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On Donella Knox, her disabled daughter, and the so-called ‘mercy killing’

People’s ability to make choices is sometimes impaired, but murder of disabled people is still murder. The systemic forces that underlie such shocking events have never been adequately addressed, argues Robyn Hunt.

The case of Donella Knox, convicted of murdering her daughter Ruby, represents the dark side of disability. It is the flip side of inspiration porn represented by jolly stories of disabled people “overcoming” their impairments to live lives like everyone else.

In some quarters it has been seen as an autism issue, understandable since Ruby was profoundly autistic. But Ruby also had other significant conditions and impairments that complicated her situation. The result has been a resurgence of the fear of harm never far below the surface in the disability community among those who have “high and complex needs”. That is a code for people whose needs are sometimes inadequately met by a stretched health and disability system, and whose families frequently struggle with inadequate and unqualified support.

This case raises a lot of questions which need urgent attention. One aspect which many disabled people find extremely challenging is the uncontested use of the term “mercy killing” by the court and the media. What does this mean, mercy for whom? It raises profound questions about disabled lives and their value, and their meaning in relation to our common humanity.

Following the rush of publicity now the suspensions have been (rightly) lifted, there has been an outpouring of public sympathy for Donella by people who may or may not have any real understanding of her situation, anguish from disabled people who see an undefended autistic life demonised, and the lives of disabled people further devalued. No doubt there will be some ritual public handwringing with one or two minor tweaks to a creaky and underfunded system. Then we will all go back to normal.

Donella Knox. Picture: screengrab

But what is normal? In New Zealand there have been about 20 deaths of disabled people at the hands of their parents or caregivers since 1983 that I know of. They were people with a range of impairments, including learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, as well as deaf and autistic or multi-impaired like Ruby. Their killers, those of whom have come before the justice system at all, have served lesser sentences than those who kill their non-disabled children. International evidence indicates that disabled women are more likely to experience violence and abuse that disabled men or non-disabled women, but there is little data or resourcing available in New Zealand. Organisations tasked with family/domestic violence prevention do not see their funding as adequate and don’t have the expertise to help. Likening the Knox mother and daughter relationship to “living with an abusive partner,” is unhelpful.

On the subject of partners no one has asked where Ruby’s father was in all of this. The gendered expectations of caring roles, and the safety of disabled women and girls need urgent attention.

The forces that cause these shocking events are never adequately addressed. Twenty years ago this year Janine Albury-Thomson murdered her autistic daughter. Following her release from prison she was convicted of setting fire to a church. Prison obviously did little to alleviate her mental distress.

Both Janine and Donella gave ample evidence of their deep distress and difficulties before murdering their daughters, yet no one took action. It is indicative of the silos our justice, disability services and mental health systems operate in. There seems to be an assumption that disability and mental distress are mutually exclusive. They are not.

People have choices in their actions. Sometimes their ability to make those choices is impaired, but murder of disabled people is still murder. Until the underlying systemic problems are dealt with, and disability is not socially constructed as a “fate worse than death” they will continue.

Professor Richard Sobsey, director of the JP Das Developmental Disabilities Centre at Alberta University in Canada, and head of the International Coalition on Abuse and Disability, has said, “Killing children who have disabilities is basically no different from killing other children. Society has constructed a myth that says it’s OK, or at least not really too bad, to kill these children.”

Ruby was not a child, but she was in the care of her mother, and society often views those who cannot live independently as children. In Ruby’s case she was in need of care and protection from the person who, under usual family circumstances, would have largely given up the caring role.

The proposed inquiry into autism services in Nelson may help. But it will need to address the complex issues of multiple impairments that complicated the lives of the Knox mother and daughter. The underlying issues affecting some families are not limited to one region. Those who care about disability could productively work together for change and a more positive societal view of disability.

Robyn Hunt is a disability consultant, blogger and commentator.


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