide gastrointestinal treatment, which included a colonoscopy, which was deemed unnecessary by an attending gastroenterologist that examined Alex. There is some suspicion that the procedures Alex's mother wanted for him included dubious biomed treatments. Some also suspect that she may have subjected Alex to MMS (bleach) enemas in an attempt to cure him of his autism. News outlets report that Dorothy was offered services for her son, which she rejected. Supporters claim the services would only have been admittance to a psychiatric facility and drugging Alex to keep him docile. Others think that it would more likely have been day or residential care.

Unfortunately, due to HIPAA privacy regulations, we only have one side of the story, told by Dorothy and her supporters. The hospitals cannot comment on any aspect of Alex's care without violating patient confidentiality laws, though the pending trial may reveal more information. We can't know for certain what treatment he received in hospital, nor the exact nature of the services that were offered. I'm not going to speculate on what treatment he did or did not receive, either at the hands of his mother or at the various hospitals to which he was taken. Rather, I want to focus on the murder itself and how people have reacted to it, including myself.

When I first heard about it, I was shocked and deeply saddened. A child was brutally stabbed to death, and even worse, he was disabled. That made the act even more heinous to me. The fact that his mother and grandmother had been found in the same room unconscious struck me as odd. This was before I learned of their note and subsequent confession. It was bad enough for this helpless boy to be murdered, but for the two women who were entrusted with his care and well-being to plan it out, to coldly and calculatedly drug him and mutilate him. Words fail. Last Tuesday, when I heard the news, I wanted to rail, to write out all of my feelings about how evil and despicable this was. But I didn't trust myself to not get carried away (though certainly if ever there was a topic about which to lose my cool, this is toward the top). Also, I didn't know enough about the back story to adequately discuss it.

Instead, I turned to a blogger friend who keeps her finger on the pulse of the autism community and who is amazing at bringing together extensive lists of posts and articles on a subject, Liz Ditz. What had she heard about the case? Mostly what was in the news already, but she did give me links to several posts that others had written about the murder. Kassiane expressed the anger I felt. Lexi, an autism parent, shared her feelings, noting the need for support for families, but still condemning Dorothy and Alex's godmother. Similarly, another autism parent, Jo Ashline, noted that Dorothy "is not a martyr; she is a murderer."

On the other side of things were posts more supportive of Dorothy Spourdalakis. Cheryl Bailey focuses on the difficulty of raising a child with autism who is big and prone to violence, the fight for whatever treatment it was Dorothy sought, and blames vaccines and the medical community for this tragedy. As part of the back story, we have Lisa Goes' account essentially saying that Alex's mother was forced to comply with standard medical care.

What I noticed about the narratives I read were that those who are part of the fringe autism-biomed movement (Age of Autism, Gaia Health, and the like) tended to focus on the difficulty of caring for a child with severe autism. There tended to be sympathy for Dorothy, almost justification for the murder because autism is "so difficult". The greater autism community, though, including other autism parents who do not blame autism on vaccines or "Big Pharma" focused on Alex, on the fact that he was murdered by those who were supposed to care for him. Among this latter group, there is little sympathy for Dorothy. Autism, no matter how difficult, is no excuse for murder.

I count myself among those who see this as a horrendous act committed by a depraved and vile individual. Yes, Dorothy, in my eyes, is a monster of a person. Nothing excuses what she did. While I, personally, do not have an autistic child, I and friends have worked with children who were on the more severe end of the spectrum. They were strong. When upset, they were prone to violent outbursts that could harm themselves or others. But they also exhibited joy. They played. They smiled. They laughed. Alex was no exception to this:

Photo Credit: Unknown. Found at SIDAutism.
Alex had potential. There were other options for him. His father could have cared for him. He could have received residential care or respite support. He had a life ahead of him, and his mother and godmother cut that short.

A mother killed her child. The media have largely focused on "how difficult" autism can be. They repeatedly note that Alex was big and strong, that he could be violent. That's a gross disservice to Alex. It smacks of blaming the victim and, at least in part, exonerating his murderers. If his autism played any role, it was to make his murder even more deplorable. A child is vulnerable. A disabled child more so.

That focus on the difficulties and challenges that autism can occasionally pose only excuses abuse. "It's so hard! I just lost it." That's no reason to harm a child. The disturbing part of all of this is that those among the autism-biomed movement, those who blame vaccines and the medical community for autism, so easily fall back to this argument.

One Age of Autism commenter, Martha Moyer says we can't judge Dorothy unless we've been in her shoes:
You all have no idea the stress we people go through who have individuals with bowel issues. Fortunately, I found what worked and saved the life of my son. But the tortuous pain he was going through and the horrible outbursts with him even harming me and ruining everything in the house because he couldn't control himself. I hope you never...never...never face what I faced. My younger son was falling apart with mental health issues due to the family anguish. My younger son had to go and live with a friend while I battled the system to help me and I finally won and I finally got the treatment procedure because I just happened to see an ad for the device in a disability magazine. Don't blame until you've been in their shoes! We must help people when they need help. That goes for so many recent things that happened such as the mom we read about whose son killed her and he had autism.
I'm sorry, but no. I do not need to be in her shoes to judge her. Nothing excuses her murdering her child!

Birgit Calhoun places the blame everywhere but on Dorothy and Jolanta Agatha Skrodzka, the godmother:
So, where was the father all the time when this young man should have been protected from himself? The mugshot of the women say it all. There was no help, and the rest of society points a finger and says look at this awful crime. What have we come to to sensationalize a mother's end of the rope. Shame! Shame! shame!
Birgit, the husband was estranged. Dorothy filed to divorce him and apparently got custody in the meantime. He was the one who called police when he couldn't contact his soon-to-be ex-wife to see how his son was doing. And yes, there was help. Dorothy refused it. I agree that this should not be sensationalized, but at the same time, place the blame where it belongs.

On the Facebook page "What do you think about the treatment of Alex Spourdalakis", one author asks "what any of us are capable of if driven to the extremes?":

One commenter on Lisa Goes' Facebook page blamed "the system":

Perhaps one of the most disturbing comments I came across, though, was posted on the What do you think about the treatment of Alex Spourdalakis page:

Maybe I'm reading it wrong. Maybe the "you" in this post is referring to Alex, but I can't help by think the author is writing about Dorothy, that Alex's mother sins are forgiven. If that is the case, it's a bit chilling to think that someone excuses the murder in this manner.

Thankfully, not all members of Age of Autism excuse Dorothy for murdering her son. Dana comments:
Alex had a right to live. He was murdered in the most base and painful way imaginable by the person he trusted most. Alex is the core of this story, not his mother. We spend so much time lamenting the plight of the poor parents that we forget that a PERSON was murdered. That person had a name: Alex.
I have to give the editors kudos for being decent enough to let comments like this through. Even Twyla, a regular critic of vaccines, expresses disbelief and horror at what these women did.

Just about everyone agrees that this was horrible and should not have happened. Everyone is horrified and saddened by Alex's death. But while some rightly place the blame on Dorothy Spourdalakis and Jolanta Agatha Skrodzka, who, recall, planned for over a week to murder Alex in cold blood, others seem to take the position of "oh, poor dear, she had it so rough", excusing her and instead blaming vaccines, the medical establishment, anyone they feel does not care about them. They are angry, but they are also wrong.

As time has passed, I've been able to take a small step back. I still feel incredibly angry, horrified, sad, helpless when I think about the story. I did not know Alex, but I find myself wishing I had. I did not know his mother, and I cannot help but be, in some way, glad that I didn't. That may not seem fair to some people, but it's how I feel.

I'm not a psychologist. I'm not going to speculate about Dorothy and Jolanta's state of mind in the week leading up to their slaying of Alex. I think it is premature and irresponsible to assume they were "crazy" or that they had "snapped". Dorothy and Jolanta should be held accountable for their actions. They killed a child. Whether he was easy or difficult should not be a factor in deciding whether they were guilty or not; it should not be a factor in deciding their sentence. Some might say that's not fair, but imagine for a moment that Alex did not have autism, that he was neurotypical. If he still presented a challenge to his mother and godmother, would his behavior make it more understandable or more acceptable that they killed him? I don't think so, and to say that it's understandable because he has autism and is difficult, but not understandable if he did not have autism and was difficult, that smacks of ablism.

And it's that sentiment that scares me. We often see the anti-vaccine parents of autistic children describe their children as "broken", as "damaged". They seem more accepting of having an unvaccinated child at risk of dying from a preventable disease than of having a child living with autism. There is a dehumanizing element that makes it easier to engage in deplorable actions. Autistic individuals, no matter where they are on the spectrum, are people. They have hopes and dreams, they have potential, personalities, worth. Nothing justified snuffing that out.

Keep that in mind as this case unfolds.

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