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Friday, June 21, 2013

Murder and Hate Crimes: Part II

Robert Gensiak. Remember that name. I doubt anyone else will in a week or two. Be forewarned the following words will be gruesome. They are gleaned from a dozen or more news accounts.

Two years. For two years Robert Gensiak world consisted of one room. On the day he died, the 32 year old man who had Down Syndrome, weighed 69 pounds. When he arrived at the Emergency Room he has not been seen by a physician since 2009 nor had he received any medical care. He could not stand up and was so agitated he had to be sedated. He was hypothermic and his body temperature was 92 degrees. He was severely malnourished. He was found to have severe heavy plaque psoriasis. He was admitteed to the hospital on March 19 and died March 22. An autopsy was performed on the day he died. His body was covered from head to toe with a thick yellow scab like rash. The rash was cracked in multiple places leaving large open sores. Open woulds were visible on his shoulder, hip, back and foot. Blood oozed from the many cracks in his skin. The few remaining teeth he had were loose. Lice covered his head. There was no food or fluid in his stomach. The cause of death was sepsis due to break down of the skin. The autopsy report made me cry. Thankfully no photos were included in the criminal complaint. The criminal complaint can read here: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/48182083/Gensiak.pdf

The district attorney Andy Jarbola stated "this is the worst case of neglect I've seen in the last 26 years" and added the "family, the mother and two sister, basically let this young man rot to death".  The single room Robert Gensiak was confined to was filthy. The child sized bed he slept in was fecal stained. The chair he sat in was fecal stained as well. Investigators said the stench upon opening the bedroom door was over powering.

Robert Gensiak's mother, Susan, his sisters Joan and Rebekah, are accused of murder of the third degree, involuntary manslaughter and neglect of care-dependent person. Joan Gensiak was also charged with endangering the welfare of a child (she had a toddler living in the same residence). Joan Nensiak's child was placed in the custody children's youth services. Rebekah Gensiak is approximately eight months pregnant.

When I read about the condition of Robert Gensiak's body and living conditions I thought of the horrific images that emerged shortly after German concentration camps were discovered. The world recoiled in horror.  I had the same visceral reaction when I read about Robert Gensiak. I was horrified. This man suffered. The news and circumstances of Robert Gensiak death are being reported widely. In my estimation it is being used as filler. A 50 to 100 word story or one minute summary on news radio outlets. Only the local paper, the Times Tribune, appears to be doing some follow up. Predictably news reports are focusing on who to blame. Social service providers are being asked how could this have happened. How could a man with Down Syndrome fall through the cracks and be horrifically abused? I find this a very simple question to answer. Robert Gensiak existence was not valued. Federal and State budgets are being slashed and the most vulnerable among us are being hurt the most. Robert Gensiak death did not take place in a social vacuum. His horrific death is a clear sign we as a people have utterly failed. The Federal Government failed this man. The local social services agencies failed this man. The disability rights community failed this man. The Department of Public Welfare and local human service agencies failed this man. We all failed.

I have no interest in assessing blame. Based on news reports, I am appalled at the reaction of some. Patrick Quinn, director of residential and adult day services for Arc of Northeastern PA implies help was a phone call away. William Browning, the local County's director of human services stated "The thing is they have to make the phone call, but sometimes that doesn't happen". Browning went on to state there are several county and nonprofit programs available for people with intellectual disabilities. He added "It's a pretty robust network". I find this hard to believe given the brutal federal and state budget cuts. What I would like to know is who was supposed to make a call on behalf of Robert Gensiak? His mother or sisters who are charged with murdering him? A physician he had not seen in two years? Who is the they Browning refers to?

Robert Gensiak is like many other people with a disability, physical or cognitive. He lived in complete and utter social isolation. He was abused by family members--the same people that are supposed to love and care form him. No individual or agency stepped forward to help. Robert Gensiak death is being framed as a horrible incidence of abuse. He was indeed abused horribly. In framing his death this way Robert Gensiak is not the victim of a hate crime. The Federal Government is not getting involved as of today. To me, this is a double tragedy. First he was abused and his family is accused of murder. Second, his death is a hate crime but is being classified as a case of abuse.  Of course he was abused. The end of his life was painful in the extreme. So I ask the question why? Why is this not a hate crime? A substantial philosophical shift must be undertaken at a national level. Robert Gensiak died because he had Downs Syndrome.  He was killed because of his disability. This is the sort of discussion we need to address now.

6 comments:

Middle Child said...

Oh God! I am so saddened by this and I know it is just one horrible case - what is wrong with society? I am not religious at all but both our countries are based on Christian (New testament) teachings - Christ is portrayed as a compassionate being. And yet the Government systems and people who claim to be following his teachings are allowing and encouraging such horrible cruelties. Its as bad and worse in countries where Disabled are often let die at birth or are a shameful thing to have in the family as in many Middle Eastern, African, Indian etc countries. I just cannot understand how anybody can hate so horrible those who are so vulnerable - thanks for this thought provoking essay Bill

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

From what I've been reading about the family, this crime would be very difficult to prosecute as a hate crime. According to a relative, Robert Gensiak's mother had two sons, both of whom she hated and neglected. Her elder son died unexpectedly at 29, and her husband died five years later. The father and son had cared for Robert until their deaths, so once they were gone, he was in the hands of someone who apparently loathed men. Here is an article about the family:

http://wnep.com/2013/06/20/gensiak-relative-reacts-to-murder-charges/

Robert was particularly vulnerable because of his disability and social isolation, but it wasn't just his disability that was the object of his mother's hatred. It was also his gender.

I think that hate crimes that occur in families are difficult to prosecute because family dynamics can be so complicated. People can play out multiple and intersecting levels of pain, rage, and hatred with one another, and it's hard to discern what motivates people to do what they do. And that means that hate crimes against disabled people are hugely under-reported and under-prosecuted because they happen at the hands of family members more often than hate crimes in other groups.

william Peace said...

Rachel, Would it be jaded to note that prosecuting any disability hate crime is hard? To do so requires others to frame the crime in terms of civil rights. Few think of disability rights to be akin to civil rights.
Given the past child neglect should protective services been more proactive? Robert was even more at risk and vulnerable. I would think is a good test case at multiple levels. Of course I am not a lawyer so I will leave such suggestions up to others more qualified.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

Yes, definitely, prosecuting any disability hate crime is difficult -- just as difficult as prosecuting hate crimes against women. Rape should be a hate crime, but it isn't. And the reason that both are so difficult to prosecute is that the hatred is deemed socially acceptable.

But I think that a test case for a disability hate crime prosecution would have to be a stranger crime, and it would have to be explicitly directed at the person on the basis of disability, as in the case of someone who attacks a disabled person while yelling slurs. A stranger crime makes the hatred much more clear to the average person. I can't see any other way to disentangle all of the things that would likely tank a prosecution of a family member. Once the stranger crimes are seen as hate crimes by the general public, it might be much easier to start disentangling these things, because people will actually see the hatred there. I think that, for most people and for the judicial system as a whole, it is hard to fathom that a family member could hate another family member enough to commit a hate crime. People who have been the recipients of familial hatred have no problem fathoming this, but the myths persist.

william Peace said...

Rachel, You make multiple good points. Your point r.e. a stranger committing a hate crime are astute. Sadly, the person most likely to abuse a person with a disability is a family member or caregiver. I would like ot point out thought that Tracy Latimore's father was convicted of murder. But I am not sure this is a valid point because there are profound differences between the US and Canada.

Ginger Stickney said...

Thank you William for writing on this so eloquently. I've tried a few times but it tears me up.