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Tragedy highlights need for caring

This undated phoprovided by River Grove Ill. Police Department shows Dorothy Spourdalakis 50 River Grove.

This undated photo provided by the River Grove, Ill., Police Department shows Dorothy Spourdalakis, 50, of River Grove.

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Updated: July 17, 2013 6:53AM

There is a little restaurant around the corner from my house. The food is straightforward and good. So are the people working there.

The other day, they had a heart-wrenching question.

“What,” asked two women behind the lunch counter, “do you think of the killing of that handicapped boy?”

It’s a story that broke earlier in the week in River Grove in which the mother and godmother/caregiver of a profoundly autistic 14-year-old boy killed him. And then tried to kill themselves. And even their cat so it wouldn’t be taken to the pound.

Who does that?

Desperate people do that, I heard myself saying.

Broken-hearted, sleep-deprived, frantic people.

I could have added something else.

That there, but for the grace of God, go I.

As the mother of a profoundly disabled, though not autistic, 25-year-old son, I have walked some of the road that Dorothy Spourdalakis, 50, and Jolanta Agada Skrodzka, 44, walked with their son and godson, Alex.

Our son Gideon can walk, but he cannot talk. Nor care for himself in the most basic ways, such as toileting and bathing and getting himself dressed.

He’s a wonderful kid, but requires round-the-clock care. If it were not for Misericordia, an exceptional home for the developmentally disabled in Chicago where Gideon resides, the quality of his life and ours would be radically different.

All across the state, there are so many in need of help.

Mary Kay Betz, executive director of the Autism Society of Illinois, estimates conservatively there are 52,000 people in the state with autism alone. About three-quarters are under 21. Boys are affected more than girls.

When she speaks, Betz does so with authority. Of her three children, two are autistic.

“We talk to parents who have to turn their locks around so they can all sleep, have Plexiglas windows so they don’t get hurt,” she said.

Betz’s group had some contact with the Spourdalakis family. “She seemed like a caring mother and wanted what was only appropriate for her son,” she said.

Betz said her organization helped them find the family legal assistance that they sought.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services says it also offered help but was turned down.

There is a lot we do not yet know about this case.

What we do know, according to Human Services Secretary Michelle Saddler, is, “We are not doing well as a state . . . not doing well as a society . . . when we look . . . at the percentage of people we serve.” That applies to everything from mental health to the developmentally disabled.

“We have a wait list of 20,000 who need DD (developmental disability) services,” she said.

That ranges from autism to cerebral palsy and beyond.

The tragic case in River Grove, if nothing else, says Secretary Saddler, “Underscores the importance of support services . . . not just for the child, but the entire family.”

Just like soldiers on a battlefield, says Mary Kay Betz, parents of profoundly disabled children can experience a kind of post-traumatic stress.

How do we handle what happened in River Grove?

With understanding.

And care.

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