Horrific Homeschool Homicide Case Changes Laws, But It Is Not Enough

A horrific murder case has come out of Georgia in recent weeks which is changing homeschool law in that state. Finally, law-makers are attempting to create more regulations to protect children who are pulled from public school under suspicious circumstances. From WSAV 3 News:

‘Representatives Bill Hitchens, Jon Burns, and Ron Stephens of Rincon introduced House Bill 530 which would prohibit parents from removing kids from public school to avoid complying with attendance and disciplinary laws.

The Department of Children and Family Services (DFCS) would also be notified if a child is withdrawn from school without notification or stops attending school for an extended period or cannot be located.  Currently, parents are only required to give notice once a year with the student’s information.

Stephens says the bill was amended Wednesday to protect homeschoolers. He says the purpose is “If there is any indication of a child in the school that has had a past history of abuse then it ought to be notified through the school system that the Department of Children and Family Services ought to go investigate it. And these two kids in Guyton fell through the cracks clearly and all we’re trying to do is remedy that.”‘

In many of the homeschool homicide cases in this blog, children were pulled from public school to be homeschooled, which was easy for parents to do, because of little to no regulation around homeschooling. Even parents with Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) or Child Protective Services (CPS) cases have been able to pull their children from school in order to continue and escalate abuse at home without being found out.

However, in many of the most horrific child abuse and homicide cases, DCFS was already aware of the abuse before the homicide occurred.

Elwyn Crocker 

Crocker Elwyn

Elwyn Crocker mugshot

Elwyn Crocker fathered three children with two different women. The children are Mary, Elwyn Jr., and James. Elwyn was investigated in South Carolina in 2008 for assaulting the mother of one of his children, Rebecca Grantham Self. Rebecca and Elwyn are the parents of James, born in 2007. In 2008, Rebecca told police that Elwyn grabbed her by the throat, slammed her into a wall, and also hurt baby James, after Elwyn flew into a rage. James has cerebral palsy. At the time, children Mary and Elwyn Jr. were living with the couple. Mary and Elwyn share the same mother, who so far has been unable to be reached for comment in this case, and is reportedly homeless. Self was later convicted of assaulting Crocker. Crocker was never charged, and the Department of Social Services gave him James to take care of after the couple split up.

Later, Elwyn married a woman named Candice, and moved to Georgia with the three children, settling in a trailer park in Rincon. Police and the Department of Children and Family Services were called many times in the years after Elwyn was investigated for assaulting Rebecca Self, this time about his new family with Candice.

In 2012 and 2013, records show that DCFS investigated Elwyn and Candice for child abuse, and the couple were required to take parenting classes due to their abusing Elwyn Jr. Candice’s mother Kim Wright and uncle Mark Wright began to hang around the trailer, and neighbors report that family life noticeably deteriorated as a result.

Things evidently got even worse when Elwyn and Candice moved, along with the children, into a trailer in Guyton that Kim Wright shared with her son, Tony Wright, and her boyfriend, Roy Anthony Prater.

James, Mary and Elwyn Crocker, Jr. 

crocker children

Mary and Elwyn, Jr. school phtos

On March 16th, 2017, a neighbor of Elwyn Jr.’s reported to a counselor that she had seen him being beaten by his grandmother, Kim Wright, with a belt for more than an hour, about a year prior, in 2016. She came forward to talk about it after seeing a presentation at school about child abuse. DCFS were notified but declined to investigate the case, saying that it had happened a year ago, even though they were aware of the 2012 and 2013 incidents involving Elwyn Jr. It is quite possible that Elwyn was already dead by the time his classmate reported the abuse and DCFS was again notified. He had not been seen since November, 2016.

Police had also been called multiple times to the Guyton trailer due to constant fighting between the adults who lived in the home. Child welfare agencies looked into the situation during these times.

At some point, the Crocker and Wright families began to keep Mary, age 14, in a dog kennel in the kitchen, zip tied and naked. She was starved and given purposely distasteful food with vinegar in it. She became so stiff from being kept in the cage that the family would take her out and strap her to a ladder in order for her body to stretch. They also tased and physically abused her.

The abuse of Elwyn Jr. and Mary escalated to homicide, although how exactly they were killed is still not known.

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Crocker/Wright trailer on Rosebud Place.

A concerned citizen called police after Mary had been missing for some time. Police arrived at the home for a welfare check and questioned the adults present about the whereabouts of Mary. It was quickly determined that everyone was lying. The next morning, December 20th, deputies were led to the backyard by Elwyn senior, where he confessed that both Elwyn Jr. and Mary were buried there. A neighbor has since come forward to tell reporters that he witnessed Elwyn Crocker carrying out some kind of activity on the grounds of the home with a shovel in recent months.

James, age 11, was found alive in the trailer, laying on the floor of a bedroom with a blanket over him. James has been described as “not having been abused” in the media, but it is hard to say at this time what exactly happened in the house, and the fact that he was laying on the floor with a blanket over him does not necessarily sound good. James’ biological mother, Rebecca Self, told reporters that he was likely not abused, or as abused, as the other children, because the adults were dependent on his social security check. James has been placed in the care of social services.

According to Homeschooling’s Invisible Children:

‘Elwyn Jr. and Mary were enrolled in Effingham County public schools for most of their lives. Several reports were made about the family to child services. In January 2014, Elwyn Jr. was withdrawn from school to be homeschooled. He was last seen in November 2016 at age 14. Mary continued to attend school until May 2018. She was withdrawn from school to be homeschooled in August 2018. She was last seen in October 2018 at age 14.’

Reports indicate it is possible that the parents did not sign an official withdrawal form to withdraw the children from school.

I am unsure as to the educational status of James, who has not been as widely reported on as the other children. I have not found anything indicating that James was enrolled in public school. It is very likely that he was also “homeschooled”, although it is clear that the children were not being educated in this situation, but abused and neglected.

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From top left: Elwyn Crocker, Candice Crocker, Roy Prater, Mark Wright, Kim Wright. Mugshots.

Elwyn Crocker has been charged with felony murder, cruelty to children in the first degree, and concealing the death of another. The rest of the adults in the home were also arrested and charged. Mark Anthony Wright was charged with cruelty to children in the first degree. Roy Anthony Prater was charged with concealing the death of another, cruelty to children in the first degree, and possession of a scheduled or controlled substance. Candice Crocker and Kim Wright were charged with concealing the death of another and cruelty to children in the first degree. All are currently being held in jail and it is likely there will be more charges.

Patterns

Followers of this blog know how easy it is to withdraw a child from school in almost all U.S. states, and enroll them in a “homeschool”. In many cases, it is a legitimate homeschool and nothing is wrong. However, this lack of regulation has repeatedly been used to cover the most heinous child torture and homicide cases. The Crocker children, like homeschool homicide victim Erica Parsons, were missing for quite some time before their bodies were discovered, but had never been reported missing. Thankfully a neighbor noticed that Mary Crocker was suspiciously absent from the neighborhood and alerted police. But it still took months until law enforcement discovered her body. In the case of Elwyn Jr., it took years. The fear and pain Mary must have lived with, knowing her brother had been murdered by the adults in the home is hard to imagine. Like many homeschool homicide cases, Mary was tortured up until her death. Torture of a child is hard to conceal unless the child does not leave the home, and it is less likely that people will realize a child is missing if they have been homeschooled.

It is good that Georgia is attempting to enact legislation that would make these types of crimes harder to get away with. However, my concern is that DCFS had been called multiple times already in this case. The new legislation requires schools to contact DCFS if a child has been withdrawn from school under suspicious circumstances. That is one more call to DCFS where they may not do anything. While it is better than nothing, it is not enough.

There needs to be more laws around homeschooling than just something which requires yet another call to DCFS. DCFS had been called over the course of these children’s entire lives and nothing happened. While sometimes DCFS does a great job, in other cases they do not, and this is one of them. More regulations need to be in place around homeschool. If there were educational standards that children were required to reach, more reporting on the homeschool to the state, mandatory doctor visits, and mandatory disability services, there would be more opportunities for child abuse to be found out. Mary was reportedly malnourished, which is something a doctor would hopefully notice. Many tortured children are also starved.

There would also be less incentive for neglectful, abusive parents to withdraw children from school to start a “homeschool” if there were real requirements in place for proving the child is being educated. It might be a deterrent to abusers looking for an easy way to cover abuse if there were regulations around homeschool education. Abusive parents like the ones in this case are not pulling their kids out of school due to a genuine desire to give them a better education. They are pulling them out of school so they won’t be caught for abusing the children.

Starting a homeschool by providing an email address to the state and then doing nothing for years should not be something people should ever get away with, especially with disabled children. As I have written about before, the Americans with Disabilities Act is not optional. It covers everyone in the U.S. who has a disability. So why aren’t homeschooled disabled children required to receive disability services? One issue is that the ADA is a complaint-driven act. It is not enforced. However, if there were more laws around details like homeschooling, it would lead to the rights of disabled children being honored.

While James Crocker may “not have been abused” the situation he was living in was horrific. Subjecting a child to witnessing their sibling tied up in a dog cage and tasered is abuse. People think that children with cerebral palsy are not intelligent and do not know what is going on, a common bias about disabled people in general. All of the children in this case were abused. All of the children needed better monitoring. States need to have more than one reporting system in place for homeschooled children, and less incentive to pull your children out of school in the first place.

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Inaccessible Gentrification Buildings Cannot Become the Rule in Syracuse

There is a problem in Syracuse, as there is in many cities, with a lack of affordable, accessible housing. Yet so many new fancy apartment buildings are being built. In Syracuse, options for housing for those who are renting are often older houses that are not accessible, or exorbitantly priced gentrification buildings, a few units of which may be accessible. I live in the Syracuse University area, and I have for about 6 years. I moved to this area because it is on the bus line and also walk-able, and there is a sense of community here. I work at the University, and like many disabled people, I do not drive. One of the reasons there are so many buses and shuttles in my area is because of the University. In other areas of the city, bus lines have been cut. In this area, Syracuse University provides an incentive for more buses, and it is therefor an area where disabled people want to live, as transportation is a big issue for us. City buses run frequently during the week and are accessible, and the University also has a fleet of shuttles, which are less accessible, but they are working on it. There is also an accessible “shuttle you home” van that brings students who live within a certain area home late into the night. My disabled friends and I have utilized this free service many times, when we were all students.

Syracuse University has accessible housing for students. My question is, what happens when disabled students graduate, get jobs and want to live in the community? What happens to disabled professors and staff members who come here for jobs? Syracuse University has the first Disability Studies program in the world, Burton Blatt Institute, the School of Education, the Disability Cultural Center, and the Office of Disability Services. As a result, the University gets many disabled students, faculty and staff. Students graduate, and many have found community here, especially in the neighborhood around the University. Sometimes, they would like to stay here, either at the University or in the city, and work and settle in. I hear it over and over again from graduating students: I cannot live in the city of Syracuse. It is not accessible. So that means they can’t stay here. And I have witnessed many people move to a more accessible city with better housing, or back home with their families because they have no other option.

For those who are from this area, we have heard many times that there is a “brain drain” in Central New York. Smart young people move away. People do not stay here after college. People leave. Well what is this city providing as an incentive to get people to stay? One of the biggest things is housing. Disabled people in Syracuse in general need housing, but I am also thinking about how we have a world-class Disability Studies program here, and its affiliated offices and institutes, how that brings people to Syracuse, but then they have nowhere to live. The city and the community need to do their part to advocate for better housing, to demand that accessible, affordable housing be built.

Recently, I read in the Syracuse Post-Standard that two entrepreneurs were proposing a mixed-use apartment building for Westcott Street, a street in the University area with many restaurants, bars, a popular coffee house, and other businesses. Westcott Street is part of what people call “the Westcott Nation”, and has a unique, local feel. It is not corporate, it is arty and community-driven, and many people walk/roll to the area from the surrounding neighborhood to eat and hang out. Several popular spots on the street are accessible, even the local dive bar. Now I am not entirely certain what the idea is for the building, known as Westcott Remix, but I did not read anything about accessible units being built, nor did I read anything about the restaurants and retail space in the building being accessible, although of course there are codes that require spaces to be ADA compliant. This could be because the newspaper here did not think to report any of that. A friend of mine attended the community forum on the building and said that the developers want this building to be affordable and include universal design. I think that this is a start, and I hope that this is truly the plan. It is my experience that disabled people are not contacted in regards designing access, and it is not done correctly.

The ADA is a complaint-driven act. So after the fact, if things are not accessible, it is a long and difficult legal process to try and get people to fix it. It is important to go into the plan in the first place with disability in mind, and it is important to realize that disabled people live in the community, and it would be great to acknowledge that we exist with every new building that is built, or any project that affects our lives.

westcott remix

Westcott Remix [image description: artist’s conception of a two or three-story brick mixed-use building with balconies outside each unit and stores at street level with purple and blue awnings, located next to Alto Cinco.]

The other issue is affordability. The two young men behind Westcott Remix said that it would not be as expensive as downtown apartment buildings, which can be 2 grand a month or more. The developers are looking to market to “graduate students and young professionals.” Rent may not be 2 grand, but what will it be? We need to be realistic about what “graduate students and young professionals” can really afford in this area. This building may be affordable, and that is a start. It is still in the planning stages and it remains to be seen what will happen.

Some think that housing is purely a money-making endeavor, and should be looked at as a financial investment and nothing more. Many developers of new, luxury apartments in U.S. cities want to market to young professionals. All of the exorbitantly priced gentrification buildings in San Francisco, for example, are there for “young professionals” who work in the tech industry. Seattle is in the middle of a housing crisis, which many say has been brought on by a proliferation of luxury apartments with strict rules for tenants, that are not affordable. As a result, both of these cities are experiencing a surge in homelessness.

Syracuse, like many cities in the U.S., is experiencing an influx of high-priced private apartment housing all over the city, and of course the ideal is to rent to young professionals who have money. Some of the luxury housing is geared towards students, in particular undergrads whose parents will pay the rent, and they are typically built in poor neighborhoods that are communities of color. People who are from the neighborhood are not the ones living in these homes. These types of buildings have caused problems in cities like Portland, Oregon; New York City, San Francisco, California; and Seattle, Washington, and studies say they are driving homelessness. People cannot afford the high rents. Buildings that previously were affordable are evicting tenants in order to sell up and join the movement of gentrification. Syracuse has long been a struggling, impoverished city. And now we are seeing more and more of these expensive, exclusive apartments being built. The same thing is happening in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, too. Whether you are a part of the University, or you are a city resident, this is a problem.

Another issue is that mainstream society thinks that there are two types of disabled people: a super-wealthy individual like Brian Cranston’s character in “The Upside”, or the guy in “Me Before You”, or they think that all disabled people are living in section 8, on disability and do not work, and that the government is dealing with it. This is untrue and section 8 is not the answer to accessible housing, anyway. The issue is that disabled people are thought of as a separate class that somehow do not need to participate in society or be included in mainstream initiatives. There are graduate students, there are young professionals, there are people of all ages, there are professors, there are many, many types of disabled people in this world and in the Syracuse community.

Westcott Remix may not be built. And if it is built, it may have accessible units. I do not know, and it is not my intention to completely single this building out, because this is a larger issue with many components. However it is important that, moving forward, citizens begin to demand that developers include disability in their designs for buildings. Because all too often, they don’t. We need to find the middle ground between high end luxury apartments and apartments built for those on Social Security Disability or who are part of social programs. Because there are many people in between who need housing, too. Disabled people are part of every community.

Community members can make demands of the developers of these buildings and express our concerns to the city. The answer to housing in Syracuse is not more gentrification which favors able-bodied people of a certain demographic. Is our ideal for Syracuse to be a place where developers who wish to profit off of young people and not provide real, needed solutions for the city proliferate? Or is our ideal a city where the community can afford to live and have access, an ideal of inclusion? Whatever is being built here needs to be accessible. There needs to be wheelchair accessible units with accessible bathrooms that actually are accessible, not just someone’s idea of what that may be, which they did without consulting a disabled person. We need to have community inclusion and real affordability, and I do not mean by “affordable” that you need to have two room mates to pay rent when you are a grown adult. Disabled people need to be included in the conversation and that means any forums about new buildings need to have sign language interpreters and wheelchair and other access. Syracuse cannot follow the model of larger cities who have increasingly allowed overpriced housing to be built, and provided little to no other options. We need to provide housing for our disability community here, and Syracuse needs to do its part to be an inclusive city.

 

 

 

 

Embittered Millenial Gets Hearing Aids, Has Thoughts

Hearing people exalt hearing. It is just their default. They think that being able to hear is the best thing in the world. Anything less is sad and depressing. I have come to tell you that this is not true.

Today I got new hearing aids. Because hearing aids are exorbitantly expensive and barely covered, if at all, by insurance, it is hard to get them. I have been relying on a broken pair given to me by a Deaf friend who could not use them since they did nothing for him with his level of hearing loss. One of the aids completely stopped working, so I no longer wore it. The other one only worked about half of the time, and neither had ever been adjusted to my specific hearing, which is something that needs to be done. The aids were too old to be fixed- hearing aids only last about five to six years and these were about ten years old. I knew I had no choice but to embark on trying to get another pair of hearing aids.

Hearing people have no idea what this is like. They all think that insurance covers aids. When I tell them my insurance barely covers anything, they are always surprised. “But people need hearing aids!” Yes, they do. Millions of people. The first audiologist I went to, an audiologist I have been going to for over thirty years, quoted me a price of $3,600 after insurance, for two hearing aids. Out of the question. Like most people born in the 1980s, I am up shit creek when it comes to money. 1 in 4 Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency and live paycheck to paycheck, and I am no exception, even though at this point I have climbed out of poverty and am “middle class”. You would think a middle class person who works at a major university and has a master’s degree could buy hearing aids. Not in this country.

I tried another audiologist, one whom I have also been seeing for thirty years or so, and do not like, because they are constantly trying to sell me expensive aids when I go in for a routine issue–like trying to sell me a car. Same scenario. After insurance, the aids were still impossibly out of reach. I was getting pretty upset at this point. Oh I know what everyone is going to say, why don’t you put them on a credit card with extremely high interest and aggressive employees who badger you the minute you are late on a payment? Well I did not qualify for Care Credit, which is really not optimal, anyways. You try having good credit after being impoverished and disabled for most of adulthood. People always assume marginalized identities have good credit. Do you know how things work?

So the time came for me to call around to local disability services agencies and beg for help. This is a time-consuming process, since often people are unavailable, take a while to get back to you, or do not have good information. One agency had refurbished hearing aids for $375, but only for people over 65, which took weeks for me to get all the information about. I was finally able to find an agency to help, and after I proved to them that I was poor and actually Deaf, they started the process to pay for a new pair of aids for me. However, I was lucky that I didn’t make much money on last year’s taxes (which the agency wanted to see) because at the current amount I make, since I got a promotion, I would not have qualified. I was estatic, but also worried, because my aids were broken and these types of state agencies, while helpful, can take a very, very long time to get anything done.

Yes, I use sign language and have an interpreter at work and in the night class I take. However, like many with hearing loss, I do not solely rely on the interpreter and need to be able to hear some sound, read lips and look at the interpreter to fully understand. You know why? Because from the time I was a tiny child, I have worn hearing aids. I did not learn sign language until I was 14, and that was by chance. Like many disabled and Deaf people, the idea was to make me as “normal” and mainstreamed as possible, even to my own detriment. So I got very, very used to relying on hearing and sound to get by. As I said, hearing people love sound. They think hearing is the best. “Everyone should hear!!” Well what does this mean? I have had hearing aids for 32 years. I am extremely reliant on hearing aids, and it is not a choice that I made for myself, but one that was foisted on me. Yes, I am reliant on hard-to-get, exorbitantly expensive technology that is rarely covered by insurance, and that breaks every 5 years. When I was a child, the state covered all expenses around having hearing aids. As an adult, you are left to your own devices. If I had grown up signing, I would not be struggling like this. But also, the nature of my hearing is that I do have a little bit of hearing, and it works well around the human voice. So hearing aids work very well for me and I do like having that option. I also enjoy listening to music and watching movies, like a lot of people, and I absolutely need aids to do those things. Deaf and hard of hearing people should not have to solely rely on hearing aids, but they should be an option. They should be an option for all people, everywhere in the world.

Does this mean I don’t like being Deaf? Absolutely not. I love being Deaf. Hearing aids for me are just what they seem like — an aid. I use them to assist me at times. Not all the time. I don’t always need them or want to wear them.

I have been deafer than usual for many years, since finding hearing aids is such a shit show. This is not the first time this has happened. My entire adult life has been scrambling in one way or another for hearing aids. Medicaid barely covers them, too, if they cover them at all. Was it any different when I was impoverished and on Medicaid? No, it wasn’t. It was a miracle that I got hearing aids while on Medicaid, and that was  12 years ago, when some people still took Medicaid and now do not. That is another thing that able-bodied people think: the government just covers this stuff. Wrong.

I would figure out some way to get hearing aids, and after a couple years they would break, and I would drag them out as long as humanly possible. This is what I have been used to. Someday, I hope to be wealthy enough to buy myself a good pair of aids. I am very used to being Deaf and I like being Deaf. It is not sad. It is not depressing. I don’t know why people think that it is so important that I hear every single little sound imaginable, because most sounds are really not necessary for me to hear. Do you need to hear the sound a light switch makes when you flick the light on? Do you need to hear a plastic bag rustling? There are so many sounds that I do not need to hear in order to understand what is going on. No Deaf person’s heart is breaking because they cannot hear crickets chirping (throwing some shade at a recent New York Times article written by an audist). This is ableist nonsense and it is aided and abetted by those awful videos on the internet of “baby hears first sounds!”, where a baby gets a cochlear implant or a hearing aid. Hearing people love to cry over those videos and feel emotional. Those videos are ableist, audist garbage. The baby probably has no idea what the sound it just heard even was. I would not recommend implanting a baby with a cochlear implant, either, but that is a whole other discussion. But think about it–if I am having this much trouble maintaining hearing aids as an adult, what do you think happens when a child with a CI grows up? THE SAME THING. If you want to implant a baby with a CI then you better be prepared to pay for every expense surrounding that CI for the rest of their lives, otherwise you are really being an asshole.

After months of waiting, I got the hearing aids. It took about four months to get them. Of course, I only was able to get the cheap kind. But that is better than nothing. After being Deaf for so long, I can hear so many sounds with the aids in. It is surreal and strange. There is an adjustment period. Of course hearing people think this is great. You can hear every little sound now! It is actually annoying. I imagine I will get used to it, but I like having the option of taking the aids out and being Deaf. Just being my Deaf self. I like that I can use sign and not always worry about hearing aids. And that is how it should be for everyone. Teach Deaf and hard of hearing children sign language, do not force them to be reliant on expensive technology. There is nothing wrong with being Deaf. There are a lot of very good things about being Deaf, and a lot of shit that I just do not have to deal with. But something needs to change. And that is how expensive hearing aids are. They should not be this out of reach. We live in an audist, ableist world and it is often just the reality that a person needs hearing aids. Or maybe they just want them. Hearing aids to me are like glasses. We all have different prescriptions. We can take them on and off. They help us at work and in social situations. Not a big deal. Why are glasses so easy to get and hearing aids so hard? Insurance needs to cover the FULL cost of hearing aids and Medicaid and Medicare need to cover hearing aids and audiology FULLY in every state, not just for children.

But this is a part of a larger ableist problem. And that is able bodied people exalting being as able-bodied as possible. They don’t just do this to Deaf people, they do it to all disabled people. How many times have you seen some Facebook post about a wheelchair user who used some ridiculous exo-skeleton technology (how much does that cost) to walk across the stage at their graduation? Able-bodied people think walking is just as amazing as hearing. They love walking. Everyone should be bipedal and walk upright, they think. Check out Bad Cripple by Bill Peace for more about that.

If you want some insight into the world of cochlear implants and “implanting” infants and children with CIs, Dr. Laura Mauldin, a friend of mine who is fluent in sign language, wrote this book: Made to Hear: Cochlear Implants and Raising Deaf Children. She wrote a rebuttal to that awful New York Times article too, which the Times published.

Another great blog, while I am at it, is Planet of the Blind, by my friend Professor Steven Kuusisto. Also, there is Wendy’s World, by my friend Wendy Harbour, who is Deaf and got a CI as an adult.

The key to changing things is reading, listening to, seeing, or (whatever way you communicate), what disabled and Deaf people have to say about their own disabilities and experiences. Biases and ableism are very serious problems and you can understand, I hope, from what I wrote, how they influence every day life for people like me. Being disabled is not the problem, people being ableist is the problem. It causes huge struggles for people and it sets us back in very real ways. Don’t watch those videos of Deaf babies getting CIs, read/listen to blogs and books by Deaf and disabled people. Go to the source. And advocate for hearing aids to be fully covered by Medicaid, Medicare and all insurances!

 

 

 

Life Without the Possibility Of Parole and Disability

 

Using discretion when sentencing vulnerable populations can be more just, and lead to less harsh, lifelong sentences being meted out. However, in the U.S., there is a very high number of Life Without the Possibility of Parole inmates, and many of them are disabled.

Background

In July of 2003, Evan Miller (age 14) and Colby Smith (age 16) murdered Cole Cannon (age 52) at his residence in an Alabama trailer park. Evan was Cole’s neighbor. The crime started when the two boys stole baseball cards from Cole on the afternoon of July 15th, and continued through the night until 6 am, as the boys made trips from Evan’s trailer back to Cole’s trailer to rob and beat him. The two boys beat Cole with their fists and a baseball bat, and stole money from him, then set fire to the trailer with Cole inside. He died from blunt force trauma, rib fractures and smoke inhalation.

Cole_Cannon

Cole Cannon.

 

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Colby Smith and Evan Miller.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colby Smith pleaded guilty to Felony Murder and received a sentence of Life With Parole. 14 year old Evan Miller was initially charged as a juvenile but his case was moved to adult court, where he was tried as an adult and sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole for Capital Murder and Arson.

Growing up, Evan was in and out of foster care. His mother was a drug user and an alcoholic who worked 16 hour days and consequently neglected him. His stepfather was violently abusive, and Evan tried to kill himself several times, starting when he was around 5 years old. He was diagnosed with conduct disorder, anti-social personality disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and other disabilities. He also had issues with substance abuse.

After the trial, Miller “filed a post trial motion for a new trial, arguing that sentencing a 14-year-old to life without the possibility of parole constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eight Amendment.” 

The case went to the Supreme Court under the name Miller v. Alabama. In 2012, the court decided that “The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment ‘guarantees individuals the right to not be subjected to excessive sanctions.’ Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 560. That right ‘flows from the basic precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned’ to both the offender and the offense.”

Juveniles, Disability, and Abuse

The judge who initially sentenced Evan Miller was unable to use discretion, and instead had to apply a mandatory minimum sentence, which was Life Without the Possibility of Parole. Miller v. Alabama states that a judge has to be able to use discretion when sentencing juveniles, and that mandatory Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. Juvenile cases are different from that of adults. Reasons are (from the Supreme Court decision):

  • Juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform
  • Juveniles have a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility
  • Juveniles are more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures
  • They have limited control over their environment
  • There is a lack of ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings
  • There is a difference between adult and juvenile minds
  • Juveniles are less likely to develop entrenched patterns of behavior

As a result of the Supreme Court decision, Evan Miller will be resentenced. Since his conviction, he has been doing well in prison and is learning welding. He has apologized to the victim’s family. He is now 28 years old.

evan-miller-prisonreformcomjpg-80892f67bb42b1b4

A more recent photo of Evan.

Evan Miller’s environment and experiences growing up clearly fit the concept of a child having “an inability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings”. It is not surprising that someone from his background would have serious trouble with the law.

Neglect and abuse can cause disabilities in children, and in Evan’s case, this is what happened. The treatment he received from the adults in his life caused severe psychiatric disability, and taught him to be violent. High numbers of juveniles sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole had a similar life trajectory. From The Sentencing Project regarding juveniles given this sentence:

  • 79% witnessed violence in their homes regularly
  • 32% grew up in public housing
  • 40% had been enrolled in special education classes
  • Fewer than half were attending school at the time of their offense
  • 47% were physically abused
  • 80% of girls reported histories of physical abuse and 77% of girls reported histories of sexual abuse

The United States is the only country in the world which sentences minors to die in prison, some as young as 13 or 14 years old, using LWOP. Things are changing very slowly with Miller v. Alabama, and 12 states have outlawed LWOP sentences for juveniles. But thousands have already been sentenced, and face uncertain resentencing. In Missouri, those sentenced to LWOP as juveniles have routinely been denied parole, despite the passage of Miller v. Alabama. A lawsuit has been filed.

Many of these juveniles have disabilities. Abuse, neglect and poverty cause disability. Disabled children are more likely to be abused. There are many reasons that incarceration and LWOP are disability issues.

Having a cognitive disability can cause someone to give a false confession or otherwise become entangled in the criminal justice system due to bias and a lack of understanding about their disability. According to the ARC (Association for Retarded Citizens): While those with intellectual disability comprise 2% to 3% of the general population, they represent 4% to 10% of the prison population, with an even greater number of those in juvenile facilities and in jails (Petersilia, 2000).

Rising LWOP Sentences

The numbers of LWOP sentences have risen exponentially since the 1980s while crime has dropped. Thousands of those with LWOP sentences were convicted of non-violent crimes. According to Forbes: Violent crime has been steadily dropping since its peak in 1991, while the murder rate is now approximately half as high as in 1991. Nevertheless, the number of people serving life sentences and life without parole in particular, has continued to rise.

Many of those with LWOP sentences, which has replaced the death penalty, are disabled. From the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

  • An estimated 32% of prisoners and 40% of jail inmates reported having at least one disability.
  • Prisoners were nearly 3 times more likely and jail inmates were more than 4 times more likely than the general population to report having at least one disability.
  • About 2 in 10 prisoners and 3 in 10 jail inmates reported having a cognitive disability, the most common reported disability in each population .
  • Female prisoners were more likely than male prisoners to report having a cognitive disability, but were equally likely to report having each of the other five disabilities.
  • Non-Hispanic white prisoners (37%) and prisoners of two or more races (42%) were more likely than non-Hispanic black prisoners (26%) to report having at least one disability.
  • More than half of prisoners (54%) and jail inmates (53%) with a disability reported a co-occurring chronic condition.

While it does make sense for someone like Evan Miller, who committed a violent crime, to spend time behind bars, it also makes sense that the courts view juveniles differently from adults and do not apply one-size-fits-all mandatory sentencing. Looking at reasons that a disabled person, in particular, an intellectually or cognitively disabled person, might become involved in a crime should also be applied during sentencing.

It is important for everyone involved in law and criminal justice to have disability studies based training, and to learn to view disability as not being a defect, or part of the normal vs. abnormal binary, but as being an aspect of biodiversity that is complex, and to disregard old fashioned ideas and biases. It is my suspicion that one reason that so many disabled people are in prison for life is because there is little discretion applied to their case, and often they do not have the right access in order to participate in their own trial. Disabled people can have trouble understanding their arrest, and if there is an interrogation, that can also be an issue with access. I think that many disabled people are also taken advantage of and targeted by criminals who use them.

The problem of why disability is so highly represented among LWOP inmates should be of concern. There are many complex reasons that disability is over represented in the criminal justice system, but infusing criminal justice with a disability studies perspective could potentially lead to less disabled people being given LWOP sentences.

 

I am now writing for the Coalition for Responsible Home Education

I am very pleased to have been offered the chance to write for the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, which runs the website Homeschooling’s Invisible Children.  Here is a link to my article, which I also just posted on this blog, as well:

https://www.responsiblehomeschooling.org/victimization-of-autistic-children-the-savannah-leckie-case/

My homeschool articles are going to be appearing on the CRHE website from now on and this site will continue to have a disability rights focus but with topics other than homeschool.

Victimization of Autistic Children: The Savannah Leckie Case

Autistic people are more likely to be victims of violent crime. The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) states in its online literature that  “…the safety of autistic people is a critical concern for autistic self-advocates, federal and state government agencies, parents, and other stakeholders.” When researching autism and crime, often what comes up in a search for information are articles, much of them biased, on whether autistic people are “more violent” than the general population. The reality is, autistic people are more likely to be victims of hate crimes and other crimes than the able-bodied population. Stereotypes about disability and crime have persisted for centuries, and the topic was a favored one in the eugenics era, when disabled people were said to be morally depraved and genetically defective. Disability and criminal, violent, and otherwise degenerate behavior were said to be comorbid during the eugenics era, and these biased notions about disability are still extremely pervasive today, even though eugenics was discredited as a junk science which fueled the Holocaust. It is important when thinking about disability to remember that all disabled people are victimized at higher rates than able-bodied people, regardless of what their specific disability is. The question should not be: are disabled people or autistic people violent, the question should be why are these groups victimized at such extremely high rates, and what can we do about it?

Disabled people are also more likely to be victimized by a family member, and teenagers age 12-15 are most likely to be victimized. Disabled homeschool victims Hana Alemu and Erica Parsons were both around 13 when they were murdered. From ASAN:

‘People with disabilities were more than three times as likely to be victims of a serious crime (such as rape, robbery, aggravated assault) than people without disabilities. Among people with disabilities, people with cognitive disabilities had the highest rates of serious crime victimization. Because the BJS [Bureau of Justice Statistics] defines “cognitive disability” as “serious difficulty in concentrating, remembering, or making decisions because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition,” this category includes many autistic people. Autistic people may also be represented in the categories of people with a “self-care limitation” or “independent living limitation,” as defined by the BJS. Because BJS disaggregated its data in ways that may have put autistic people in multiple categories, it is difficult to determine the rate of victimization of autistic people as a whole.’

Savannah Leckie

In August 2016, when Savannah Leckie was 15, she moved from Minnesota to Missouri to live with her biological mother. Some reports indicate that when Savannah’s adoptive mother, Tamile Leckie-Montague, got a new boyfriend, that caused her to send Savannah away. However, Leckie-Montague disputes this, and says that the family was having so much trouble caring for Savannah that they needed help. Savannah was autistic and had depression and ADHD. It is not uncommon in cases like this that a disabled child is passed from one relative to another. Savannah was sent to live with her biological mother, Rebecca Ruud, who had a farm in rural Missouri, and lived there with her boyfriend, Robert Eugene Peat, Jr., a firefighter.

Rebecca  attempted to put Savannah to work on her farm, but became frustrated when she felt that Savannah had difficulties acclimating and carrying out tasks. Rebecca also homeschooled Savannah. There are no reports that Rebecca was working to accommodate Savannah’s disabilities or provide disability focused education and supports.

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The rural farm in Missouri. [image of dirt road, gate and fields with trees.]

Rebecca was severally abusive to Savannah. From the Daily Mail:

‘In the lead up to Savannah’s death, authorities say Ruud had allegedly taken to extreme forms of punishment to discipline her daughter. The criminal complaint reveals Ruud forced the teen to roll around in a hog pen on at least one occasion and wade into a muddy pond and dunk under. She also allegedly used a water hose on her daughter. Ruud also told police that Savannah had once deliberately cut her own arm ‘in a suicidal gesture’, according to the complaint. To punish her, Ruud poured alcohol and salt on the wound twice a day and rubbed it in until the scabs came off. She had also smashed Savannah’s cell phone and banned her from using Facebook as a form of punishment, according to the complaint. Ruud also admitted to making her teen daughter remove her pants so she could spank her bare bottom.’

Rebecca also made Savannah live in a 30-foot cramped trailer on the property that was run down and had no electricity or air-conditioning. She repeatedly contacted Tamile Leckie-Montague to tell her that Savannah was a “drain” and costing her too much money.

At some point, the abuse accelerated to homicide, although authorities are unsure of what exactly happened, but it appears that the child died on or around July 18th, 2017. On July 20th, 2017, Rebecca Ruud called police to notify them that Savannah was missing, stating that she thought the girl might have run away. Police were suspicious that Savannah had not run away due to all of her belongings, including her toothbrush, piggy bank and messenger bag, still being at the Ruud farm. Rebecca Ruud started a campaign to “help find Savannah”, both online and in her community.

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[Image of “Missing” poster with photos of Savannah and identifying details.]

Two days prior to reporting Savannah missing, Ruud had called local firefighters to help her extinguish what she said was a large brush fire on the farm. When firefighters asked about Savannah, whom Ruud said had been injured in the fire, Ruud was evasive, and said the teen was “taking a shower” and did not want to be disturbed. Firefighters observed that Ruud was also injured with a burn mark and treated her for it. Rebecca said it was a result of battling the brush fire, but would tell people different versions of how she got the injury.

Shortly after the report that Savannah was missing, a large search of the 80-acre farm commenced. Authorities noticed that Rebecca was acting strangely the entire time, which heightened their suspicion that Savannah had not run away.

The search revealed the charred remains of a body in a burn pit, a fire which was deliberately set and fueled with an accelerant. The canine unit discovered the pit, which was concealed by brush. Forensics revealed that the body was Savannah Leckie.

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[image of Rebecca Ruud mugshot, close-up of Savannah Leckie’s face, Savannah and Rebecca posing together.]

Forensics also revealed that large quantities of lye, likely from Ruud’s home-made soap business, had been poured on the body, and that the body had been burned several times. Rebecca responded to the situation by hurriedly marrying her live-in boyfriend, Robert Eugene Peat, since they believed a married couple could not testify against each other. Rebecca was later arrested, attempting to flee the area on a Greyhound bus, carrying large luggage bags.

An informant, according to court documents, told authorities that Rebecca had admitted to her how Savannah died. She drugged the girl and put her body in a fire. When Savannah started to wake up, Ruud hit her with a rake. However, it is unconfirmed whether this story is true. A search warrant revealed several long-handed garden tools on the property, including rakes. Reports also indicate that Rebecca Ruud had prescription hydrocodone on the property.

Rebecca was charged with first degree murder, second degree murder, abuse or neglect of a child resulting in death, tampering with physical evidence in a case, and abandoning a corpse without notifying authorities. She awaits sentencing. Robert Peat was also arrested, but later released.

Patterns

Rebecca Ruud tried to force Savannah into a particular way of behaving, and did not accommodate or respect her neurodiversity. When Savannah did not act the way Rebecca wanted or expected, Rebecca became violent. Savannah responded to being effectively abandoned by her adopted family and abused by her mother by attempting suicide. Instead of being caring and understanding towards this understandable response to her circumstances, Rebecca added to and exacerbated Savannah’s emotional and physical wounds.

Able-bodied people far too often erroneously view non-neurotypical people as being defective, burdensome and irritating. They try to force them to be “normal” or to behave in specific ways. Instead of forcing a disabled person into an environment and set of expectations, one should instead work with them to celebrate who they are and accommodate their disabilities. The answer to having a disabled child is not to send them off by themselves to be homeschooled on a farm in the middle of nowhere with someone they do not know very well. As we frequently see in child torture, abuse, and homicide cases, the child victim was placed in an “informal family arrangement” (Knox, 2014). This is often because the disability is too overwhelming.

Autistic children are murdered by their parents and caretakers at astonishingly high rates. The disability community remembers these victims every year with Disability Day of Mourning, which specifically focuses on disabled people who were murdered by a parent or caretaker. I attend a vigil for Disability Day of Mourning every year, and the list of names of victims that we are given is very, very long. Many of these victims were autistic.

Another aspect of this case is the fact that anyone thought it was a good idea for a child who evidently needed support doing daily tasks, as Savannah needed, to be homeschooled by someone like Rebecca, who has no qualifications in the field of special education, disability studies, or anything else. Autistic children can thrive and excel if they are in situations where their abilities are supported, and they are not pigeon-holed into behaving the way an adult would like or prefer. The issue is that it can be difficult to find these kinds of supports, and public schools frequently pass the buck when it comes to disability. However this does not excuse how Savannah was treated by any of the adults in her life. Far too often parents who murder disabled children are sympathized with and looked at forgivingly by the public since the child was such a “burden”. Many times, these murderers are given light sentences. I have a feeling that this will not be the case in the Leckie situation and hope that justice is appropriately served.

The Leckie case has the hallmarks of many homeschool homicide cases: isolation, deprivation, adoption, informal family arrangements, disability, and abuse by the mother. This is a tragic and extreme case, but there are patterns and recognizable, recurring issues when looking at it through the lens of disability studies. It is by using this lens that we can better understand the high rates of murder and abuse suffered by autistic and otherwise disabled people.

 

 

Report Indicates a Third of Children Removed From School to Be Homeschooled were Involved in Prior DCF Abuse/Neglect Cases

Child torture cases have distinct characteristics such as starvation, isolation, and homeschool used to cover the abuse. Another pattern of homeschool child torture cases has been revealed this year by the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate. Based on a study of six school districts, 36% of parents who pulled their child from public school in order to homeschool them did so after a Department of Child and Family Services (DCF) investigation revealed that they were abusing the child(ren). Instead of stopping or slowing down the abuse, the parent(s) instead figured out a way to continue the abuse, and to even escalate the abuse to torture or homicide without being found out: homeschool. When parents with a prior abuse history pull their children out of school to “homeschool” them, this needs to be understood as an escalation and cover up of their criminal activity.

In April 2018, the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) released a report titled Examining Connecticut’s Safety Net for Children Withdrawn from School for the Purpose of Homeschooling—Supplemental Investigation To OCA’s December 12 2017 Report Regarding the Death of Matthew Tirado.

Matthew Tirado was an autistic, intellectually disabled 17-year old-teenager who was withdrawn from school by his mother, Katiria Tirado, so that her abuse and neglect of him would be hidden. Katiria started a homeschool for Matthew and his sister, whom she also withdrew from school to abuse. Katiria’s abuse of Matthew escalated to torture, and lead to his death on February 14th, 2017. Connecticut, like many U.S. states, has no regulations around homeschool, which made it very easy for Katiria to legally start one.

Under the guise of being “homeschooled”, Matthew was starved, denied water, and physically tortured up to his death. The 5’8 teenager was emaciated and weighed only 84 pounds when law enforcement discovered him after his mother called 911 to report that he was vomiting and unwell. Matthew died at the hospital shortly after being transported there by emergency services.

From the Child Fatality Investigative Report:

The Office of the Chief State’s Medical Examiner found that Matthew had “numerous injuries in various stages of healing,” including multiple “broken ribs, a laceration to the head, several bruises and contusions on his upper body, a pattern type injury to the upper back and bed sore type injuries to the buttocks.” The Medical Examiner’s office reported that the injuries “appeared to be the result of long term abuse and neglect.” Pictures obtained from Ms. Tirado’s cell phone confirmed that she had locked and shuttered her refrigerator and kitchen cabinets, restricting Matthew’s access to food. Text messages obtained by police investigators allegedly reflected Ms. Tirado’s knowledge that her son was starving and the criminal warrant alleged that Ms. Tirado “intentionally prevented [Matthew’s] access to food,” with Ms. Tirado reporting to a relative that Matthew was forced to seek food “from the garbage and [he] would drink cooking oil, ketchup, and syrup if these items were accessible.”

As we have seen in previous cases mentioned in this blog, child torture victims commonly experience food and water deprivation, are more likely to be abused by their mothers, are disabled, and suffer prolonged physical abuse.

Katiria Tirado was charged with Manslaughter in the First Degree and Intentional Cruelty to Persons. She plead guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 17 years in prison, to be suspended after serving 11 years, and 5 years probation. She was also charged with educational neglect. 

Katiria-Tirado-and-Matthew-Tirado

At left, Katiria Tirado, mugshot. At Right, image of Matthew Tirado.

Like homicide victim Erica Parsons, family, friends and community members rarely, if ever, saw Matthew. He was kept hidden away because Katiria knew that it was obvious Matthew was starving and abused. The Department of Child and Family Services (DCF), had been in contact with Katiria regarding Matthew and his sister multiple times leading up to his death, starting back in 2005. DCF closed the case a month before Matthew’s death, a serious error on their part.

It turns out that many families studied by the Office of the Child Advocate had been in similar situations:

Based on the data requested from the six school districts, OCA learned that over a span of three academic years, 2013 through 2016, there were 380 students withdrawn from the six (6) districts to be homeschooled, and that 138 of these children (36 percent) lived in families that were the subject of at least one prior accepted report to DCF for suspected abuse or neglect. The majority of these families had a history of multiple prior reports to DCF of suspected child abuse or neglect. OCA also learned that none of the six districts had protocols to conduct follow up with the withdrawn student or his/her family, such as an assessment of academic progress or a portfolio review of work, as suggested by the State Department of Education in previously-issued agency guidance.

Like many states, Connecticut does not regulate homeschools. Since there are no regulations, there is no plan for the Department of Child and Family Services to follow when a family with an open case or prior cases starts a homeschool. The fact that so many families who pull their children from school have prior cases with a child abuse investigating agency indicates that regulations around homeschool are necessary. From the report:

Data Regarding Family Child Welfare Involvement for Children Withdrawn
from School to Be Homeschooled in the Six School Districts Reviewed By
OCA. N= 139.

– 17 children lived in families with 1 prior accepted report to DCF and where
there was no substantiation for abuse/neglect.
-90 children lived in families that were the subject of multiple prior accepted
reports to DCF.
-Range of accepted reports to DCF was 2 – 30.
-43 children lived in families that were the subject of 4 or more prior accepted reports to DCF.
-Most families (more than 75%) in the cohort OCA examined were the
subject of accepted reports dated 2013 to the present.

When a child who has been involved in a CPS, DCF, or other child welfare reporting system has been pulled from school in order to be “homeschooled”, this needs to raise alarm bells. A victimizer of children is not going to stop the behavior because they were the subject of a report by DCF. A victimizer wants to continue the abuse and torture in peace, without being disturbed or found out.

Reports indicate that reasons parents give for homeschooling include disability. From the U.S. Department of Education Statistics About Non-Public Education in the United States: ‘ [In 2011],17% of parents said that the child having special needs was the reason, and 15% said the child having a “physical or mental health problem” caused them to homeschool.’ I have shown in this blog repeatedly that higher numbers of disabled children are homeschooled now, and that disabled children are at higher risk for abuse.

Once in a homeschool, there is no requirement for a child like Matthew Tirado to recieve disability accommodations, therapies, special education, or support in any way for their disabilities. The chances that someone will find out about the abuse drop significantly, as the child is further isolated from every aspect of society. The Connecticut DCF, which obviously messed this case up very badly, prompting the OCA report in the first place, has no protocol to follow around homeschool. No one does, because there is no regulation of homeschool in Connecticut, just as there is little to no regulation around homeschool in many U.S. states.

When a family with prior DCF reports pulls a child from school in order to homeschool them, there needs to be a policy and a regulated course of action for the child welfare agency, and other entities, to take. Stricter regulations around starting a homeschool in the first place would act as a deterrent. Criminals who victimize children will find the loopholes that exist and exploit them. We need to work on closing those loopholes, holding people accountable, and understanding that criminals use homeschool to cover the most heinous of child abuse crimes.

katiria in court

Katiria Tirado in court.