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Colorado Quarterly Magazine 

"Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities"

 

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Disabled Children Deserve Justice


By Laura Hershey

Tracy Latimer. Parwin Husan. Levi Boothe. Courtney Bovee.

Do these names sound familiar? Probably not as familiar as Danielle Van Damme, Samantha Runnion, and JonBenet Ramsey, who have been all over the news, small tragic figures mourned by a nation.

All of these are the names of children who were murdered. The first group of names differs from the second group in two principal ways. First, the children in the first group all have significant disabilities; and second, they were all killed by their own parents.

Since they were mentioned only fleetingly in the news media, let me introduce you briefly to the four children who were victims of their parents’ violence.

Tracy Latimer of Saskatchewan, Canada, had cerebral palsy, causing significant mobility and communication disabilities. She enjoyed school, especially music and aquatics, and was well liked by her teachers and peers. At the age of 12, Tracy was gassed to death by her father.

Parwin Husan was a 9-year-old deaf and blind girl in Chicago who was tied to a radiator by her parents one evening while the couple went out. In an attempt to escape, she climbed through a window and fell 30 feet to the pavement below. She died the next day.

Levi Boothe was an 11-year-old Kansas boy with autism whose father allegedly stabbed him repeatedly with needle-nosed pliers, then dragged him to the side of a highway where he was run over by a car.

Courtney Bovee is the most recent victim. Like Tracy Latimer, Courtney had cerebral palsy, and was reportedly happy and fun to be around. She loved riding horses, baking chocolate chip cookies, and watching the movie The Lion King. Courtney was 15 years old, and lived in Glenwood Springs, Colorado — until earlier this month, when her father shot and killed her, and then killed himself.

Even more frightening than the murders themselves, to me, were the public reactions to them. Each of these crimes was met with an outpouring of sympathy — not for the victims, but for their killers. In news reports about the Bovee murder-suicide, friends and family members and reporters, referred to Michael Bovee as a “loving and devoted father.” The implication was that he had been done in by the terrible pressures of raising a disabled child and, understandably, had lashed out at that child, the source of his troubles. The local minister told his congregation that Courtney is happy now, because she can sing and dance and smile. Never mind that many of Courtney’s acquaintances described her as smiling frequently. The point here is that Courtney is thought to be better off dead than disabled.

Perhaps in Michael Bovee’s twisted mind, that made some kind of sense. After all, every killer has a reason for killing, however irrational or malicious it may be. I can’t pretend to understand the minds or the motives of anyone who commits a heinous crime, but it’s clear from news reports that the children’s disabilities were a factor in all of these murders. Because of this, too many people are blaming the violence on the children’s conditions, or even on the children themselves, rather than on the killers.

During the same week that the Bovee murder-suicide was being reported, two other stories were getting much more prominent headlines. Danielle Van Damme’s killer received a death sentence, and Madelyne Toogood was videotaped beating her daughter in a store parking lot. Both of these incidents elicited the public’s sympathy and protectiveness toward the child victims, and outrage toward the adult perpetrators — reactions very different from the response to Courtney Bovee’s death. In her case, I heard  many people insist on compassion for the murderous parent. These same people seem to feel little for Courtney, except a resigned sadness. Many seemed more saddened by her life as a disabled girl, than by her violent death.

The same thing happened in the Latimer case in Canada, back in 1996. Throughout Canada, people called for mercy for Robert Latimer who, they said, killed his daughter out of love. What kind of twisted notion of love could lead to such rejection, such brutality?

The question keeping me awake nights is: Why are so many ordinary citizens ready to jump on the bandwagon of “understanding” crimes like these, where the victims are disabled?

All of these children had serious physical problems, but they also had the capacity for joy, and the potential to grow up into strong adults with disabilities. Instead, they endured the horror of watching their own parents come at them with a violent fury, a determination to annihilate them. That was the last experience of their lives. And then, all their possibilities were extinguished.

It’s too late to save these murdered children. But perhaps it’s not to late to advocate some kind of justice for them.

First, we should remember them accurately — as whole human beings, not as stunted pathetic mistakes. We shouldn’t accept the news media’s tendency to over-dramatize their disabilities, and to infantilize them. Courtney Bovee, frequently referred to as “little Courtney,” was in fact 15 — a young adult. I can’t help wondering whether her developing womanhood somehow threatened her father, as well as those who have condoned his crime.

Second, we should work to prevent future murders of disabled children, teenagers and adults. We can start by calling them what they are – hate crimes. We should attack and transform the negative attitudes that lead to such acts.

Finally, we should abolish the current double standard toward child abusers. Parents who hurt or kill their disabled children should be held accountable to the same extent as those who abuse nondisabled children.

Tracy, Parwin, Levi, and Courtney deserve no less.

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