On June 9, Alex Spourdalakis, an autistic 14-year-old, was found stabbed to death in his bed in the apartment in River Grove, Illinois, where he lived with his mother, Dorothy Spourdalakis. She and Jolanta Skrodzka, Alex’s godmother and caretaker, were found in the same room in a semiconscious state after Minas Spourdalakis, Alex’s father, and another relative called 911 when they were unable to contact Alex’s mother.
Dorothy Spourdalakis and Skrodzka have both been charged with the murder of Alex, who is described as being severely autistic and non-verbal. Authorities have found a three-page letter that describes what ABC news calls “the ordeal of caring for a severely autistic – and sometimes violent – teenager.”
Disability Advocates Press For Federal Hate Crimes Charges
Emphasizing how unnecessary, and tragic, Alex’s death was, Jeff Rosen, chairperson of the National Council on Disability, contends that the killing of Alex occurred because of his disability — because he was autistic — and should be considered a hate crime. As Rosen says in a statement:
“Alex Spourdalakis did not die because of lack of services, or because living with or raising a child with a disability is difficult… No, Alex Spourdalakis was killed; killed by those entrusted to care for and protect him.”
The National Council on Disability advises the President and Congress on disability issues and is joining forces with disability rights advocates from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) to have Spourdalakis and Skrodzka charged with a hate crime. Noting that “many in the media have attempted to excuse Alex’s murder or sympathize with his killers” on the basis of “the challenges of his disability and the need to improve the quality and availability of service-provision,” a statement from ASAN says that:
“In truth, Alex’s murder is about a reprehensible and repulsive ideology all too common within our society that preaches that it is better to be dead than disabled.”
Tragically, Alex is not the only autistic individual or an individual with a disabilty to have been killed by a relative in recent memory. Wendolyn Markcrow suffocated her 36-year-old son with Down Syndrome, Patrick, in Buckinghamshire in England in 2005. 3-year-old Katherine McCarron was killed by her physician mother, Karen McCarron, with a plastic bag in Illinois in 2006. 11-year-old Glenn Freaney was strangled by his mother, Yvonne Freaney, in a hotel room outside Cardiff in Wales in 2010. McCarron was convicted of murder and is serving a 36-year sentence; Markcrow and Freaney were both given sentences of manslaughter instead of murder. While Markcrow was given a two-year-sentence, Freaney was not sentenced to any time in prison; the judge told her that he believed she had been “punished enough.”
I know from caring for my own severely autistic teenage son that doing so can be extremely challenging. But what happened to Alex and to these individuals with disabilities is too terrible to contemplate. It should not have happened.
The Case of Alex Spourdalakis
According to the Chicago Tribune, the “River Grove Police Department was used to getting calls” from the Spourdalakis’ residence and “six to eight police officers were needed to assist ambulance personnel in strapping the boy to a stretcher” for visits to the doctor’s office. Alex’s parents had filed for bankruptcy in 2005 and had divorced in February after 23 years of marriage. His mother requested sole custody of him; an older daughter moved with Alex’s father elsewhere in the Chicago area.
Alex had been mentioned in news reports earlier this year when he was hospitalized in two Chicago area hospitals for reasons that are not entirely clear, as one doctor writes after carefully examining reports. Divorce papers for Alex’s parents say that, in addition to being autistic, he had ”aggression and a sleep disorder.” Spoudalakis had undertaken an online campaign to get funding for what seemed to be biomedical treatments for autism. Groups associated with such experimental treatments and “known for their criticism of mainstream autism treatment approaches [had] quickly embraced Alex’s story,” says the Chicago Tribune. The discredited British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, who has been associated with such “biomedical quackery,” had appeared in a video with Alex in May and appealed for funds for him, claiming that Alex would otherwise be placed in a psychiatric facility.
On January 24, an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) investigator had visited Alex in response to a hotline allegation of neglect, but “found no wrongdoing,” officials say. Dave Clarkin, a DCFS spokesman, says that “family members refused DCFS referrals to community-based services ranging from respite to psychological counseling.” Public agencies and medical professionals still seemed to have concerns about Alex’s care. One of the hospitals he was at had told Spourdalakis that he could be placed with DCFS if she did not agree to a certain care plan. It is not clear what sort of school and educational services Alex was receiving.
Spourdalakis and Skrodzka are to appear in court on July 3. Prosecutors say the two women had planned for a week to kill Alex. The letter and statements from the two women reveal that they intended to kill themselves by swallowing multiple pills. Furthermore, after Spourdalskis allegedly killed her son with a kitchen knife after giving him an overdose of medication, Skrodzka killed their cat because they did not want the pet to be sent to a shelter.
Hate Crimes Charges Based on Disability Have Only Been Filed Once
It has only been since 2009 that the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act expanded federal law to “allow for prosecution in cases where crimes are committed based on a person’s gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability,” says Disability Scoop. So far, the Justice Department has only filed hate crimes charges in one case. Earlier this year, five people were charged with hate crimes for holding a group of individuals with disabilities captive for years in subhuman conditions in Philadelphia, in order to take their Social Security checks.
The National Council on Disability is planning to meet with the FBI to discuss Alex’s case and is also seeking to meet with the Department of Justice. Whether or not Alex’s death is ruled a hate crime, efforts to categorize it as such are crucial to prevent future acts of violence against autistic persons. They send a powerful message that, while life with and caring for someone with a disability can be very challenging, individuals with disabilities must not and never be seen as a burden.
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