More than a half a year after the remains of autistic boy JJ Vallow and his sister were found on their stepfather’s property in Salem, Idaho, a Utah group is raising awareness of filicide.
Neurodiverse Utah is hosting an online vigil for the disabled victims of filicide, which is when a child is killed by a relative or caretaker. While JJ Vallow’s death was one of the most high-profile recent cases of alleged filicide with a disabled victim, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network has documented about 700 such cases over the past five years.
“We stand with victims of filicide to send a message that disability is never a justification for violence,” a Neurodiverse Utah release states. “Media and society often portrays … filicide as justified because they (victims) are seen as a burden, and that their deaths are inevitable. Their killers are often given sympathy and lenient sentences while the victims are blamed for their own murder simply because they are disabled.”
While the technical definition of “filicide” is when a parent murders a child, disability communities often use the term to refer to disabled people being killed by relatives or caretakers.
“We are people, not burdens,” said Whitney Lee, an autistic advocate and the executive director of Neurodiverse Utah.
The Utah vigil is part of the international Disability Day of Mourning observed every year on March 1 to remember disabled victims of filicide and to start a conversation about how such deaths are discussed.
“I took a personal interest when I noticed how some of our news stations like KSL and Channel 2, kind of the main state news stations were reporting some attempted filicide cases that went on,” Lee said. “They kind of did what a lot of news organizations did and they gave highlight to the perpetrator and, in a sense, blamed the victim for being disabled.”
Lee said she didn’t find coverage of the deaths of JJ Vallow, 7, and Tylee Ryan, 17, as objectionable because the story wasn’t framed as a “mercy killing.”
Their mother, Lori Vallow, had recently married doomsday prediction author Chad Daybell, and both have been charged with multiple felonies in connection with the childrens’ deaths. The beliefs of Daybell and Vallow have overshadowed potential narratives that JJ was a burden or that his killers deserved sympathy for the situation.
Lee said she believes there’s evidence of ableism in the story, however. One of Vallow’s friends recounted hearing her talk about Tylee and JJ as “zombies.” Vallow is alleged to have said that JJ sitting still while watching TV, saying that he loved Satan and an increased vocabulary were evidence that he’d turned into a zombie, though the friend, Melanie Gibb, told police she could not discern any change in JJ’s behavior.
Vallow allegedly told Gibb that she and Daybell had a mission to rid the world of zombies, and that by killing a zombie’s physical body, the person’s original spirit would be freed.
Lee sees parallels between Vallow’s concept of zombies and “changelings” in folklore. In those tales, faeries would kidnap a human child and replace them with a substitute that looked identical. The changeling, however, would often exhibit characteristics, which sometimes included unresponsiveness or trouble expressing emotion. Some autistic people and scholars theorize that changelings in folklore could actually be attempts to describe autistic or other neurodiverse people.
“That idea that your child is not your child is persistent in a lot of autistic (relationship narratives),” Lee said.
The Disability Day of Mourning candlelight vigil will start at 6 p.m. Monday.
For more information on preventing filicide of disabled people and how advocates would like to reframe discussions of filicide, visit https://autisticadvocacy.org/projects/community/mourning/anti-filicide.
To register for the free event, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/disability-day-of-mourning-virtual-candlelight-vigil-tickets-138031751685.