Common Homicide: Killing of People with Cerebral Palsy

By Dick Sobsey, University of Alberta

(12 May 2000) — Research demonstrates that people with disabilities are much more likely to be victims of violence than other people are. One study, for example, published in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine & Pathology found that twenty five per cent of people with cerebral palsy who underwent autopsy had been murdered. Although the sample is small the results are alarming.

Current research at the University of Alberta is examining the relationship between homicide and developmental disabilities.

The following is a preliminary report based on 191 cases of homicidal events involving victims with cerebral palsy. A complete report on 1094 cases involving victims with a variety of developmental disabilities will be released later this year. The homicides of people with cerebral palsy occurred between 1976 and 1999 in a variety of countries, including 16 cases in Canada. The average age of the victims was 15. Almost two-thirds (66.5%) per cent were under 18. Most (57 percent) were male, possibly reflecting the fact that some types of cerebral palsy are more common among males than females.

The most common form of homicidal event was starvation. It accounted for 21.6 percent of cases. Other frequent events included beating or shaking (14.4 per cent), shooting (10.8 per cent), suffocation or gassing (9.6 per cent), burning or scalding (9.0 per cent), poisoning or drug overdose (7.2 per cent), and stabbing (6.0 per cent). Additional events included deliberate injury with a motor vehicle, deliberate infection, and dropping from a high place. In 7.7 per cent of cases the actual cause of death was undetermined or unknown to the researchers.

Family members were implicated in the majority (63.2 percent) of these homicides. Other acquaintances were implicated in 24.2 per cent of cases. Strangers were implicated in 7.6 per cent of cases, and no suspects were clearly identified in an additional 4.5 per cent of cases. Among family members implicated, parents constituted 79.8 percent while a variety of others made of the remainder. Paid or volunteer service providers made up 56.3 per cent of acquaintances. When only homicides of children and adolescents 17 and younger were considered, 81.6 per cent of those implicated were family members, and 87.3 per cent of these were parents.

A wide range of motivational factors appeared to be connected to these homicides. Some cases appeared to involve simple neglect or elimination of a caregiving responsibility. Some involved a belief that the homicide would go unnoticed or unpunished or a belief that killing someone with a disability is a less serious offense because that person is already "damaged merchandise." One mother, for example, described simply not getting help for her daughter's pneumonia, knowing that her daughter would die of respiratory complications and such a death would be considered "normal" for a child with multiple disabilities.

Some cases involved displaced anger or perpetrator psychopathology. For example, one father dropped his child from a twelfth-story window of a hospital in apparent anger because he felt the hospital was not providing adequate treatment. Some cases involved financial gain, while others were sex crimes or apparent thrill killings. Some homicides were committed to hide other offenses. In some cases, the perpetrator did not intend to kill the victim, but the victim's disability made him or her vulnerable. For example, one victim was unable to escape from a fire set by an arsonist.

In many cases, these homicides were not prosecuted or perpetrators were given unusually light sentences. While light sentencing often involves perpetrators who claim that they thought the victim was better off dead or that they just snapped under the strain of caregiving, it also has been applied to cases that are difficult or impossible for anyone to rationalize in this manner. For example, foster parents who burned a young woman to death after buying a $100,000 insurance policy on her life were each given indeterminate sentences with a minimum of 1 year in jail.

People with cerebral palsy are among the most frequent and are sometimes among the most vulnerable victims of crime. They are often killed by their own family members and others close to them. Their lives deserve and require equal protection of the law, not special exemptions for the people who kill them.

Dick Sobsey,
Director, JP Das Developmental Disabilities Centre
University of Alberta
6-123 Education North
Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2G5
Phone: (780) 492-3755 fax: (780) 492-1318