TW/Content: Very detailed and graphic discussions of racism and abuse, anti-HIV/AIDS stigma, police violence, ableism, institutions, group homes, foster care system, abuse and neglect by parents, murder of disabled child by parents, childhood sexual abuse
Black Lives Still Matter
Photo: Smiling young black girl inside a classroom. Cyndi O'Neal.
This is Melissa Taylor Stoddard. She was born on March 27, 2001 to Kenneth and Lisha Stoddard in North Carolina. She died three months shy of her twelfth birthday on December 17, 2012.
Melissa was autistic and black. Her older brother was also autistic. Melissa's favorite book was The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle. She loved ladybugs and sang Disney songs in class.
In 2007, the Florida Department of Children and Families investigated the Stoddards after Melissa became obsessed with pulling down her father's pants and trying to touch his penis. Melissa and her brother were also caught touching and licking each other (Russon).
In July 2012, Misty, Melissa's stepmother, saw her brother pulling up his shorts while Melissa hid. Child Protective Services gave Melissa's mother an ultimatum: send her son to a group home or send Melissa to Florida to live with her father. Melissa was sent to Florida to join her five new step and half-siblings. Charges against her brother were dropped.
Once the semester started, Melissa stopped going to school. In a period of five weeks, she only showed up twice. When a social worker was sent to investigate, he claimed he had no reason to believe Melissa was in any danger. Her teacher remembered her repeating phrases she probably heard at home -- "Get out of my house!" "Now look what you've done!" He remembered her hoarding and hiding food. Even on her worst days, though, he knew she'd never hurt herself or banged her head. During a November 8, 2012 meeting with her father and stepmother, Melissa kept saying, "I'm sorry," but they completely ignored her. On November 15, 2012, the last day Melissa attended school, she was upset when it was time to go home; she whimpered and hung her head.
No one at Melissa's school ever called Florida's child protective service.
Her half-siblings later told investigators that Melissa had been tortured for months. She was tied up daily. At night, she was tied to a board. For months, a neighbor heard Melissa screaming and crying while Misty beat her and yelled at her. He could hear the abuse from his own house a few hundred feet away.
No one ever called 911.
On December 7, 2012, Melissa sat outside bleeding from a gash so bad she needed six stitches. Her father told hospital workers that she hurt herself by banging her head on the wall. They took him at his word. After all, Melissa was autistic.
No one ever reported the suspected abuse.
On December 12, 2012, Misty hog-tied Melissa in a four-point restraint, duct-taped her mouth shut, and repeatedly threatened to beat her. She found Melissa unconscious. After arriving at the hospital, the doctors noticed that her whole body was covered in bruises. There were ligature marks -- evidence of restraint -- everywhere.
On December 17, 2012, Melissa was removed from life support.
Her father and stepmother were charged in her death.
There have been no petitions and few blog posts.
Melissa's name is on the list that we read every March for the National Day of Mourning for disabled people murdered by family members or caregivers.
For the most part, she's disappeared from public discourse.
Photo: Front door of a now condemned home in Rockville, Maryland. There is a Do Not Enter notice taped to the door. Dan Morse/The Washington Post.
In July 2014, while police were searching their home because they thought their two other brothers might have drugs (hooray, more racism!) they found a padlocked, deadbolted door in the basement leading to an empty room reeking of urine. Darnell and Derrick were trapped inside. There was no functional light. The only window was too small for anyone to crawl through in case of fire or other emergency. The neighbors claimed they had never seen the brothers outside.
At first, prosecutors described the situation as "deplorable" and "unacceptable." Darnell and Derrick's parents, John and Janice Land, were arrested for false imprisonment and abuse of vulnerable adults. Their mother claimed, unbelievably, that she didn't know they were kept in the basement. A neighbor said she'd heard that they were first locked in the basement three years ago. She called police to report abuse, but no one did anything. Police didn't bother to investigate until they were already looking for drugs in the home of a family of color.
After the parents were arrested, Darnell and Derrick were placed into the custody of social workers for two months. The social workers moved the brothers to a group home. (Make no mistake; this is an institutional setting.) Their parents -- their abusers -- are allowed to visit them.
On December 23, 2014, prosecutors decided to drop all charges against Darnell and Derrick's parents. The defense attorney claims her clients are heartbroken that their sons no longer live with them. Another local attorney (not involved directly) who happens to be a parent of an autistic son and a disability law practitioner was quoted in a Washington Post article saying:
"This was absolutely the correct move to dismiss these cases. You had two struggling parents who were doing the best they could. They were failing, but they weren't committing a crime. It's unfortunate that the parents had to be arrested to get the care their adult children needed and are now receiving."
If you're autistic, it's not abuse.
If you're autistic, it's not neglect.
If you're autistic, it's not a crime for people to hurt you.
If you're autistic, your abusers will keep their visitation rights, and they will be depicted as loving, caring parents who tried their best to help you. Their actions will never be called abuse and they will always get away with hurting you.
Darnell and Derrick Land deserve to live in homes of their choosing, with appropriate services and supports, in their own community, free from fear of future abuse. Placement in a group home while their abusers have access to them is not enough.
Photo: Hands holding framed photo of young black man, Neli Latson, smiling. Linda Davidson / The Washington Post.
On May 24, 2010, Neli (18 at the time) was waiting for his local library to open. He was sitting in front of the library, across the street from an elementary school. He was wearing a hoodie.
Police were called by a passerby who saw a young black man in a hoodie and said there was a suspicious black male, possibly with a gun. Approached by the school resource officer who asked for his name and identification, Neli panicked. He didn't give his name and he tried to walk away repeatedly.
The officer claims that Neli then attacked him unprovoked. Neli claims that the officer first called him (and President Obama) racial slurs, choked him, Tasered him, pepper sprayed him, and beat him. The officer was seriously injured afterward, and Neli was charged for assault. After his conviction, he was initially sentenced to two years of prison and eight years of probation, which could be rescinded at any time.
Since then, Neli has been in and out of prison repeatedly. While on probation after serving the first two years, he threatened suicide at the group home where he'd been transferred. Police were called, and he hit another officer in panic, landing back in prison. For over a year, Neli has been in solitary confinement. Because he is autistic and has intellectual disabilities, he is considered too vulnerable to be in general population (not without unfortunately very good reason). But instead of receiving any form of support, he's been punished further.
Like Darnell and Derrick Land, who have been placed into an institutional setting in the name of saving them from abuse, Neli has been essentially punished for his own protection. And yet, instead of arguing for a practical transition plan back to the community, the most prominent advocates calling for Neli's release recently (other than ASAN) have proposed sending him to a locked institution in Florida for "treatment."
#FreeNeli doesn't mean release Neli from the state's prison only to send him to a different kind of prison "for his own good."
Whenever anyone begins to talk about some kind of institutional placement or residential treatment as a humane alternative to incarceration, I want to cry. People with abusive and violent tendencies flock to positions where they have unchecked power and control over other people's lives and bodies. People with disabilities, especially those with the most significant intellectual and developmental disabilities, are among the most vulnerable to all forms of abuse and exploitation. In the context of an institution, the likelihood of violence increases manifold.
But in the four years since I first learned the name Neli Latson, since I first believed that better law enforcement training alone would be enough, nothing has gotten better for a young, autistic, black man suffering from completely preventable and unnecessary torture in solitary confinement. Instead of advocates demanding a transition plan to a community-based setting with appropriate services and supports, Neli has the specter of an institution lingering over his head. If all goes according to that plan, he'd be released from one kind of prison only to trade it for a different one.
Neli Latson should be released from prison. He should be returned to his community. His life matters.
Photo: Seven lovely people (five children), all of whom are people of color, wearing matching outfits, smiling at the camera.
This is Morénike Giwa Onaiwu and her beautiful family. Morénike is a fabulous autistic parent of multiple children with various disabilities, as well as an outspoken and accomplished advocate against HIV/AIDS stigma.
A couple of months ago, they were told that two of their children (one 11 and one 13) were going to be forcibly removed and placed into a "therapeutic" group home. Because they have not been allowed to legally adopt the children in question, they have been told that they have no legal right to decide where they should live. Instead, because they have various developmental and psychiatric disabilities, a decision has been made that it's in their "best interests" to be in a group home, because a family placement isn't "adequate" for their "high needs."
The children facing imminent removal have explicitly said they want to stay with their family, but because they're disabled, they've been denied the right to decide where they want to live. That is not community living or appropriate supports. That is total denial of individual autonomy and self-determination. That is ableism in the form of paternalism and compounded cruelty.
Morénike's family has created an online fundraising page for legal funds to fight this decision. They all deserve better. The fundraiser reached the $10,000 goal posted, but it couldn't hurt to give if you have access to financial resources. Their lives matter. Our community is deeply privileged to have Morénike and her family in it, and they need our support. Here, we do have the opportunity to do something that matters. Something that means something for someone.
My hope is that a day will come when absolutely nothing I have ever written will need to be said again. That no one will ever be forced into an institution, no matter how great or complex their needs. That no one will ever face the unrelenting force of state-sanctioned violence. That no one will ever have to live in fear of abuse from people who are supposed to care, from people who are supposed to help. That autistic community will no longer be so white-centric and white-dominated. That whenever violence is done against us, there will be real justice and not merely some farcical mockery of it.
This matters. Let's start the year off right.
#NoGroupHome #BlackLivesMatter #FreeNeli #BlackLivesStillMatter
Read more: (same trigger warnings apply to all links)
- Melissa Stoddard: The Girl No One Saved by Gabrielle Russon
- Hints that something wasn't right before autistic girl died by Gabrielle Russon
- Rockville Parents, Janice and John Land, Accused of Locking Sons With Autism in Basement by Mila Mimica
- Charges dropped in Montgomery autism abuse case by Dan Morse
- ASAN Condemns Maryland for Dropping Charges in Case of Autistic Men in Basement
- Group slams decision to drop charges against parents of autistic twins by Kate Ryan
- Stafford County woman confronts issues of race, autism after son's arrest by Theresa Vargas
- In Va. assault case, anxious parents recognize 'dark side of autism' by Theresa Vargas
- In Virginia, a cruel and unusual punishment for autism by Ruth Marcus
- Why is Reginald Latson being denied the help he needs? by Ruth Marcus
- ASAN Calls for Neli Latson’s Release by Samantha Crane & Lydia Brown (ASAN)
- On Ruth Marcus' Latest Op Ed On the Neli Latson Case by Kerima Çevik
- AWN & WMDSC Joint Statement on Justice for Michael Brown (written by Lydia Brown)