Florida leads the way for caregivers killing kids and seniors with disabilities.
A disturbing new study from the Ruderman Family Foundation shows that statewide, one person with a disability is murdered every week by someone who should be watching out for their well-being.
Advocates say we all have to be the voice for these vulnerable victims.
Investigators say 11-year old Janiya Thomas was murdered and her body stuffed in a box in a freezer in Bradenton in 2015. Her mother, Keishanna Thomas, is accused of killing her.
“I don't think a mother in her right mind would do that, I really don't,” says Diane Dowling, Keishanna Thomas’s aunt.
Thomas is accused of locking the little girl in a bathroom because of digestive problems, then starving, beating and suffocating/drowning her. Keishanna Thomas’ murder trial is scheduled for August in Manatee County.
Sadly, Janiya's not alone.
“Literally skin and bones, and this child looked like that,” said forensic pathologist Dr. Roland Kohr of 9-year-old Cameron Hoopingarner. The boy weighed just 15 pounds after investigators say his guardians starved the blind boy with cerebral palsy to death last week in Indiana.
“It makes me mad that somebody could do this to a child, let alone a child that has physical handicaps and was blind. He was given to a guardian to take care of and this is how he gets treated?
"This is what he deserves? To be starved to death? What kind of animals are they?” said Vigo County Sheriff Greg Ewing.
“I want us to be equally outraged,” said David Perry, father of a boy with Down syndrome and a disability rights journalist. Perry looked at 260 murders of people with disabilities by caregivers from 2011-2015 in the U.S. and Canada. Florida tops the list with 21 cases.
Perry says that too often, as in the case of autistic teen Alex Spourdalakis, caregivers are given sympathy by claiming to be burdened by the disability and the killing is justified.
“Instead of calling murder 'murder' we call them 'mercy killings.' We focus all of our attention on trying to understand how the killer felt rather than focusing on the loss of life,” Perry said.
“I think a dangerous ideology that preaches that people are better off dead than disabled is what led to Alex Spourdalakis' murder,” says Ari Neeman, who heads up a government-funded autism self-advocacy group.
What's worse, Perry says, is that Alex's mother and godmother are already out of jail. He insists the vulnerable victims deserve to live free from fear from those who should be protecting them.
“The people first tried to poison their 14-year-old son, and when that didn't work they stabbed him with knives. They served three years in jail for that. I have to stand up for Alex, and we have to stand up for all of these children and adults,” said Perry.
The study also looks at the media's role in telling the victim's story.