A grandmother allegedly killed her 30-year-old grandson with disabilities because she was afraid no one would take of him after she died, according to WFLA. While the grandmother’s fears about care for her grandchild are common in the disability parenting community, murder is never a viable option.
Lillian Parks, an 87-year-old Florida resident, was arrested for the alleged murder of her adult grandson, 30-year-old Joel Parks, who lived with a disability. According to Bradenton, Florida, police, Parks killed her grandson because she was afraid she would die soon and no one would take care of Joel. Joel needs assistance and lived in a group home during the week and with his grandmother on the weekends.
Since her arrest, police are holding Parks in a secure medical facility under a doctor clears her. WFLA said she will likely be charged with second-degree murder.
“She was concerned about her medical condition and was worried about who would be carrying for him in the event that she passed away,” said Bradenton Police Department Captain Brian Theirs. “This is a process where it was thought out, planned. And she took a human life.”
Murdering a person with disabilities — legally referred to as filicide — is not rare. Between 2011 and 2015, 219 people with disabilities were killed by either their parent or a caregiver, a white paper from the Ruderman Family Foundation reported. These figures translate to about one murder per week, a rate which David Perry, the white paper’s author, said is conservative and likely underreported. Other groups tracking the murders of disabled people, Perry said, have broader parameters than the Ruderman white paper, with estimates of 400 to 600 murders for the same period of time.
“To be disabled in America is to be at higher risk for violence in basically all ways,” Perry previously told The Mighty in an interview about the white paper. “We belong to a society that too often associates disability with tragedy and disability with suffering as just a kind of default position. We have to call these things murder. Murderers are murderers, killing is killing, and they need to be responded to with all of the appropriate condemnation and legal response as we would in any other crime.”
There is little hope of improving these rates unless we change the way society views people living with disabilities. The murders of disabled people are not “mercy” killings, as they are often painted in the news or during trial. They are murders, and the people killed deserve justice just like everyone else.
“Everyone should be concerned about the fact that our society often takes a permissive attitude towards violence against people with disabilities,” Zoe Gross, the director of operations at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and founder of the Disability Day of Mourning, told The Mighty. “The belief that disability is a justification for violence is pervasive in our culture in ways that many people are not consciously aware of.”
The language you use is important. If you react to a murder differently, ask yourself if it is because the person is disabled, Gross said. Acknowledge the humanity of the person who was killed. “Center the victim, not the perpetrator. Say that murder is wrong, and don’t qualify that by saying that you ‘don’t condone, but understand’ a perpetrator’s decision to murder their child,” she said. “Do not normalize abuse and murder of people with disabilities.”
For aging parents or loved ones of adult children with disabilities, it’s common to worry about what will happen to an adult child after their caregiver dies. One of Aretha Franklin’s handwritten wills highlighted this concern after she died. Franklin left explicit instructions for the care of her son Clarence, who has a disability. As parent and Mighty contributor Charlie Beswick wrote:
Worrying about what will happen to my son after I die clings to my soul and rears its head when I least expect it. A constant reminder the relationship I have with motherhood is a world apart from that of my friends. Even between my boys, my responsibilities differ more than I ever imagined or wanted them to.
If your family is concerned about the future of an adult loved one with disabilities, there are many early planning options that can help. However, a 2018 study found that less than half of parents of children with intellectual or developmental disabilities have long-term plans in place for their care. Planning can include estate planning, setting up a special needs trust, finding a second-to-die insurance policy, opening an Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) account through your state or creating what the company Special Needs Financial Planning calls a letter of intent that outlines what you want to happen for your child or loved one.
“It is so important to begin planning early and review it often. Things change,” Cynthia Haddad, co-founder and partner of Special Needs Financial Planning, told The Mighty via email, adding:
The vision that a parent has for their child when young will change as they grow and mature — and their needs and abilities grow and mature as well. Parents’ personal financial situation changes, their health and marital situations may change, their own goals for their family, their retirement, their estate plan also change as do their own needs and abilities to continue to support and care for their child with special needs as they too age.
Adult protective services (APS) can also help. The agency is not just for reporting neglect or abuse of disabled adults, it can help you identify resources or supports available to your loved ones.
“Community resources vary greatly across the country and even within geographic areas. But APS, the local office on aging and the state’s protection and advocacy agency will all have lists of the local resources available to help,” Lori Delagrammatikas, executive director of the National Adult Protective Services Association, told The Mighty via email. “If the first agency you contact can’t provide you with services, ask them who else you should contact. No one agency is going to know all the available resources. Keep asking.”
So while preparing for a disabled child’s future may be a significant worry for many families, there are many resources and steps you can take proactively.
“The old saying that ‘people don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan’ is key in this situation,” Haddad said. “Start early, review often, and communicate, communicate, communicate so everyone will know what the expectations and the plan will be when something happens to Mom and/or Dad.”