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Eliot Borenstein: Is Being a Bad Parent a Crime?

There is something almost comical about the idea of suing parents for raising their children wrong, like a cross between Nick at Nite and Kafka.

As with so many potentially absurd American arguments, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. got there first, this time in a 1972 short story called "The Big Space F*ck" (without the fig leaf over the offending vowel). Vonnegut imagines a near future marked by ecological and cultural devastation, in which the only human endeavor uniting the world is a plan to launch a rocket ship full of semen to the Andromeda Galaxy, in the hope of creating a new race.

Meanwhile, the story's main characters have discovered that, thanks to a new law, their adult daughter is suing them for "ruining her when she was a child." The implication is that, even if the mission to space bears fruit, we should expect anything but gratitude.

Vonnegut's story imagines parental legal responsibility in terms of children's narcissism; no real harm or trauma is implied. But when Lisa Belkin raises the issue in her Yahoo article, "Is It A Crime to Raise a Killer?", the plaintiff is a third party, and the issue is deadly serious.

Belkin tells a story that is shocking in its familiarity: a mentally ill teenage boy pleads guilty to killing a 12-year-old girl, leaving a family bereft and a community in turmoil. The father of the victim alleges that the parents should have seen the signs that their son was disturbed, sought and received help, and prevented the murder from every happening. He has even started a petition on Change.org to push for "Autumn's Law," which would stipulate prison time for guilty parents.

Belkin's story went live on September 12, and, 8411 comments later, she has clearly touched a nerve.

I'm fortunate enough that I can't claim to know what it feels like to lose a child to murder, but my disagreement with this approach should not be mistaken for a lack of empathy. Nonetheless, holding parents criminally responsible would constitute bad legislation, even worse public policy, and a distressing sign that we as a country have completely failed to understand the relationships among individuals, families, and public institutions.

On the surface, the drive to criminalize the bad parenting of disturbed children looks like the return of the worst kind of stigma. Among families in the autism community, for example, the memory of the "Refrigerator mother" (identified as the cause of autism by the now notorious fraud Bruno Bettelheim) still stings.

Yet "Autumn's Law" is motivated by a more complex understanding of mental illness. Parents are considered responsible not because they are the root cause of their children's problems, but because they allegedly failed to get their children help. Their crime is not coldness or abuse, but a lack of vigilance.

The problems with "Autumn's Law" are philosophical, political, and ethical. At the heart of it is a demand for justice. But this is a demand that can never truly be met. What possible punishment could make up for a murdered child? In what way does imprisoning or impoverishing the parents make for a more just world?

Nor does such a law have the serious potential to prevent similar crimes. Does anyone really imagine that the only thing preventing parents from getting help for their children is the absence of a deterrent? Say what you will about the parents of disturbed children, but one thing they tend not to lack is motivation.

Politically, movements such as the push for "Autumn's Law" are disturbingly retrograde. Though it is proposed for the most sincere of reasons, "Autumn's Law" advances the agenda of one of the most pernicious forces in American political life. Here I mean neoliberalism, a term I hate almost as much as the phenomenon it describes. But it has its uses.

In the name of the autonomous individual (and, in a pinch, that individual's presumably supportive family), any possibility that social and governmental institutions might actually have a role to play in improving people's lives is automatically discounted. Individual disadvantages are immediately assumed to be their own personal fault and responsibility (or that of their family), while we doggedly insist on ignoring the larger societal forces that contribute to human suffering.

There are already laws that punish entire families in public housing for the crimes of one of their children: all it takes is a teenager's drug conviction to force the whole family out on the street. In similar situations, seizure laws allow for a family's assets to be confiscated. Our individualistic nation has become quite infatuated with collective guilt and collective punishment.

Finally, "Autumn's Law" presumes that effective help is always available, that a well-funded, well-organized social safety net is always in place to catch us when we fall. But the same logic of exclusively personal responsibility has served to justify the dismantling of the very services that are so desperately needed.

Even if you reject the broader political argument, the fact remains: punishing parents only serves to provide a false sense of comfort, pathologizing "bad" families and allowing everyone else to think that, as long as they're good parents, it can't happen to them.

Good luck with that. Your chances may be better than those of Vonnegut's mission to the Andromeda Galaxy, but I wouldn't bet the family farm on it.


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Jill Robinson: Dogs in Asia: Doctors Not Dinner

In a continent where dogs are often regarded as food, a change in attitude is palpable as the science behind the healing powers of canine therapy is being embraced by animal lovers and doctors alike.

"Friends or food..." has long been a slogan of those campaigning against eating dog. It should now read "friends and therapists."

Here in Asia, Animals Asia's Dr. Dog program has warmed the hearts of approximately 25,000 people each year, since it first began in 1991, with the very nervous initial proviso of one dog, for one hour, in the garden of a children's hospital in Hong Kong. Now operating in another three mainland Chinese cities (Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chengdu), plus Taiwan, Malaysia, India and Japan, Dr. Dog promotes animal welfare through people welfare, providing comfort, and not a small amount of happiness, to those in homes for the elderly, disabled, orphanages and schools.

In the latest study of May and June this year, 34 children at the Heep Hong Society Fu Cheong Centre in Hong Kong were visited every Friday by six Dr. Dogs as part of a program designed to help them overcome their fear of animals and develop their social skills. These children with developmental disabilities such as autism and Down Syndrome learned how to interact in confidence with the dogs in a fairly new area of research called Animal Assisted Play Therapy (AAPT).

The conclusion was remarkable -- showing significant increases in the children's verbal communication, compared with those who played with inanimate objects, such as dolls. Just as profoundly, the research showed that the children lost their initial fear of dogs too. One parent was moved to comment: "My daughter was afraid of dogs before. However, she isn't afraid of the dogs now after the visit by the Dr. Dogs. She keeps telling me she wants to meet them again."

Across the world, dogs risk, and lose, their lives to help ours. In China they have been revered for their assistance with emergency services, in landslides, earthquakes and floods, and in protecting the Birds Nest Stadium, participants and audience during the much-celebrated Beijing Olympic Games. Over 100 welfare groups and millions across the country are now calling for them to be recognized as our friends not food -- particularly now that the truth is coming to light regarding the "black industry" of the dog trade, exposing that the majority on the plate, were snatched from a caring family home.

Caged and transported for days on the back of trucks without access to water and food, diseased and dying en-masse, the meat of these stolen, poisoned, and sick animals now sold into the food chain and inevitably putting the health and lives of consumers at risk.

Now, brave people are apprehending the trucks, working with the police, exposing fake licenses, inadequate quarantine inspection certificates, and other fraudulent practices, and encouraging the authorities to confiscate the dogs into their care. Collar wearing -- and obviously homed -- dogs are often re-united with their grateful families, and the industry increasingly exposed, for the horrors at its roots.

Just this month, 2,400 such dogs were saved and, just this month too, 17 men pleaded guilty to "trading in toxic dog meat" at a court in Zhejiang. Using cyanide and succinylcholine to poison the dogs, they then sold the contaminated meat to restaurants and unsuspecting consumers in the region.

As many groups confirm, this is just the tip of the iceberg and now is the time to expose this dirty industry and call for an outright ban on the consumption of dogs in China.

Perhaps too, through highlighting the plight of meat dogs -- and celebrating the good that this species brings to humankind in China and across the world -- we can better help other animals in the food industry; those with equal intelligence and propensity to suffer, as our very best friends.


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Mark Bertin, M.D.: Autism: Early Intervention Makes A BIG Difference

With up to one in 68 children now being diagnosed with autism, a public debate rages: Is the actual incidence of autism rising at what some say are epidemic proportions, or is our high awareness of this once rare childhood neurological condition leading to more vigilance and better diagnosis? While the larger debate is likely to continue for some time, plenty of proof suggests that more awareness is at least part of the reason we see so many kids diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder now compared to a generation ago.

Recognizing more children with autism means more opportunity for intervention and a greater chance of a better future for these children. In fact, while typically considered a lifelong challenge, the possibility exists that some children improve not only emotional, behavioral and learning skills, but might even outgrow autism itself. Yet studies also tell us that the best chance for optimum results is to catch it early and initiate a comprehensive, targeted intervention specific to their needs.

'Outgrowing' Autism

Decades of research encompassing hundreds of studies validate a particular type of intervention called applied behavior therapy (ABA) for autism. Behavioral intervention, supported by speech language therapy, produces significant and meaningful improvements regarding social, play and communication abilities. This includes documented cases in which children reach the "optimal outcome" of no longer meeting criteria for autism.

Most importantly, a study recently published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics found that 83 percent of autistic children who reached optimal outcome started therapy prior to age 3. The rest obtained intervention by the start of kindergarten. Children diagnosed even with high-functioning autism (suggesting milder impairments) who missed out on services in early childhood did not reach an optimal outcome as often as more impaired peers. Yet in the real world, children with high functioning autism often receive minimal services instead of ongoing, autism-specific supports.

Watching and waiting is not the way to go, since early diagnosis and early intervention matter profoundly. Children with developmental delays are at much greater risk than infants and toddlers who meet all their milestones. And thankfully, since developmental interventions are educational they have little downside when done appropriately.

It's understandable that a parent may hesitate and want to give children time to mature, and a huge range does exist for typical development. Yet as scary as it may seem, it is better to get an evaluation done and, if necessary, to start services. If your child displays any of these possible symptoms, contact your pediatrician and seek evaluation by a developmental specialist:

• Language delays, such as no babbling as an infant or no words spoken by age 15 - 16 months. While most children with language delays turn out only to have language delays, an evaluation rules out other causes.

• Lack of gesturing to communicate or finger pointing by age 1.

• Lack of back-and-forth interaction. This includes experiences such as a child who does not respond to his name by age one, or lack of interest in (and initiation of) back and forth play as an infant (such as peek-a-boo).

• Lack of imaginative play as a toddler or in an older child.

• Loss of developmental skills at any time.


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Exclusive: Mom Who Attempted To Kill Herself And Autistic Daughter Speaks Out From Prison

Kelli Stapleton, the Michigan mom accused of attempting to kill her teenage daughter who suffers from autism, speaks with Dr. Phil from prison. How could a loving mother think "going to heaven with her daughter" was the only option, and what really happened in September 2013 when Kelli lit two charcoal grills inside a closed van?

In the preview video above, Kelli describes how being in jail has been liberating in some ways. She tells Dr. Phil, "The jail of Benzie County has been a much kinder warden than the jail of autism has been."

The interview airs on Monday, September 15 and continues on Tuesday, September 16, when Dr. Phil also speaks with Kelli's husband Matt, who has since filed for divorce. Check local listings here.

Like Dr. Phil | Follow Dr. Phil | Be on the Show


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Eliot Borenstein: Please Segregate My Special Needs Child

To all the well-meaning people who see inclusion as the only desirable goal for special needs children, I say: thanks, but no thanks.

In an article on time.com entitled "Don't Segregate my Special Needs Child," Lizza Long, best known for her powerful essay, "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother," laments that so many parents of neurotypical children are intolerant of children like hers and mine, whose differences can be seen as disruptive. When she complains that local school districts and educational officials are more often adversaries than advocates for special needs children, she's absolutely right.

And there is no doubt that the integration of children with different learning styles and neurological profiles can be a good thing for all the students involved. Simply by interacting with developmentally disabled children on a daily basis, typical children can grow to be far more tolerant than their anxious parents.

But when Long dismisses the alternative to inclusion as "segregation" that "condemn[s] our children to prison," she is ironically making the mistake I usually associate with people who are unfamiliar with the developmentally disabled: She lumps all of them into the same group. Yet there's a reason we say "special needs" in the plural rather than the singular. Needs vary widely, as do the means for meeting them.

My 11-year-old son Louis is on the autism spectrum. There used to be a slightly more descriptive term for his condition, but the latest edition of the bible of psychiatric disorders, the DSM-V, dispensed with such niceties as "autistic disorder," or "Asperger's," let alone the one that applied to Louis: "Pervasive Developmental Disorder (Not Otherwise Specified)" -- the diagnostic equivalent of "none of the above." In my more charitable moments, I see this decision not as a desire to see all people with autism as essentially the same, but rather as a recognition that any attempt to develop a reasonable or consistent taxonomy is doomed to failure.

Every year, our school district tries to show that it has a classroom in which Louis could thrive. Every year, we hope this might actually be true; so far, that has not been the case. Louis, along with many of the children who attend his private school for children on the spectrum, cannot tolerate crowds. Noise reduces him to tears, while bright lights leave him disoriented. If he doesn't have regular sensory input (ranging from the use of special equipment to simply moving around at frequent intervals), he not only can't learn -- he can't even begin to function. The disregulation that starts under such circumstances can continue for days.

Inclusion is a wonderful idea, and should always be the goal whenever it is reasonable. But inclusion must not be treated as an inflexible ideology. Long employs the vocabulary that is key to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): Children must have an "appropriate" education. Sometimes "appropriate" will also mean "separate."


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