She killed her disabled daughter, and now she has killed herself.
We ask ourselves what we, as a caring society, might have done to avert both tragedies.
We know this for sure:
Bonnie Liltz committed a crime two years ago when she fed a fatal dose of medication into her daughter Courtney’s feeding tube. Liltz was seriously ill at the time, and she feared for her daughter’s fate if she were to die. But to excuse the taking of Courtney’s life as a kind of “mercy killing,” as many of Liltz’s defenders have done, is to suggest that a severely disabled person has a lesser human value.
Courtney’s life was of equal value to that of anybody who is reading these words.
We also know this:
The Cook County judge in this case, Joel Greenblatt, was excoriated when he sentenced Liltz to four years in prison despite a recommendation from prosecutors that she be given probation. And now that Liltz apparently committed suicide on Saturday in her Schaumburg apartment, two days before she was scheduled to report to prison, Greenblatt will be second-guessed even more. The criticism is unfair.
In sentencing Liltz to four years, Greenblatt was attempting to balance compassion with sound public policy. Four years is not probation, but it is a relatively mild sentence for the taking of a life. The judge clearly took into account Liltz’s profound sense of desperation. At the same time, there had to be consequences. Or do we not accord full human value to the severely disabled?
Perhaps most of all, we know this:
Nobody else should find themselves in Courtney and Bonnie Liltz’s shoes, though we know that many do. As a society, we can and should do more to care for those who cannot care for themselves. And we should do more to care for the caretakers.
By all accounts, Bonnie Liltz was a good mother. From the time she adopted Courtney, who then was five, until she ended her daughter’s life 23 years later, she was a devoted caretaker. She gave her all to a child who could not speak or feed herself, had the mental functioning of a toddler and had to wear diapers.
But Liltz, a cancer survivor who continued to struggle with her own health, worried constantly about what would happen if she died. Where would Courtney go?
“People are going to have their opinion, but in my heart it wasn’t murder,” she later told Carol Marin and Don Moseley of NBC5 News. “I mainly did it out of love for her because I didn’t want her to end up the rest of her life living in a state facility and wondering where I am. To me, the only safe place was in Heaven.”
After feeding Courtney the lethal mix of drugs, Liltz consumed the drugs herself, washing them down with wine. She fully expected to die with her daughter, though she did not.
Liltz had good reason to worry about Courtney’s future. She had once, while undergoing cancer treatment, placed Courtney in an emergency residential setting, and it emotionally devastated the girl.
Liltz had begun to look for a residential care center that would take Courtney in, if necessary. But the acceptable ones had long waiting lists. More than 20,000 developmentally disabled people are on various waiting lists for services in Illinois, state Sen. Heather Steans tells us, in part because of insufficient state funding.
In January, a federal court monitor criticized Illinois for failing to ensure that people with developmental disabilities receive adequate support within their communities. A University of Colorado study has ranked Illinois the ninth worst among states for funding services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
A more compassionate Illinois would reduce the institutionalization of the severely disabled, creating more home-based and community-based placements. It would pay professional caretakers better, drawing more people to the work. And it would increase so-called “respite options” — services designed to give caretakers like Bonnie Liltz a break.
Judge Greenblatt could have sentenced Liltz to probation and, because it is only natural to feel compassion for her, we would not have questioned that. But advocates for the disabled, making an excellent point, say that is part of the problem — the media miss the real story.
“The empathy shown to the perpetrators are often the focus of news articles completely distorting who the actual victim really is,” Marca Bristo, president and CEO of Access Living, a disabilities rights organization based Chicago, told us Monday. “The overemphasis on how difficult it is to raise a disabled child and the concern with what happens to them after their parents’ demise should never be used to condone the killing of a child.”
Condone, not at all. A feeling of sorrow all around, without a doubt.
Bonnie and Courtney, mother and daughter, are gone. We failed them both.
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