San Diego mother pleads guilty in the drowning murder of her autistic son

29 Dec

Channel 10 news in San Diego reports Patricia Corby, woman accused in autistic son’s death, pleads guilty to murder charges, Corby faces sentence of 15 years to life.

The story begins

SAN DIEGO – A woman who drowned her 4-year-old autistic son in a bathtub, then drove his lifeless body to a police substation where she admitted the crime, pleaded guilty Thursday to second-degree murder.

Patricia Corby, 37, sobbed as she admitted killing her son, Daniel, last March 31.

The mother reportedly drowned her 4 year old son, attempted to drown herself and then drove to the police department to turn herself in.

As an aside: such events as these bother me a great deal. I have a great deal of difficulty discussing these stories and I resort to a rather clinical approach in my writing.

In a previous story it was reported that when she turned herself in:

…she told police that the boy was autistic and that she didn’t believe he would have a life or a future without her, so she decided to kill him, the prosecutor said.

Multiple sources are reporting that the the family had spent a large sum on therapy, implying that financial stress played into the decision to murder her son. This sort of inference is often a source of much controversy for, among other reasons, playing into the “autistic as burden” discussion.  Also statements about the family’s debt are taken by some as an attempt to partially justify the murder.

Ironically, in most murder cases a financial incentive is seen as adding guilt to the crime. However, when a parent murders a disabled child, the financial incentive seems to be used to reduce guilt.

Not mentioned is the discussion of finances is that the murder happened just a few months before California law changed making autism therapies much easier to obtain through insurance. The family was reported to have a history of employment problems, but the father was employed at the time of the murder and may have had medical benefits.

Comments in online stories range from “I would have taken the child in” to “don’t judge the mother unless you have walked in her shoes” to comments that seem to emanate from a modern-day Ebeneezer Scrooge.

As an aside, it is my personal opinion that the “you haven’t walked in his/her shoes” discussion point is beyond meaningless. Consider a term that is often discussed in the context of autism: empathy.

Empathy is the capacity to recognize feelings that are being experienced by another sentient or fictional being. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion.

Somehow we are not supposed to be capable of empathy where it applies to being critical of the mother’s actions, but we are supposed to be capable of empathy in considering offering the mother sympathy.

Another term that comes up often in autism discussions is “balance”. As in “that news story needed to give both sides to show ‘balance’ “. Usually this is in regards to some totally unscientific or disproven idea about autism. News stories about parents murdering their autistic children almost never give balance in regards to presenting any one of  the hundreds of thousands of stories where parents don’t murder their autistic children. Stories of how it is difficult, but does not warrant murder.  How the norm for those of us who have “walked in her shoes” is to keep walking, not to commit murder.  There is no balance in the form of autistic voices, except in the comments to no online stories. Comments that are often met with a “you haven’t walked in her shoes” reply.

Some question why so many parents actively shun the “pity politics” of autism, where real difficulties and challenges for our children and ourselves are colored by language of hopelessness and despair. Among the many excellent reasons I would include  the desire to not encourage the sort of despair that Patricia Corby felt.

Discussions of these types of events are very difficult for many reasons. Not the least of which is being respectful to the family. I wish the father and the family well in this difficult time and apologize for intruding in this tragedy.

By Matt Carey

19 Responses to “San Diego mother pleads guilty in the drowning murder of her autistic son”

  1. Low Budget Dave December 29, 2012 at 07:31 #

    Well said. Every time I read stories like the one described, I have to turn away from other people for a few minutes. Other than sites like this one, I usually avoid reading such stories on the internet. The stories are bad enough, but the comment sections can be too much to bear.

  2. jason nolan December 29, 2012 at 13:24 #

    The irony of people with autism being said to lack empathy, when what parents do to children exudes a lack of empathy. And of course the autism community seem again to be the empathetic ones. Makes you wonder how children with autism are being abandoned to their parents without support. One has to ask if parents are qualified to bring up autistic children. Not that many aren’t amazingly supportive and engaged. I know so many who are, but that should not be an assumption. Autistics are an at risk group and should be afforded protection from parents who are unable to provide them with the support they need.

    My mother still talks about her inability to communicate with her autistic son, but she’s happy I turned out ok.

    • chavisory December 29, 2012 at 16:40 #

      And also “theory of mind.” We’re the ones who are supposed to lack theory of mind, often described as the ability to conceive of other people having minds that work independently and differently from one’s own.

      But wasn’t the non-autistic murderer in this case the one who displayed the ultimate lack of theory of mind? That her child had a perception of his own life independent from her own? No…because she considered his life not worth living without her, he can’t have had an independent, equally valid perception that his life was worth keeping. /sarcasm

  3. lilady December 29, 2012 at 15:24 #

    Here’s one time that I wish that I “do Facebook”….to reply to the poster who stated “don’t judge the mother unless you have walked in her shoes”…to justify the act of murdering a child.

    Parenting is the toughest “job” and some people never quite “get it”, whether or not they have a child with multiple, or no developmental, physical or medical issues. Trust me…I know.

    Too bad the mom didn’t read blogs such as LB/RB and many others, where parents of autistic children, share their experiences and don’t indulge (wallow) in “why me”, “woe is me”, “martyr me” and “pity me” comments about their children.

  4. chavisory December 29, 2012 at 16:42 #

    More and more I believe that what non-autistic people call “empathy” really only means empathy for the right people.

  5. M.Valdez. December 29, 2012 at 17:21 #

    There is no reason. I can’t believe that someone made the comment of “walking in her shoes” crap. So since the child was autistic it was okay for the mother to kill him because her life was “hard”? No, there is no way to justify this situation. She did what she did because she is selfish. There are things that you can do so that your child is well taken care of if something were to happen to you. Things that we have done for our son and will continue to do for our son no matter the financial stress. This breaks my heart. I am tired of people saying “people with autism don’t have empathy” because they are usually the ones with the empathy issues. Enough said..I am done rambling..
    Well written post by the way.

    • Lara Lohne December 29, 2012 at 22:16 #

      I can’t even imagine even attempting to kill any of my children, much less by drowning them. My son, even when he was four years old, was very strong and he would have fought. To show such callousness toward a four year old child holding them under the water while they struggled to get away, how could anyone even conceive of doing that?

      When I learned I was pregnant with my son, I was shocked. I was nearly 36 years old and it had been nearly 8 years since my last child was born, and she wasn’t supposed to have been possible. So when I learned I was pregnant, while I didn’t relish the idea of going through pregnancy again (I, unlike some women, have difficult pregnancies an hated every minute of each one) I knew that I was keeping him. I didn’t know he would have autism, but given my age I did consider the possibility that something would go wrong, or my child could have a disability, and I made the decision to keep him anyway.

      I knew right away that something was different, he was much more challenging then any of my other children, but it wasn’t until he was about two that we entertained the idea that he had autism and began to seek evaluation. Even with his diagnosis, he is still my son, the son that I wasn’t supposed to be able to have, and given how sweet he is, and how funny he is and how affectionate and truly sincere he is in everything he does and everything he says, he was the best decision I have made in my life.

      My comment to the article was basically stating, these things, any disability, should be considered when making the decision to have a child, simply because any disability is a possibility any time a child is conceived. If a person is not ready, willing and able to accept that possibility and everything that goes along with it, they should reconsider their decision to have children, because unlike buying food that sounds good and then turns out to not be good, you can’t just throw your child away. Nobody gets to choose their child, they will be who they are meant to be and if a person is not able to deal with that, don’t have children, or give your child up for adoption to a family who can deal with it. No child, autistic of otherwise, deserves to be murdered at the hands of their parent. And I don’t believe that 15 years is long enough for her. I think also she should be sterilized so she can’t have another child and risk murdering that one too. Of course, that is just how I feel about it.

  6. Anna December 30, 2012 at 02:07 #

    She is the wrong one. I’m autistic and I was student of the month!

  7. krissy December 30, 2012 at 11:15 #

    I can’t believe anyone would try and justify what she did. Its despicable that people make excuses for child killers.

  8. Cade DeBois (@lifepostepic) December 30, 2012 at 14:29 #

    My take on these stories are not the popular one in teh autism community and one of the reasons why I feel a lot of ambivalent about the integrity and value of this site. I’m a 40yo autistic, and I have worked many years with special needs kids. I started out working with well-off families tutoring their special needs kids and ending up working in a poor ISD with special needs kids until I couldn’t take it anymore. The difference is night and day. I’ve seen the full spectrum of parents of special needs kids, from the overly involved, ridiculously positive ones who write blogs trying to tell everyone else what being a parent of special needs kids should be and seem to devour their special needs child’s identities for themselves (yeah, you know who I’m talking about), to the fortunate ones who actually manage to find some degree of balance, to the tireless soldier ones whose lives are literally an endless stream of issues with very little joy (it *does* happen), to the scary screaming-at-the-school-admin-and-everyone-else ones, to the ones who I’ve had to report for suspected child abuse, to the ones who you knew were pushed to their limits. I’ve seen parents who were clearly struggling with their own problems–divorce, finances, problems with other children, their own health (physical and mental). And I have come to my own view on these kinds of things. Yes, of course, it’s never right to kill your special needs child, but I’ve never known a parent of a special needs child who would do what this woman did—kill her child and then go confess to it–unless he or she was absolutely driven-beyond-sanity desperate. And with what I’ve seen–actually seen, with my varied, many years expreince across the socioeconomic divide in this country with special needs kids, and not just my own personal experience with my own kid and with my clique of blogging mommy/daddy buddies–I believe that it’s entirely possible.

    Sorry to be so snide in all of that. but I’m sick of the insular circle-the-wagons defensiveness of such discussions within the autism community, especially when they are presented so dishonestly as being objective. You don’t like “pity politics”? I think crying “pity politics” is just a cute disguise for a self-serving, sanctimonious denial of the reality that we as a society can and do egregiously fail some parents of special needs children as well as those children themselves. When you’ve had to have more than a few parent-teacher conferences with a parent who was so mentally drained and so emotionally shut down that you couldn’t talk to them about the issues their child was having, and had to sit there and simply watch them cry quietly and have some empathy for them, then you can get back to me about “pity politics”.

    • Lawrence December 30, 2012 at 14:56 #

      @Cade – murder is never the answer….

    • lilady December 30, 2012 at 17:27 #

      “My take on these stories are not the popular one in teh autism community and one of the reasons why I feel a lot of ambivalent about the integrity and value of this site.”

      No one cares about “your take” when it comes to murdering a child, Cade. You are condoning the murder of a child, based on your “experience” and your “expertise”.

      Which site would you recommend that has more integrity and value?

    • Sullivan (Matt Carey) December 30, 2012 at 17:54 #

      I am quite comfortable with my stance against pity politics. The practice dehumanizes both the autistic and the parent. It promotes the idea of hopelessness. Needlessly. The real challenges are enough to justify a request for support.

    • Lara Lohne December 30, 2012 at 21:14 #

      What it comes down to, Cade, is there are some people that should think twice about having a child, because there is never any certainty that child is going to be what you dream in your head that it will be. In fact, most likely your child in reality is never like the dream child of your imagination. However, there are some that can’t even fathom having a special needs child, and when it happens is not able to accept it. These are the people who need to reconsidering having children of their own. And if they aren’t able to care for a special needs child, put it up for adoption (not into foster care, which is different) but murdering a child is never a solution to anything. The fact that she says it was costly (what was it that cost $70,000 in four years) and her son wasn’t progressing as fast as she wanted him to, and she never had time to herself, how is that justification for murdering a child? autistic progression does not happen in your time frame, it happens when the child is ready to progress, and just as with NT children, every child is different. My guess is she was attempting to ‘cure’ him and it wasn’t working so she killed him instead. At four years old, my son was not much different then he was at two, other then he had rudimentary verbal skills. But after one year more, is progress exploded and he is significantly different now and making more and more progress all the time! She didn’t give her son a chance to show him what he could be, she was too interested in what she was missing now to even think about the future. I don’t care if she confessed to it afterward, she only did that after she tried to drown herself and it failed, then she confessed, if her story can even be believed at this point. Taking a life kind of destroys all credibility in my book. There is nothing to justify her actions, no matter which way you slice it. There is help, and support out there for families of autistic and other special needs children, one has to look for it, and ask for it, but it is there. My gut feeling on this is she didn’t want help raising an autistic child, she wanted to ‘cure’ his autism and turn him into a ‘normal’ child. When it wasn’t working, (because you can’t cure autism) she killed him because she’d rather have a dead child then an autistic child. This is the damage done by the anti-vaccinationists who spread their misinformation and pseudoscience far and wide and parents, unfortunately, believe it rather then look into the science and use critical thinking skills. I’m sorry but this situation struck a nerve with me. As the younger sister of a disabled mane (he has cerebral palsy) and as the mother of an autistic son who is my pride and joy at this point in time (my other children don’t like with me currently). My parents were abusive to my siblings and I, my older brother who had trouble walking, was beat, kicked, knocked down and all manner of degrading and abusive actions. He wasn’t ever hospitalized because of the abuse as I was a couple of times, but it took its toll on him and he turned into a very angry and violent person, because all he knew was violence and when he got angry, he would act out because he was never given tools to regulate his emotions. I don’t blame him, not really, as he has the mental and emotional maturity of about 7 years old, but I do blame my parents, because you don’t treat any child in that manner, but particularly one with special needs.

      • Lara Lohne December 30, 2012 at 21:22 #

        Sorry for the typos, I didn’t proofread my comment before I posted:

        ” But after one year more, is progress exploded …”

        should read

        But after one year more, his progress exploded …”

        “As the younger sister of a disabled mane (he has cerebral palsy) …”

        should read

        “As the younger sister of a disabled man…”

        “(my other children don’t like with me currently). ”

        should read

        “(my other children don’t live with me currently).”

  9. Anne December 30, 2012 at 18:50 #

    Daniel’s story reminds me a little of Katie McCarron’s story. These young children had both parents in the picture, a family with resources and a willingness to use them to treat the child, and a mom who was using alternative therapies to try to take her kid’s autism away and was frustrated that it wasn’t working. Trying to “cure” your child can suck up all your emotional and financial resources to no avail. These babies can’t change who they are. They needed their parents’ love and protection, and instead suffered the ultimate betrayal. My heart goes out to all the people involved.

    • Lawrence December 30, 2012 at 21:22 #

      @Anne – I hadn’t thought of that…parents that were so invested in “curing” their child that they have no concept of actually loving their children just the way they are…..and the frustrating that must build when they find out that the “biomedical interventions” don’t do a damn thing….

  10. Michelle December 31, 2012 at 18:32 #

    “…Not mentioned is the discussion of finances is that the murder happened just a few months before California law changed making autism therapies much easier to obtain through insurance. The family was reported to have a history of employment problems, but the father was employed at the time of the murder and may have had medical benefits…”
    It is risky to perpetuate the myth that the passage of such a law makes therapies, in actuality, easier or more affordable to obtain. This of course is not an excuse for the mother’s horriffic actions but rather a clarification that passage of the new laws does not equal affordable or timely access to therapies and services just because a parent has “medical benefits”. It is merely the beginning of a long, complicated, and still wildly expensive process.

    • Sullivan (Matt Carey) December 31, 2012 at 19:09 #

      I was able to get my company to acknowledge their responsibility to provide insurance coverage for autism and mental health diagnoses before the new law went into effect in California. I speak fro experience in the fact that it is easier now.

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