Victimization of Autistic Children: The Savannah Leckie Case
Autistic people are more likely to be victims of violent crime. The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) states in its online literature that “…the safety of autistic people is a critical concern for autistic self-advocates, federal and state government agencies, parents, and other stakeholders.” When researching autism and crime, often what comes up in a search for information are articles, much of them biased, on whether autistic people are “more violent” than the general population. The reality is, autistic people are more likely to be victims of hate crimes and other crimes than the able-bodied population. Stereotypes about disability and crime have persisted for centuries, and the topic was a favored one in the eugenics era, when disabled people were said to be morally depraved and genetically defective. Disability and criminal, violent, and otherwise degenerate behavior were said to be comorbid during the eugenics era, and these biased notions about disability are still extremely pervasive today, even though eugenics was discredited as a junk science which fueled the Holocaust. It is important when thinking about disability to remember that all disabled people are victimized at higher rates than able-bodied people, regardless of what their specific disability is. The question should not be: are disabled people or autistic people violent, the question should be why are these groups victimized at such extremely high rates, and what can we do about it?
Disabled people are also more likely to be victimized by a family member, and teenagers age 12-15 are most likely to be victimized. Disabled homeschool victims Hana Alemu and Erica Parsons were both around 13 when they were murdered. From ASAN:
‘People with disabilities were more than three times as likely to be victims of a serious crime (such as rape, robbery, aggravated assault) than people without disabilities. Among people with disabilities, people with cognitive disabilities had the highest rates of serious crime victimization. Because the BJS [Bureau of Justice Statistics] defines “cognitive disability” as “serious difficulty in concentrating, remembering, or making decisions because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition,” this category includes many autistic people. Autistic people may also be represented in the categories of people with a “self-care limitation” or “independent living limitation,” as defined by the BJS. Because BJS disaggregated its data in ways that may have put autistic people in multiple categories, it is difficult to determine the rate of victimization of autistic people as a whole.’
In August 2016, when Savannah Leckie was 15, she moved from Minnesota to Missouri to live with her biological mother. Some reports indicate that when Savannah’s adoptive mother, Tamile Leckie-Montague, got a new boyfriend, that caused her to send Savannah away. However, Leckie-Montague disputes this, and says that the family was having so much trouble caring for Savannah that they needed help. Savannah was autistic and had depression and ADHD. It is not uncommon in cases like this that a disabled child is passed from one relative to another. Savannah was sent to live with her biological mother, Rebecca Ruud, who had a farm in rural Missouri, and lived there with her boyfriend, Robert Eugene Peat, Jr., a firefighter.
Rebecca attempted to put Savannah to work on her farm, but became frustrated when she felt that Savannah had difficulties acclimating and carrying out tasks. Rebecca also homeschooled Savannah. There are no reports that Rebecca was working to accommodate Savannah’s disabilities or provide disability focused education and supports.
Rebecca was severally abusive to Savannah. From the Daily Mail:
‘In the lead up to Savannah’s death, authorities say Ruud had allegedly taken to extreme forms of punishment to discipline her daughter. The criminal complaint reveals Ruud forced the teen to roll around in a hog pen on at least one occasion and wade into a muddy pond and dunk under. She also allegedly used a water hose on her daughter. Ruud also told police that Savannah had once deliberately cut her own arm ‘in a suicidal gesture’, according to the complaint. To punish her, Ruud poured alcohol and salt on the wound twice a day and rubbed it in until the scabs came off. She had also smashed Savannah’s cell phone and banned her from using Facebook as a form of punishment, according to the complaint. Ruud also admitted to making her teen daughter remove her pants so she could spank her bare bottom.’
Rebecca also made Savannah live in a 30-foot cramped trailer on the property that was run down and had no electricity or air-conditioning. She repeatedly contacted Tamile Leckie-Montague to tell her that Savannah was a “drain” and costing her too much money.
At some point, the abuse accelerated to homicide, although authorities are unsure of what exactly happened, but it appears that the child died on or around July 18th, 2017. On July 20th, 2017, Rebecca Ruud called police to notify them that Savannah was missing, stating that she thought the girl might have run away. Police were suspicious that Savannah had not run away due to all of her belongings, including her toothbrush, piggy bank and messenger bag, still being at the Ruud farm. Rebecca Ruud started a campaign to “help find Savannah”, both online and in her community.
Two days prior to reporting Savannah missing, Ruud had called local firefighters to help her extinguish what she said was a large brush fire on the farm. When firefighters asked about Savannah, whom Ruud said had been injured in the fire, Ruud was evasive, and said the teen was “taking a shower” and did not want to be disturbed. Firefighters observed that Ruud was also injured with a burn mark and treated her for it. Rebecca said it was a result of battling the brush fire, but would tell people different versions of how she got the injury.
Shortly after the report that Savannah was missing, a large search of the 80-acre farm commenced. Authorities noticed that Rebecca was acting strangely the entire time, which heightened their suspicion that Savannah had not run away.
The search revealed the charred remains of a body in a burn pit, a fire which was deliberately set and fueled with an accelerant. The canine unit discovered the pit, which was concealed by brush. Forensics revealed that the body was Savannah Leckie.
Forensics also revealed that large quantities of lye, likely from Ruud’s home-made soap business, had been poured on the body, and that the body had been burned several times. Rebecca responded to the situation by hurriedly marrying her live-in boyfriend, Robert Eugene Peat, since they believed a married couple could not testify against each other. Rebecca was later arrested, attempting to flee the area on a Greyhound bus, carrying large luggage bags.
An informant, according to court documents, told authorities that Rebecca had admitted to her how Savannah died. She drugged the girl and put her body in a fire. When Savannah started to wake up, Ruud hit her with a rake. However, it is unconfirmed whether this story is true. A search warrant revealed several long-handed garden tools on the property, including rakes. Reports also indicate that Rebecca Ruud had prescription hydrocodone on the property.
Rebecca was charged with first degree murder, second degree murder, abuse or neglect of a child resulting in death, tampering with physical evidence in a case, and abandoning a corpse without notifying authorities. She awaits sentencing. Robert Peat was also arrested, but later released.
Rebecca Ruud tried to force Savannah into a particular way of behaving, and did not accommodate or respect her neurodiversity. When Savannah did not act the way Rebecca wanted or expected, Rebecca became violent. Savannah responded to being effectively abandoned by her adopted family and abused by her mother by attempting suicide. Instead of being caring and understanding towards this understandable response to her circumstances, Rebecca added to and exacerbated Savannah’s emotional and physical wounds.
Able-bodied people far too often erroneously view non-neurotypical people as being defective, burdensome and irritating. They try to force them to be “normal” or to behave in specific ways. Instead of forcing a disabled person into an environment and set of expectations, one should instead work with them to celebrate who they are and accommodate their disabilities. The answer to having a disabled child is not to send them off by themselves to be homeschooled on a farm in the middle of nowhere with someone they do not know very well. As we frequently see in child torture, abuse, and homicide cases, the child victim was placed in an “informal family arrangement” (Knox, 2014). This is often because the disability is too overwhelming.
Autistic children are murdered by their parents and caretakers at astonishingly high rates. The disability community remembers these victims every year with Disability Day of Mourning, which specifically focuses on disabled people who were murdered by a parent or caretaker. I attend a vigil for Disability Day of Mourning every year, and the list of names of victims that we are given is very, very long. Many of these victims were autistic.
Another aspect of this case is the fact that anyone thought it was a good idea for a child who evidently needed support doing daily tasks, as Savannah needed, to be homeschooled by someone like Rebecca, who has no qualifications in the field of special education, disability studies, or anything else. Autistic children can thrive and excel if they are in situations where their abilities are supported, and they are not pigeon-holed into behaving the way an adult would like or prefer. The issue is that it can be difficult to find these kinds of supports, and public schools frequently pass the buck when it comes to disability. However this does not excuse how Savannah was treated by any of the adults in her life. Far too often parents who murder disabled children are sympathized with and looked at forgivingly by the public since the child was such a “burden”. Many times, these murderers are given light sentences. I have a feeling that this will not be the case in the Leckie situation and hope that justice is appropriately served.
The Leckie case has the hallmarks of many homeschool homicide cases: isolation, deprivation, adoption, informal family arrangements, disability, and abuse by the mother. This is a tragic and extreme case, but there are patterns and recognizable, recurring issues when looking at it through the lens of disability studies. It is by using this lens that we can better understand the high rates of murder and abuse suffered by autistic and otherwise disabled people.