Disability is no justification for murderAnalysis
There are many stories of disabled people who have died at the hands of family members, and so often the media uses terms like 'compassionate homicide' or 'mercy killing' to describe the actions. But the killing of a disabled person is not 'compassionate'. It is not 'euthanasia'. It is murder, writes Stella Young.I first heard the name Kyla Puhle in December last year. Hers wasn't an unfamiliar story. I'd heard dozens like it before.
Twenty-seven-year-old Kyla starved to death in her family home in South Australia. She weighed just 12 kilograms.
It's probably important to tell you, at this point, that Kyla was a disabled woman. Is it important? Does it change the story? It certainly doesn't change the fact that a young woman is dead, and that she probably died in horrible pain.
What it does change, it would seem, is the fate of those responsible.
Angela and Harry Puhle were originally charged with the murder of their daughter but released on bail. Harry Puhle later committed suicide, shooting himself with one of his registered firearms. This prompted a coronial inquiry into why he wasn't stripped of his guns when granted bail.
We might be forgiven for wondering why, if the Puhles owned firearms, they didn't just shoot their daughter instead of starving her to death. It would certainly have been a more humane and dignified death. The prosecution argued that Kyla was neglected over an extended period of time, and literally starved to death.
Angela Puhle pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to a three-year good behaviour bond. Further, the judge described Puhle as "a loving and devoted mother". He said:
"You did all you could over the years to ensure she could live as happy a life as possible for a person with severe disabilities that she suffered from."
She will not serve time in prison.
Consider for a moment the fact that in South Australia where Kyla Puhle died of starvation, the offense of ill treatment of an animal - whether or not that ill treatment results in death - carries a maximum penalty of $50,000 or four years in prison (PDF). Earlier this year Adelaide man Hally French pleaded guilty to bashing a dog with a pole and suspending it from a clothes line. He received a three month prison sentence. The dog subsequently made a full recovery.
Kyla Puhle was entirely dependent on her parents to care for her. She was unable to walk, talk or feed herself. We know that services and support for people with very high support needs like Kyla are few and far between. Part of the reason we know this is because tragedies like this continue to happen. The Puhle case is not an isolated one.
In July 2009, Beverley Eitzen drugged and stabbed her 16-year-old intellectually disabled son Peter to death. She was released on a mental health supervision licence and served no time in prison.
In November 2007, a seven-year-old autistic girl we know only as "Ebony" died of starvation in her family home. She was locked in a room with a boarded up window and died surrounded by her own waste. Her father served 16 years in prison, and her mother had her 30-year sentence reduced on appeal.
In August 2003, Daniela Dawes killed her 10-year-old autistic son Jason by clamping his nose and mouth shut with her hands until he died of suffocation. She pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was placed on a five-year good behaviour bond.
There are many more names I could give you of disabled people who have died at the hands of family members. Tracy Latimer. George Hodgins. Tom Inglis. Daniel Corby. Alex Spourdalakis. And many others.
In so many of these cases, judges have spoken of the enormous strain parents are under, caring for their disabled family members. However, while the disability support system may indeed be woefully inadequate to support these parents, it cannot possibly be used to justify murder.
The Puhles requested permanent care for Kyla in 2004 but a suitable spot was never found. They were eligible for 54 days of respite per year. They didn't always use them. There are many parents of disabled people under enormous strain, some with even less support than the Puhle family, who would never harm their children, either through neglect or direct action.
In reporting these cases the media uses terms like 'compassionate homicide', 'mercy killing' or 'euthanasia' to describe the actions of the perpetrators. The message is clear: killing a disabled person is different to killing a non-disabled one.
In a piece for feminist website XO Jane last month, disability activist s.e. smith writes:
"The media tells us that having a disabled child is hard and there are extenuating circumstances in these cases which must be considered before "judging" parents who murder their children. Disabled people, in this narrative, are burdens to be handled rather than human beings who deserve dignity and respect -- the assumption is that disabled people have no quality of life, and that it's better to be dead than disabled."
The killing of a disabled person is not 'compassionate'. It is not 'euthanasia'. It is murder. The fact that a mother who deliberately withholds food from her disabled child for a long enough period that her child starves to death is not only excused of her crime but praised for her loving and devoted parenting, should be of great concern to us all.
The purpose of our justice system is to reflect the values of our society, and to punish those who violate our standards. As disabled people, we should be able to live safe in the knowledge that we're just as protected by this system as anyone else. The case of Kyla Puhle is a disturbing reminder that this is not yet a reality.
Stella Young is the editor of ABC's Ramp Up website. View her full profile here.
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