When good people justify filicide: how the murders of Elisa and Martin Manrique are framed by disability

Maria Claudia Lutz and Fernando Manrique with their children,
Martin and Elisa.
Maria Claudia Lutz and Fernando Manrique with their children, Martin and Elisa. Photo: Supplied

It's the news that shocked everyone this week: an alleged murder-suicide of an entire family in Sydney's North. Fernando Manrique, his wife Maria Claudia Lutz, their children Elisa, 11, and Martin, 10, and the family dog were all found dead in their Davidson home.

The investigation is still continuing, but the public evidence so far points to Mr Manrique having masterminded the incident with a sophisticated lethal gassing system set up in the roof of the family home. He was seen working on the roof with power tools on Saturday, and some accounts claim Ms Lutz intended to leave him and return to Colombia with the children.

Many of us are hitting refresh on news websites over and over, waiting to hear more about how and why an entire family are dead – wondering how it could have all gone so wrong for one Aussie family.

And, naturally, a lot of people are airing their thoughts on social media. There's a whole lot of sadness, but disturbingly, there's also a lot of sympathy for the killer (or killers).

There's an outpouring of opinion – both open and more hidden. Because, you see, the public has known from the get-go that the children had autism. And so the narrative is a completely different one than you'd probably see if the two children weren't on the spectrum.

I've seen countless cries of "Until you've walked in their shoes..." and "Don't judge" and "Until you've cared for a child with a disability, you don't know."

Essentially, these comments are all rationalising the murder of two defenceless, innocent children.

Adding to this was the highly publicised comments from neighbours (which I will not repeat - some can be viewed here), and the fact that the children's autism was mentioned in the first line of any news report.

But there is simply nothing that can ever make killing children okay. 

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Not in any circumstance that ever was, or ever will be.

The pain that throwaway lines like these can cause to people with disabilities and their loved ones is immense. They make disabled people disposable, and support every societal construct that has ever served to marginalise, abuse and kill disabled people. They bring into sharp focus an ableist society, churning out its view of disability as a burden rather than just another way of being human.

The fact that Elisa and Martin had autism is irrelevant to the horrifying way in which their young lives were taken. They both had futures; futures with joy, love and immense value. Elisa and Martin were denied their lives, denied the opportunity to grow and live and discover.

So where is the outrage and condemnation of the killer (or killers)?

You won't be able to find it, because Elisa and Martin's murders are framed by the perceived burden they placed on their parents.

In her article 'When autistic children are murdered', Briannon Lee identifies some key problems with the discourse surrounding the murders. Firstly, that in defining the children by their disability, they are dehumanised. What do we know of their personalities and lives? Very little. The rounding out of character that usually occurs in reportage simply doesn't occur when murder victims have disabilities.

Lee also writes, "When we deny Elisa and Martin their humanity, simplifying their lives to a one-dimensional label describing how much of a burden they were on their parents, we justify their murder. When we spend more time talking about how exceptional and devoted the parents were (when we know at least one of them killed their children), we excuse their murder. When autism organisations comment about how this is just an example of the pressures being faced by families with autistic children and use this to push for more carer supports, we explain away their murder." 

These are the discussions that perpetuate the idea that disabled people don't really matter, that their murders are less heinous than those of neurotypical children, and that they inconvenience those without disabilities. 

Child advocate Julie Bay reminds us, "There is a giant leap between feeling as though you might break, and choosing to deal with that feeling by killing your family."

As Ari Ne'eman, president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, told Elizabeth Picciuto: "It's critical that we be unified in condemning these crimes without reservation or qualification." Because excusing such crimes paves the way for the next murder of a disabled person, making commenters complicit in the taking of those lives. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but swallow it we must.

It's simply time to listen to those who know. 

And if my words aren't hitting home then maybe this visual representation might help ...

Read and share these resources, and pause before typing out something on the internet that could invalidate and dehumanise others.

When autistic children are murdered by Briannon Lee

Why are we sympathetic to the murderers of disabled children? by Elizabeth Picciuto

The murder of disabled children is often excused by Carly Findlay

Autistic Advocacy Anti-filicide Toolkit

You don't speak for Low-functioning autistics by Lysik'an

Goodnight Autism Puzzle Pieces

The E is for Erin

Autistic Family Collective

Autistic Hoya

The Bullshit Fairy

*The author would like to thank Julie Bay from Fighters Against Child Abuse Australia for her guidance on the writing of this piece.

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