Viewpoint: What’s troubling disabled people about the Tania Clarence case?

Tania Clarence at the Old Bailey Image copyright @Julia Quenzler
Image caption Tania Clarence was sentenced at the Old Bailey

A woman who killed her three disabled children by smothering has been sentenced to a hospital order. The judge's ruling sparked an online debate that has been overwhelmingly sympathetic to Tania Clarence's situation, but some aren't happy with the reaction.

Clarence's solicitor Richard Egan explained outside court that the mother was "overwhelmed" by her situation, that the "daily struggle" of caring for her children eventually overcame her "ability to cope with the enormity of the task she faced."

The most popular reaction from the public was one of empathy for Clarence, a depressed woman looking after three young, disabled children. One person wrote on the Daily Mail comments section: "How anyone could cope in this situation is beyond me. Healthy children are hard enough work, but 3 profoundly ill children...it would be non-stop and watching them die."

But for others the case has ignited anger, in particular people with spinal muscular atrophy have expressed concern at how the disability has been portrayed by the media as an "infant killer", despite most with type 2 living long and fulfilling lives.

Disabled journalist Mik Scarlet outlines some of the viewpoints surrounding the case.

Katherine Araniello, who has type 2 spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), the same condition as the Clarence children that died, stated on her Facebook page: "This mother acknowledged and understood what she had done and appears to have planned to kill her children... so my overall feelings on this story are the terrifying moments those poor children had. I can relate to zero physical movement, not being able to wave my arms in protest, let out a scream, defend myself."

Mark Womersley, who also has SMA type 2, posted a video on Youtube in which he expresses how deeply the case has affected him. He raises his worries about the media portraying the condition as an "infant killer", even though he has reached the age of 47. He believes the charge of manslaughter did not fit the facts of the case as they came out during the trial. He also raises his fears over the use of the term "mercy killing" during the trial and what it might say for disabled people in the future.

The phrase "mercy killing" was used early on in the trial, although the judge, Mr Justice Sweeney said before sentencing this was not a "mercy killing in the sense in which that phrase is normally used. The children did not ask to be killed, and you did not, and do not, seek to justify your actions as being justified in mercy."

Image copyright Other
Image caption The children's father, Gary Clarence, was in South Africa at the time of the deaths

While the case itself is causing a great deal of debate, the arguments in mitigation made by the defence surely raise important questions that should be used to learn for the future. A key issue is how could any mother with three disabled children reach a point where the only solution that seemed viable was to end the children's lives? There are all manner of services available to parents of disabled children, yet much of it is only provided after being sought out. If this kind of tragedy is never to happen again, what should be done to ensure that no parent can ever claim that they lost hope due to lack of support? How has the care and support systems for the parents of disabled children reached a point where families can feel such despair?

Parents of disabled children regularly claim that they find it almost impossible to source the correct support and are not even sure of what is available to them. Why are there not systems in place to ensure that as soon as an impairment is highlighted all the support that might be required is not made available as part of the treatment process?

Another troubling question is why the signs of Clarence's failing mental health were not spotted sooner. We hear time after time from people who have experienced mental health crisis points that they felt a total lack of support and understanding, both from the medical profession and the wider society. It too often falls on the person experiencing problems to seek out help at a time when they are least equipped to do so.

Most importantly for disabled people, why is it that the courts, the media and the general public repeatedly see death as being preferable to being disabled?

During the discussion on Facebook, Katherine Araniello explains how she feels about the impact of the coverage of disability in the Clarence case. "From the SMA perspective, as always, this is a completely one-sided misrepresentation," she writes. "I don't know any SMA people who want to die. All of us are highly motivated individuals and are petrified by the real threat of legalising assisted suicide in the UK. Such biased representation of people with SMA... drip feed the public into viewing us as medical failures/problems, and is what makes this story so unequal to that if it had been non-disabled children."

If the portrayal of disability is mostly negative in tone how can parents of disabled children foresee a positive future for their offspring? The disabled community decry how so many damaging stereotypes around disability are reinforced by the press and media, yet when a case such as this arises the media and press are quick to blame everyone except themselves.

Whatever your feelings about the issues raised by the sad deaths of Max, Ben and Olivia Clarence, there can be no question that we must all do our utmost to ensure nothing like it ever happens again. No parent of a disabled child should ever claim that they have been left so bereft of support that they could not cope or that their expectations for the future of their child were so poor that the child's death seemed preferable.

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