A Berwyn woman was convicted in May of three felony counts of criminal neglect in the 2011 death of her 14-year-old son, who was disabled. She had originally been charged with child endangerment, but those charges were dropped.
The son, who had been found in the front yard of the family home after paramedics were summoned, died of pneumonia. His mother said she was treating him for an illness with antibiotics intended for animals. Police reported that the woman’s house was filthy, overrun with animals (some reportedly dead), and had no running water or working appliances. The woman and her mother, who also lived in the home, denied that the home was unlivable.
Criminal Neglect of Disabled in Illinois
Because of their vulnerability, Illinois law provides special protection to the disabled by making criminal neglect of the disabled a separate offense. In Illinois, the caregiver of a disabled person may be charged with criminal neglect if it can be proved that he or she knowingly:
- Acted in a manner that caused the person’s life to be endangered, his health to be injured, or a pre-existing condition to deteriorate;
- Failed to perform acts he knew, or reasonably should have known, were necessary to maintain the disabled person’s life or health;
- Abandoned the person;
- Physically abused, harassed, intimidated or interfered with the person’s personal liberty; or
- Exposed the person to willful deprivation.
The caregiver cannot be charged if she made a good faith effort to provide for the disabled person’s needs, but was unable to provide that care through no fault of her own.
Criminal neglect is a Class 3 felony, unless the neglect resulted in the disabled person’s death, in which case it is a Class 2 felony. If prison time is imposed, it may be anywhere from three to 14 years.
Defense Against Cook County Charge of Criminal Neglect
Defending against charges of criminal neglect of the disabled is a sensitive area. The vulnerable in our society need extra protection, since they either lack the physical or mental capacity to care for themselves. But caring for the disabled can be overwhelming, particularly in the case of the Berwyn mother: she was a single parent raising three other children while simultaneously taking care of her elderly mother.
While being overwhelmed does not excuse failing to provide for a disabled person’s basic needs, it also does not paint a portrait of someone coldly indifferent to the needs of the person in her care. In the case of the Berwyn mother, there were additional factors that likely led to the jury’s decision, namely the home being full of living and dead animals. But for others, the overwhelming task and lack of services could offer mitigating circumstances that could either sway a jury to acquit or cause a judge to impose little to no prison time.
It is a complete defense to criminal neglect of the disabled if the caregiver can show that she tried to provide for the disabled person’s needs but, through no fault of her own, was unable to meet those needs. Illinois consistently ranks in the bottom five in national surveys for access to disability services, meaning well-intentioned caregivers could find themselves suddenly overwhelmed with no place to turn for help.
Other factors that may show that the caregiver was not at fault for failure to provide services could include:
- Lack of health insurance, or health insurance that does not cover the disabled person’s needs;
- Lack of income to provide for medical needs not covered by health insurance, or;
- Documented attempts to acquire services from social service agencies.