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.”)