Daughter's murder puts focus on toll of autism

From the Chicago Tribune, June 8, 2006

Astraea Note: The following article covers a complex issue and one which is extremely controversial, and we do not agree with all the points of view presented here. (We would say, however, to pay particular attention to what the grandfather says.) Please, also, read this blog post and its comments, particularly those from the grandfather. We're presenting this article for people who aren't Chicago Tribune registered users.

This is one of a very long line of murders of autistic or possibly autistic children and adults that continues to this day. The idea that "the toll of autism" is an excuse or mitigation for the actions of said caregivers is atrocious. If you want to learn more about the brutalization and murder of autistics by parents and institutions, read Ballastexistenz.

The idea of an "autism epidemic" is plague rhetoric designed to alarm parents. Autism and autistic people have always existed. Today, more children are either being recognized as genuinely autistic, or they are being labeled autistic for having certain traits such as speech delays or developmental phase differences. This is mostly for the purpose of getting them into "early intervention therapy", which may or may not be beneficial. Not too long ago, these children could have been simply "quirky" or "different," or might have been diagnosed as mentally retarded or psychotic. There was a hugely profitable industry in diagnosis and so-called treatment of "dementia praecox" -- childhood schizophrenia -- in the 1950s. Many of these children were probably autistic. In addition, traits associated with certain forms of high intelligence and certain learning styles are now deemed to be "Asperger" whether the child is actually autistic or not.

If you want to comment on this article, write to its author, Meg McSherry Breslin, at mbreslin@tribune.com. You can email us also, but please understand that we did not write this and we do not agree with much of what is presented here.

Daughter's murder puts focus on toll of autism

By Meg McSherry Breslin
Tribune staff reporter
Published June 8, 2006, 11:10 PM CDT

MORTON, Ill. -- For several weeks, Karen McCarron had been making teary phone calls, despairing over her 3-year-old autistic daughter's future.

Unable to get Katie to settle down for a nap on a Saturday afternoon, McCarron took her for a drive. Police say the respected Peoria-area physician and advocate for autistic children parked, put a plastic bag over the little girl's head and smothered her to death in about two minutes.

McCarron, 37, is alleged to have confessed to the crime a day later -- Mother's Day -- telling police she "just wanted to end her pain and Katie's pain." On Thursday afternoon in a Pekin courtroom, McCarron bowed her head and remained silent as her lawyer entered a plea of not guilty on first-degree murder charges.

In the last month, Katie's death has sparked a heated discussion among advocates for Illinois' disabled. Many argue that the tragedy demonstrates just how underserved the rapidly growing community of autistic families is.

"Whatever comes out of the McCarron case, it is already clear that many, many people in our community have seen something of themselves in it," said Christopher Kennedy, legislative director for the Autism Society of Illinois and the parent of an autistic child. Concerned parents "have communicated the feelings of despair and isolation so many of us have felt at different times in our lives with autism. ... We cannot ignore the bigger picture and the context within which this and other such acts occur."

Yet others complain that some are exploiting Katie's death to further their agenda of expanding funding for autistic services.

Katie's grandfather, Michael, said Karen McCarron had a lot of resources and help with Katie, whom he described as a happy, endearing child who loved to swing and play in the grass and would line up her Teletubbie dolls so they could "kiss" each other.

"This was not a question of there's no place to turn, there's no support," Michael McCarron said. "This was not a murder about autism."

Once considered relatively rare, autism is the nation's fastest growing developmental disability. The latest studies indicate that in as many as one of every 250 births, a child is born with mild to severe autism. Illinois schools were serving 9,266 autistic children in January, up from 3,662 in 2000.

Classic symptoms include lack of eye contact, trouble with social interactions, repetitive behavior and a rigid reliance on routines. In more severe cases, children are extremely difficult to manage, sometimes causing injury to themselves and others.

In Illinois, parents of autistic children have been pushing for increased services -- particularly one-on-one behavioral therapies many experts recommend. But legislative hearings, an autism task force and a flurry of bills haven't produced much, said state Sen. Susan Garrett (D-Lake Forest).

"Autism is an epidemic, and it happened so quickly that nobody was prepared for it," Garrett said. "Many schools just don't have the resources to address the needs as they should be addressed. Parents just feel like there's nowhere to go."

Scores of Illinois parents have written to local newspapers and Web sites about the McCarron case. Many emphasize that they don't excuse the crime but that they can relate somewhat to the stress and frustration Karen McCarron might have felt. Some mothers say they've battled depression and thoughts of suicide.

"We're not saying this was right in any respect," said Lauri Hislope, who served on the executive board of the Peoria-area autism support group ANSWERS with Karen McCarron. "But we understand how she got to that place. We've all been either at that place or near it, but by the grace of God, we chose differently."

Michael McCarron said his granddaughter's death should not be used to educate people on the stresses of autism.

"This, as in any tragedy, will bring the uninvited spokespersons out from under their rocks. Each will attempt to twist the facts in support of their own purpose," he said. "We have had a precious little child abruptly ripped from our arms, from arms that were full of love, that had no fatigue."

Karen McCarron is being held in lieu of $1 million bail in the Tazewell County Jail in Pekin. Her husband of 11 years, Paul, an engineer for Caterpillar, has filed for divorce, charging "mental cruelty." He was not in court Thursday.

Karen McCarron's attorneys would not comment on their defense or her alleged confession.

Tazewell County State's Atty. Stewart Umholtz said he won't seek the death penalty in the case. If convicted, McCarron faces a maximum sentence of 100 years in prison.

For many, her journey from a respected doctor to a murder suspect doesn't make sense.

She graduated from Maine South High School in Park Ridge. She and Paul McCarron were college sweethearts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She received her medical degree from Southern Illinois University in 1995.

The couple settled in Morton, a town of 16,000 just outside Peoria. They own a spacious red brick home on a tree-lined street near a park. Her parents live just blocks away.

Katie, the couple's first child, was born July 22, 2002. She was a healthy baby but just before age 2 began to show classic signs of autism, namely speech delays, Michael McCarron said.

The McCarrons tried to get services for Katie through local social service agencies. Like many parents of autistic children, however, they considered those programs inadequate and thought that fighting for better services would take too long. Autism experts say the best time to help reverse the condition's effects is very early in the child's life, when the brain is still developing rapidly.

The couple settled on the Mariposa School in North Carolina, regarded as a top-notch facility for young autistic children because of its intensive, one-on-one therapies. Paul McCarron and Katie moved to North Carolina, and Karen McCarron stayed in Morton with Katie's younger sister, Emily.

The separation was a tough decision, but the family thought it was the best way to help Katie, Michael McCarron said.

Katie stayed in North Carolina for 20 months and began to make progress, Michael McCarron said. It was too early to determine exactly how severe her autism was, but he said his son tried to revel in the small successes, such as when Katie was the only one in her play group to recognize an octagon or when she began acquiring words.

But the separation was taking a toll, Michael McCarron said; the couple moved Katie back to Morton the first week of May.

People who knew Karen McCarron through her work as secretary of ANSWERS said that the separation was extremely hard on her, but she also was stressed about whether Katie could get adequate treatment when she returned. She thought Katie had not progressed as quickly as she could have.

"She just seemed really upset," said Hislope, who last saw McCarron in March. "She felt like there was a regression in the things [Katie] had been learning, and I think [McCarron] was losing hope."

Laura Cellini, a Springfield mother of an autistic child and a parent advocate, said she received tearful calls from McCarron in the weeks before Katie's death. Cellini said McCarron started to blame herself for Katie's condition, particularly for trusting vaccines that some parents worry might be a trigger for autism. McCarron expressed concern for Katie's future.

"[McCarron] said she had seen some good things, some gains in Katie's progress but she also hit some bumps in the road," Cellini said. "I think [McCarron] was worried that she wasn't just hitting a bump in the road but facing Katie's whole future."

On May 13, McCarron drove her to daughter to her parents' house, knowing they were not home, and smothered her, police say. She then drove home and carried Katie's lifeless body into the house, past visiting family members and up to bed, as if the child were asleep.

She then went to the grocery store to buy ice cream, a trip captured on the store's security cameras. A couple of hours later, police say, McCarron went upstairs, told relatives Katie wasn't breathing, and began performing CPR.

Paramedics didn't suspect foul play immediately, but at 1 a.m. the next morning, a relative called police and said McCarron was trying to overdose on over-the-counter medication.

When police arrived, the woman was embracing her husband, who had just arrived home from a business trip. Police say Paul McCarron was crying, but his wife was subdued. He asked her to tell the authorities what she had told him.

At first, she declined, telling police, "Nothing is going to help, and it's not going to make any difference."

Later, after she was taken to St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, police say, she confessed to killing her daughter.

mbreslin@tribune.com

Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune

Photographs of Katie have been made available for public use by her grandfather. Download yours here: Katie McCarron Photos

Initial news reports on Katie's murder
'This was not about autism', grandfather says
Katie's father files for divorce, citing 'extreme mental cruelty'
Karen McCarron admitted to planning the murder
Karen was 'lucid' and 'very calm'
'I wanted to take the autism out of her'
More analysis of the Journal-Star articles.
Murder of Autistics (Archive)

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