Thursday, July 22, 2010

Texas Mom Murders Her Two Autistic Children -- What Do You Say to Your Kids?

A 30-year-old woman in Irving, Texas called 911 on Monday and told dispatchers she had just murdered her two children, ages 2 and 5.  A tape of the phone call records the mother saying that she tried to poison them with bathroom cleaner and strangled them with a wire when they refused to drink it.  One child died later that day at the hospital, and another died late Tuesday.  In her phone call, the mother says that she killed her children because they were autistic, and she wanted normal children.

This horrific case has enough layers in it to seemingly match any agenda of any commentator or blog writer anywhere.  In searching for information about the case, I have found a great deal of commentary from organizations supporting families with autistic children, talking about the level of stress that parents are under.  I have also found a smattering of people bemoaning the fact that this mother will almost certainly plead insanity.  Then there are your death penalty advocates, and your assorted anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant types.

I will not pretend to know what brought this woman to do what she did.  This case is horrible no matter how you analyze it.  And while I may have opinions on some of the political issues that others have raised, in the absence of any real information about how this case may more may not relate to those I will keep them to myself.

That is not to say, however, that I don't have a proverbial horse in this race.  One of my first thoughts upon hearing about this is to wonder what I would say to my own children if they heard about it.  I have no interest in exposing them to this news, and there is no reason to.  But kids hear and see things that we don't mean for them to know about all the time.  What would you tell a child who asked why this woman killed her children?

Let's start with what a child who asks about this is really asking.  If your child is old enough to read or to comprehend a verbal news broadcast, then he or she already has the facts, such as we know them, about this case before asking about it.  And yet, kids still ask.  It's not that they're forgetful or simpleminded, it's just that they don't have the words to ask what they really want to know.  They are not asking why she did this in an attempt to find out why she said she did it (i.e. that her children were disabled).  They are asking what we all are asking, which is a more global, "How on earth could anyone do this?"  On top of that, they are asking for some idea of whether the notion of a mother killing her children makes sense to us.  They want some help gauging just how common this is, which in turn helps them gauge just how likely it is to happen to them.

In the words of one of my mentors, when children ask questions we need to listen to the melody, not just the lyrics.  If your child asks you why this woman killed her children, here are a few things you might think about saying:

  • I don't know.  It's hard to imagine how someone could do that, and it's very upsetting to hear about.
  • She must have been more upset than I or anyone I have ever met has ever been to do something like that.  I have never even thought about doing anything even close to that, and I never would.
  • Nobody really knows.  However, I would guess that she had an illness in her mind that made her think that was an OK thing to do.  I'm sure that if she had a healthy mind, she would not think it was OK.
  • That is a really scary story, isn't it?  One of the reasons it's on the news is that things like that are so unusual that it gets everyone's attention.  We are hearing all about this story, but let's not forget that it's something that's really, really, really unlikely.
Kids need to know that we take their questions seriously, that we will answer them when we can, that we will admit when we can't, and that we will try to help them with the feelings that motivate their questions even when they can't quite put them into words.  And then, when we're done, we can slip back to adult company and admit, amongst ourselves, that the question of "why" is still bothering us, too.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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