In 2012, Elizabeth Hodgins shot and killed her 22-year-old son, George, in his childhood bedroom in Sunnyvale, Calif. She then turned the gun on herself. Although she murdered her own child, local news described Elizabeth Hodgins as a “devoted and loving mother.” George, on the other hand, was called “low functioning and high maintenance.” George was autistic, and article after article reinforced a single message: His disability made George somehow responsible for his own death. Another mother who knew the Hodgins family told the San Jose Mercury News: “We don’t know what caused this mother to do this. But every mother I know who has a child with special needs has a moment just like that.”
Zoe Gross remembers reading about the murder, and the whiplash she felt: “The pivot was really quick from ‘there’s been this crime and this tragedy’ to ‘caregivers of autistic adults face terrible burdens, and the mother was driven to this.’” Gross is the director of advocacy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and is on the spectrum herself. “This isn’t how society reacts when there’s a murder-suicide and there isn’t a disabled person involved,” she told me.
Gross noticed a pattern in how the media covered George’s murder and other similar murders. “It’s like they’re working off the same script.… We’re pretty clear that no matter what is going on in someone’s life, murder is still unacceptable. But that goes out the window when you introduce disability.”
In response, Gross founded the Disability Day of Mourning. On March 1 every year, disability communities gather to mourn disabled people murdered by their caregivers. The first vigil was held in 2012, outside Sunnyvale City Hall. “It was a small group. We had some local [advocates] there. And we had some people from the community who knew George,” Gross recalled. Since then, the Disability Day of Mourning has become an international movement, with 32 vigils planned across the world. Because of the pandemic, all vigils this year will be virtual, except for the one in Sydney, Australia, where Covid-19 is less widespread. “We usually have between 30 and 40 sites every year. Most of them in the US, but we’ve also had sites in the UK, Australia, and China,” Gross said.
At every vigil, advocates read from a list of names. The first year, the list was short. “It wasn’t because there hadn’t been a lot of people killed.… It was because it was just a list that I had put together on my own,” Gross said. The original enumeration included names from multiple years, and was based on a similar catalog called the Record of the Dead, which had been published on the now defunct blog Feminists with Disabilities. Now there are hundreds of names, and it is no longer practical to read it in its entirety. “Most will now read just the names that have been added the year since we had the previous vigil,” Gross explained.
It isn’t clear how many disability-motivated filicides happen each year. While the FBI tracks the number of children killed by their parents in the United States, information about motive is not usually collected. Instead, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network tracks news stories about caregivers who kill. The stories are collected on a website and maintained by a volunteer. “It’s done with Google news search,” Gross explained. The person “has a pretty specific Boolean search string of words that they use.… It’s the best methodology available to us.”
Due to the delayed and incomplete nature of news reports, murders are sometimes added to the database years after they happen. Since March of last year, the website counts a little under a hundred killings. The site tracks murders dating all the way back to the 1980s. Gross is concerned that the coronavirus may increase the danger for disabled people. “There has been a spike in domestic violence during the pandemic,” she said, “and we know people with disabilities are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, including child abuse, including partner abuse.”
When Disability Day of Mourning started, it was surprisingly controversial. “My fiancée was telling someone about the work that I do, and the person she was talking to said, ‘Oh, well, surely something like that everyone agrees about, surely it wouldn’t be considered political,’” Gross said. But everyone did not agree, and it was political. “I was told by many people that [Disability Day of Mourning] is anti-parent or pushes stigma against parents as a class, which I didn’t get, since we had a lot of parents participating,” Gross said, “I just don’t accept that parents who kill their children are representative of parents as a class.”
Instead, Gross worries about how overly sympathetic reporting could cause contagion, as is demonstrably the case with suicide and school shootings. When stories are reported in a way that normalizes, exonerates, or even exalts caregivers who murder disabled people, Gross said, they may encourage copycat crimes. Unlike stories about suicide and school shootings, there has not yet been research on impact or best practices, but it’s a reasonable fear. “When journalists call murderers ‘loving and devoted parents’…the result is an environment in which these murders are seen as acceptable,” Gross wrote in her 2012 essay “Killing Words.”
Gross also highlighted the dehumanizing way disabled people, particularly autistic people, are described in media. In 2014, a mother named Jillian McCabe flung her 6-year-old son, London, off a bridge along the Oregon coast. NBC News coverage quoted Dee Shepherd-Look, a psychology professor and parent: “These children are really unable to be in a reciprocal relationship, and the moms don’t really experience the love that comes back from a child—the bonding is mitigated.” She also described autistic children as “rigid and oppositional,” and said, “I’m surprised [filicide] doesn’t happen more often.” At the time the article was published, Shepherd-Look had been running an education group for mothers of autistic children.
Stories about disability in media, particularly around autism, have been changing. There are more positive stories about disability in mainstream media, and it is less and less socially acceptable to describe autistic and otherwise disabled children as family-destroying monsters. Even better, more disabled journalists are writing stories about the disability community. Disability Day of Mourning is less contentious than it was at its inception, Gross noted, and has been embraced by mainstream disability organizations, including The Arc and Easter Seals. During Barack Obama’s final year in office, the White House liaison to the disability community read a supportive statement from the president at the vigil in Washington, D.C. The statement has been framed and is hanging in Gross’s office. “I still see journalists go back to the old scripts,” Gross told me, “but I see that less, and I more often see people talking about societal ableism…and who we think is worth protecting.”