The Boy and the Bed
This week, police interviewed a mother of a 16 year old Autistic boy who was found chained to a bed. She was later released without charge, and her son was returned home.
And then it started. The media, the cameras and the comments on social media, many from members of the public who argued, ferociously, that although child abuse was 'never all right', the community should 'not judge'. Until you are this mother, a struggling Somalian migrant with five children, you cannot 'walk in her shoes'. You do not know what Autistic children are like, many of them declared - they can be violent, dangerous, and at least the boy would be safe chained to the bed.
In 2008, 16 year old Callista Springer died in a house fire after being chained to a bed in her home. She had tried to escape from the upstairs room, but the chains held her. Her parents were imprisoned, not for murder but for torture and child abuse - 18-50 years.
This was Callista.
But over in Australia, we are not having the same conversation. It appears that torture is not torture, abuse is not abuse, when it is perceived by the general public that there are 'extenuating circumstances'. Those circumstances, of course, being the fact that the child who was chained to the bed has a disability.
From Nicole Rogerson, the CEO of a not for profit parent organisation, Autism Awareness Australia - 'I'm not going to pretend like we don't undertand how these things occur'. Rogerson argues that compassion should be shown to the mother and that the 'situation is complex'.
Groups like Autistic Self Advocacy Network of Australia and New Zealand are horrified at the response. They say that abuse is 'never okay, never excusable'.
'It is a violation of the child’s rights. We needn’t live in a society where these abuses seem to be common place,' their press release says.
'The stigma surrounding autism has a profound impact on the way Autistic people are treated. This stigma leads to shame, shunning, abuse and even death. We along with all the organisations working toward upholding the rights of disabled people condemn this act and the society that allows these acts to continue to occur.'
In online groups, the discussion from the community is wildly divided. She was keeping him safe, many commentators said. You can't judge, because you're 'not in her shoes'. And then there were the speculations about his behaviour and the probability of violence and absconding and eventually the agreement that really, the mother had no choice other than to chain her child to the bed.
In other communities, we call this victim blaming.
We watch it happen when rape victim's sexual histories are dissected, when someone's socio-economic status is examined, when people are determined that poor lifestyle choices must somehow have contributed to the person's abuse. And although this child is Autistic and is behaving in ways that are natural for him to behave in, there's a persistent, othering narrative that the cause of the abuse is to be found within the child himself - despite the fact that there are thousands of Autistic children who are not routinely chained to furniture around Australia.
After a day of wading through this mire, my son asked me a simple question. 'Why did his mother chain him to the furniture?' he asked. Immured in discussions about lack of support and behavioural challenges, the automatic response trembled upon my lips. 'Because he was Autistic, and ran down the street naked,' I had been about to say. I caught myself, horrifed. My response was the ableist equivalent of those who said that rape and murder victim Jill Meagher had asked for it. Walking home from a pub at night, walking in a dark alley, wearing a short skirt, running down the street naked. It's all the same. There are no victims if there are no abusers.
Nicole Rogerson may not be entirely wrong. There is a dearth of supports and services in this country, and that is not entirely a separate discussion. But the decision to place the immediate focus on supporting the perpetrator rather than the victim is ableist, offensive and incredibly damaging. People with disability are entitled to the same human rights as others. And condemnation of abuse should not ever carry the disclaimer 'but'.
Image description: A young man is carried out of a house on a stretcher. His face is pixellated. Image two: Callista Springer