Thankfully there’s no license required to have children, or the government would probably prohibit intelligent people from becoming parents. Unfortunately, this also means that very stupid people can have children and almost always do. I’m afraid I think that’s what happened in the case of Calista Springer.
CNN’s In Session trial this week is Michigan v Springer & Springer, a tragic case in which a special-needs child (Calista Springer) died in a house fire while under physical restraints, which prevented her from escaping with the rest of her family. Earlier this year, a jury found the Springers guilty, a verdict that represents (in my non-legal opinion) our society’s misunderstanding of the impossibility of providing adequate care in a home setting for many incapacitated people.
Special Needs Children and Home Schooling in Michigan
The Michigan Department of Education provides services to children with special educational needs within the context of the public schools. But the state also gives almost complete latitude to parents to choose to use the services in the public schools or to choose homeschooling. In the Springer case, the child was supposedly being homeschooled.
I happen to approve of homeschooling in many cases, even though I’m a product of public schools and spent most of my life in academe (as the child of an educator, a student, a teacher). However, the Springers don’t appear to have been qualified to properly care for their special-needs child, let alone educate her.
Sidebar: Much was made of the fact that the child was being homeschooled. I suspect that most school systems resent all homeschooling families and would like to find an excuse to take them all to court as child abusers. Instead, it seems to me, school systems ought to embrace homeschooling (as highly cost-effective with taxpayer dollars) and provide extensive support services to homeschooling families to prevent future such tragedies.
The idea that the State of Michigan could find no way to deal with this family’s problems other than to wait for a tragedy to happen and then to prosecute the Springers for child abuse and murder is disturbing. Once again, it seems to me, a jury has been thrust in between the voters (who pay the salaries of the prosecutors and the Department of Education) and the failed local government.
What better emblem of the way governments dump their worst problems in the laps of jurors is there than this? The blazing house in which Calista died is across the street from the courthouse.
In every murder trial involving a defendant or a victim with disabilities, the issue of care-giving always arises.
The parents of serial killers, for instance, are always tried in public opinion. When such a loving parent takes the stand to explain the defendant’s mental problems and ask for mercy, she’s often vilified in the media. The In Session commentators always find such witnesses’ attitude toward the defendant inexplicable.
With their eyes on reelection, lawmakers rush to the cameras to push for another special, new law, like “Calista’s Law,” in this case against restraint of children, even ones who are a danger to themselves and others. This seems to be the typical legislative response to deaths of children and other vulnerable people in their families’ care: to criminalize caregivers and to penalize families for situations beyond their control.
Sidebar: It sounds to me as if the Springers weren’t qualified to care for Calista. They did mistreat her, apparently, although I’m not sure it was intentional. In the televised trial, a fire marshal claimed that if the bedroom door had been shut when the fire occurred, the child might have survived. (But how many parents know it’s safer in a house fire to have all bedroom doors closed? Surely leaving a door open isn’t child abuse.) Much is also being made of the way they provided her with no blankets even when she was chained to her bed. And, it appears as if they might not have given her access to a toilet at night. However, it doesn’t really seem that the restraints were unjustified. She shared a bedroom with other children who needed to be protected from her. If they had locked the bedroom door to keep her from wandering off at night, they would have endangered all the children in the room. What were their options?
In other cases, legislatures and the courts have made it impossible for adult children to take custody of their elderly parents; for families to commit adults to mental institutions although they’re dangerous or incompetent and then have also required hospitals to release such people once medication has controlled their behavior; have made it impossible to force mentally troubled people to take medication, even when it’s intended to prevent suicidal or homicidal behavior; have forced school systems to accommodate special-needs children in the general student population, even when their behavioral problems present risks to other students.
Consider the case of the Ohio highway shooter, Charles A. McCoy, Jr. He was paranoid schizophrenic in his family’s care (on medication after having been repeatedly hospitalized) when he murdered 24 people at random by shooting them through their car windows. Had they permitted his family to have him committed to a state mental hospital rather than requiring them to take care of him, he would likely not have become a serial killer.
Remember when Britney Spears was self-destructing? Even her parents had to jump through legal hoops to help her.
Families at Risk
More and more families are faced with the need to care for mentally challenged people—with little social support for their efforts. A child like Calista Springer is called a “Cinderella in the care of a wicked stepmother,” because other children in the household survived the fire. Her parents are murderers as far as the State of Michigan is concerned.
I suspect, though, from simply observing the defendants in the trial, that the parents are themselves mentally challenged. I doubt we’ll see them take the stand, because their attorneys will advise them not to, so we’ll probably never know whether their behavior was intentionally abusive or just colossally stupid. (Frankly, I think stupidity is the root of most evil.)
The Springers aren’t the only caregivers the law and the media misunderstand. Adult children who seek guardianship of elderly, incompetent parents are assumed by the law to be greedy and exploitative, eager to take their inheritance before their parent dies. Custody battles between divorced parents often end in a child’s forced visitation with a physically abusive parent (fathers almost always have access to their children even when they abused the mother in the children’s presence). The list of untenable court and government-imposed custodial-care situations is endless.
Longevity due to improved health-care and healthier lifestyles increases the percen
tage of elderly with severe mental disabilities (longevity also leads inevitably to elderly with physical disabilities, too). Increased live-birth rates also increase the percentage of children with severe mental and physical disabilities who must be raised by untrained parents. Post-traumatic stress syndrome (not only from warfare but also from domestic violence) is recognized more often now, but no one seems to know how to accommodate its victims, other than to urge their families (if they have one) to “seek professional advice” at their own expense.
I’m no advocate of letting disabled people fall through the cracks or hoping they’ll die quickly. And as a civil libertarian, I fear the power of the state to institutionalize people it finds undesirable. But surely we could provide families with training and advice on how to care for special-needs children and adults.
How does it help for a Michigan legislator to try to tell a family raising a severely troubled child what it can and cannot do to protect the child and themselves? (Instead, they ought to provide families with proper, safe, restraints and in-home training.) How does prosecution for murder help the surviving Springer children when it deprives them of their parents?
Why didn’t the Michigan school system provide education and advice to the Springers when it must have been widely known that the Springers were home-schooling this child?
Even mental-health professionals are challenged when confronted with individuals with problems as severe as Calista Springers’. Science has found no cure. All the high-IQs, Ph.D.s, and M.D.s in the world had no advice to give the Springers, who may not have been intentionally cruel but only very stupid.
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