Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Wendy Garland dies after abuse and neglect from family

Major content warning for discussion of abuse and neglect

Wendy Garland, a New Jersey woman with disabilities, died last week after her primary caregivers, her mother and sister, abused and neglected her. Helene Hutchinson and Florence Garland have been charged "with neglect of an elderly or disabled person." Garland, who had cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, had not received medical attention in over two years. She lived and died in a dilapidated, overheated room filled with roaches, trash and feces.

Her family waited more than two hours after discovery of her body to call 911. In an attempt to mask their abuse, her mother, sister, brother-in-law, and nephew moved furniture and carried her from the 100-degree room she died in to the front door of the air-conditioned first floor. The house was a grim scene:
Police say both the first and second floors were infested with roaches, flying insects and rotting food...The toilet on the second floor was broken and full of feces, there was a bucket of urine on the floor in the bathroom and the shower area was filled with garbage, police said. In the victim's bedroom, the ceiling had collapsed and beams were visible.
Wendy Garland’s death is evidence of the danger in assuming that related caretakers have their family member’s best interest in mind. Able-privileged caretakers, particularly those who are kin to the person they care for, are given latitude where it’s not deserved. Their “sacrifices” earn them the benefit of the doubt, and someone else’s disability becomes their “burden”. Caregivers and family of PWD are often centralized in conversations about disability, and some shift those discussions to themselves. This is ableist. While family members and caretakers can be both critiqued and praised in disability discourse, the focus should always be on the person with disabilities.

The death of Wendy Garland is horrific. Her abuse went unnoticed, unchecked because of ableism: societal devaluation of people with disabilities and misplaced trust in abled family members. Garland’s death is a direct result of abuse on the part of her caregivers, the people in her life that some want to canonize and position as her selfless saviors. Parents, partners, siblings and other folks taking care of persons with disabilities can be wonderful, but they are not necessarily helpful: they can hinder, they can neglect, they can abuse, they can hurt, they can kill.


  1. The death of Wendy Garland really highlights the problem of lack of support for families who choose to take care of disabled relatives - emotionally and especially financially.

    This is neglect yes, but I ask what these women could have done instead. Not what they were should to do or where they should have gone in a perfect world but what course of action, in the reality that they lived was open to them? There house has been in foreclosure for 2 years - these are not the type of people who have enough money to afford a caregiver for their sister/daughter or to send her to a home where she could be taken care of, or perhaps whatever they could afford to spend on their daughter/sister was gone long ago. The woman had not seen the doctor for 2 to 3 years - again, I think a lack of money played a part in this, especially with no health insurance.

    This is not an excuse of their act, or a cry for sympathy or apologism. It is a question. What could these women, within their circumstances, have done to prevent this? Are there charities they could have turned to?

    On the other side of the coin there's also a shame associated with mothers who aren't capable of dealing with their severely disabled children. It's a no-win situation. You try to take care of your disabled child and fail or you give them into care and feel ashamed for not being capable.

    I have to disagree though that caring for someone is not a burden or sacrifice. It is. Taking responsibility for someone else's life and wellbeing when they are extremely sick or disabled for any amount of time is stressful, and while I don't think their sacrifices should give them a sainthood or a get-out-of-responsibility-free card, they do make them and it can take away any freedom they once had; their lives now revolve around the needs of another person. It's not a task with lots rainbows and lollipops, it's filled with moment of joy but also a lot of moments of frustration and sadness. And it's disrespectful to a caregiver to say that their feelings of being burdened and having to make sacrifices are wrong.

  2. If you think people need "support" in order to avoid leaving a person in a room full of feces and roaches, then you're the one who needs support.

  3. Let's stay respectful and avoid namecalling, guys.

    Becky, you're right, sometimes you can't afford to send your family members to a home or have a live-in caregiver, and without health insurance a lot of people avoid going to see the doctor - I know I do. Sometimes things break in homes and can't be fixed due to poverty and/or lack of skills. Sometimes roaches or insects can't be avoided.

    And Amanda, you're also right, limited options don't mean you can't take care of a disabled family member. Feces? Rotting food? Garbage? Keeping someone in an unairconditioned room when there is space available that is? These are things that can be taken care of.

    But let's please avoid things like "you're the one who needs support" -- this is right up there with "you need help"; it's ablist language and it's not friendly discourse.

  4. People need support for many reasons other than being disabled--in fact, the people Becky is saying need support aren't disabled, right?

    I'm really not comfortable as a disabled person being told that I should be "respectful" to someone who asks "What could these women have done besides keeping Wendy in a room full of feces and garbage?" That type of comment is not "respectful" to disabled people.

    And what they did has nothing to do with "limited options." Of course it's hard to take care of someone when you're really poor. But abusing someone this drastically is a choice, not something that comes out of being poor.


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