An Age of Autism editor confronts child abuse on a school bus

Kim Stagliano is one of the best-known figures within the anti-vaccine autism advocacy community. She can be brash, funny, and blunt. (If the National Vaccine Information Center’s Barbara Loe Fisher is the movement’s TV-ready super-ego, Stagliano is its id.) In November, she published a book titled All I Can Handle: I’m No Mother Theresa, which details her experiences raising three daughters with autism. (Jenny McCarthy wrote the introduction.)

Stagliano is also the editor of Age of Autism, a blog which I oftentimes find problematic and occasionally find offensive. (In 2009, the site ran an illustration, since removed, of doctors, public health officials, and vaccinologists it viewed as being unacceptably pro-vaccine sitting around a Thanksgiving table eating dead babies.) Over the past month, the site has attacked me in a series of posts that would be funny if they weren’t so vituperative.

When I’m in the middle of the cross-fire, I need to be extra sure that I remind myself that the people who get angriest about my work and my book are, for the most part, parents who want nothing more than to do right by their kids. They are parents whose lives have been turned upside down — and in many cases, parents who have been failed by doctors and educators and public officials.

Stagliano is an example of this. Last May, her nine-year old daughter, Bella, was assaulted on her school-bus. Bella is non-verbal — which does not mean that she prefers not to speak, it means she doesn’t speak — and the Staglianos only realized what was happening when Bella began coming home with bruises. On April 1, Jennifer Davila, the school bus’s monitor (yes, you read that correctly), pleaded guilty to the charges stemming from the abuse.

It gets worse: the the school bus’s driver, Evelyn Guzman, is Davila’s mother. In the course of the ten-month investigation stemming from the assault, surveillance videos showed Guzman sending more than 1,000 text messages while driving the bus.

According to Stagliano, Guzman is appealing to the court for a “rehab program for first time offenders,” which will mean she will not have a permanent record. Last weekend, Stagliano launched a petition drive to collect signatures to give to the judge in the case opposing such a move.*

Stagliano’s impulse to get involved, to collect signatures, to rally her allies, to make sure her voice is heard — this is the same impulse that leads her to be so vocal, and so insistent, about her beliefs regarding vaccines and autism. It’s an impulse to protect her family — and it’s an impulse all parents, regardless of their views, should be able to understand.

Anyone who has read The Panic Virus (or read this blog or even just followed my Twitter feed) knows that I think the anti-vaccine movement has done tremendous harm. A pertussis outbreak in unvaccinated children that resulted in the closing of an entire Virginia school earlier this week is an example of the dangers of not vaccinating, as is the current measles outbreak in Minnesota. I also believe tens of millions of research dollars have been wasted in an effort to placate anti-vaccine activists who refuse to accept the outcome of any study that doesn’t support their beliefs.

But it’s important for me, and everyone else involved in this debate, to remember that most of us share the same motivation: We want to make the world a safer, healthier place for children.

* I linked to the Age of Autism story about the incident and not the petition itself because I feel uncomfortable signing (or lobbying other people to sign) anything without feeling fully competent to discuss all of the issues at stake — and in this case, I don’t know what the rehab program consists of, what charges Guzman is facing, whether she’d be permitted to drive a school bus again…I really don’t know any of the details. (Anyone interested in a hilarious illustration of the pitfalls of signing petitions without being fully informed should check out this video, which is very succinctly titled, “Penn and Tell Get Hippies to Sign Water Banning Petition.”)

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11 Responses to An Age of Autism editor confronts child abuse on a school bus

  1. René Najera says:

    I agree with you on this, Seth. No matter how much we disagree, the health and safety of children (anyone’s children) should be paramount. The monitor and the driver should face all due penalties under the law for endangering Kim’s daughter and all the children on that bus.

  2. Ed says:

    Good stuff. Your humility and patience will win out in the long run.

  3. On behalf of Bella, I will simply say, “Thank you, Seth.”


  4. Mary Luce says:

    I had to sign this petition. This made me hopping mad. Good luck to you Kim and to Bella. I hope the judge throws the book at this person. My son is just emerging from being nonverbal, so I know how vulnerable these children are.

  5. Kris says:

    I feel for Mrs Stagliano. I believe she has 3 children diagnosed with autism. All parents need to be advocates for their kids and she is an awesome woman with tremendous strength and passion for her cause and obviously the safety of her family.
    Just want to add my 2 cents as a mom. I think this whole vaccine issue is so controversial but for you provaccine folks it comes down to this FEAR OF DEATH.
    Viruses, bacterias fungus etc have and will be around even after we humans are all gone. They will always have the upper hand over us.
    No number of vaccines can stop diseases from occurring. I believe in our immune system and so far I am still here after facing any number of illnesses in my lifetime and I have had many (no vaccines either).
    From what I have read about these disease outbreaks you write about most of the kids have survived very few die here in the US because we have good sanitation practices.
    I think about all the people who died in Japan no vaccine saved them. I think about all the kids in my city who have been shot to death no CDC vaccine helped them. All the radiation spewing out of that reactor in Japan can a vaccine fix that? I can go on with examples but I think I have made my point.
    We cannot live our lives being fearful and becoming germophobes. This fear creates policies like our current vaccination schedule which has robbed many children of their voice and much more.

  6. Mary Luce says:

    The judge gave her the rehab. Now she is free in 2 years to drive and text while transporting children once again. And she’s not even sorry. She only apologized because the judge made her, and then she had the gall to blame Kim! This is so pathetic. If she ends up killing or hurting a child in an accident in the future, it will be worse than tragic. She should be in prison, or at the very minimum permanently barred from driving a school bus. I wonder if the judge would allow her to drive his children after her probation is over? I doubt it.

  7. Twyla says:

    The second article I linked to above says, “He suspended her license for two years with no work permit, revoked her right to ever drive public transportation, and imposed 200 hours of community service as well as a $500 fine.” If that is correct, she can never work as a bus driver again.

  8. Seth, I’m glad you could see the importance of what Kim has done not only for her own daughter but as a model for other parents whose kids are mistreated by someone in authority. Kim consistently is the voice of activism. While I don’t agree with her or Jenny McArthey about the dangers of vaccines, I see eye-to-eye with her on how vehement and vigilant we autism parents must be in telling the world, “You are not allowed to hurt or abuse my child, and furthermore, here’s what you need to know.”

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