Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Death of disabled man raises key issues

Last December, Richard Liposchok, the sole caregiver for his 52-year-old son, Mickey, took his son's life and then his own with a rifle in their home in the borough of Port Vue, 15 miles east of Pittsburgh.

Last December, Richard Liposchok, the sole caregiver for his 52-year-old son, Mickey, took his son's life and then his own with a rifle in their home in the borough of Port Vue, 15 miles east of Pittsburgh.

The tragedy stunned the close-knit community of 3,800, where the Liposchok family was well-known and liked. The elder Liposchok, a 78-year-old retired steelworker known as "Lippy," had been a pillar of the volunteer fire department for decades. His wife, Gail, a onetime crossing guard who had died a year earlier, was admired for her pleasant nature and devotion to the couple's only son.

Like many parents of the early 1960s - an era that preceded widespread advocacy for disability rights and services - the Liposchoks assumed complete responsibility for the upbringing of their son, who had a mental disability. It appears that the family never requested support from the county's human services department, even as help became available through the years.

By all accounts, the couple were loving, attentive parents who believed that it was their job alone to provide their son with a safe and comfortable life from childhood through adulthood. But this caregiving scenario fell apart when Gail died. In the year that followed, Richard's friends and neighbors noticed a decline in his health and knew he was worried about what would happen to Mickey after his own death.

"Lippy had a lot of friends who wanted to give him a hand," said Port Vue Police Chief Bryan Myers, who counted himself among them. "But nobody knew how bad it was affecting him." Likewise, he added, none of those friends knew about support services for Mickey or where to call for information.

"Could it have been prevented? I'm not sure," he said. "You had to know Lippy. He was very private. He didn't want to be a burden, and he didn't want someone else to take care of Mickey."

"How could this happen?"

That was the question coursing through the local human services community after news of the murder-suicide. So much of the Liposchok tragedy did seem preventable.

"It seemed shocking that this could happen in 2013, but these kinds of things happen more than anyone knows," said Nancy Murray, president of the Arc of Greater Pittsburgh. "We were asking ourselves, what can we do to make sure it doesn't happen again?"

The Liposchok case was extreme, but it had elements that were disturbingly familiar: older caregiver of an adult with disabilities, unconnected to resources, facing challenges in isolation, hopelessness, and crisis.

Immediately after the deaths, leaders in the human-services community convened to examine how the Liposchoks fell through the safety net and how to prevent further tragedies. Seven months later, the ad hoc committee continues to meet. Discussion has focused on expanding resources and creating a public awareness campaign to ensure that key people within communities - doctors, pastors, bus drivers, shop owners - are aware of the red flags of a deteriorating situation and know who to call for help.

It's impossible to know what Richard Liposchok understood about intellectual disability services. At the very least, his son would have been eligible for a supports coordinator to determine his needs. However, Pennsylvania has a long waiting list for services, including more than 4,000 considered "emergency" cases.

It's well-known that parents caring for adults with disabilities sometimes kill the person in their care - more than 100 known cases over the last 20 years, including one in Quakertown last July.

Across Pennsylvania, hundreds of older parents provide care for adult sons and daughters in their homes. The oldest of these caregivers share several characteristics, said Murray of the Arc of Greater Pittsburgh.

"They are often the only caregiver, having lost a spouse," she said. "They are dealing with their own health issues and facing their own mortality. They are often without any formal support or family support."

In addition, older caregivers often isolate themselves. Murray said, "They stop going to church. They stop socializing. They may not be able to drive far or maybe they can't get the family member in or out of the car."

Many of these families have coped with very little support, she added. "They have lived by the creed that they 'take care of their own,' and it's very hard for them to begin to understand eligibility for services. What a parent caregiver has done for a very long time is what they continue to do to the best of their ability. Many of them wake up each day and try to do the near-impossible.

"The family from Port Vue was just one family, but this has happened before and more than likely it will happen again if we do not reach out."

Interviewed by reporters after the murder-suicide, friends and neighbors expressed what they truly believed: The killing of Mickey Liposchok was "an act of love." They knew that Richard Liposchok cared deeply for his son.

Those very quotable words - repeated in headlines, over the air, and online - quickly created a narrative that some people would readily accept, some people would find appalling, and most everyone would recognize as somewhat familiar.

Disability-rights activists see a troubling pattern of bias in coverage of such cases. The familiar narrative emphasizes the caregiver's burden and well-meaning (though misguided) intention to save the disabled person from future misery. Unlike victims of other types of domestic violence, the victims in these incidents are largely absent from the story.

Implicit is the unchallenged belief that the victim is better off dead - a view that flies in the face of hard-fought efforts on behalf of people with disabilities, including, at the most fundamental level, the right to live out one's own life.

"Historically, we've devalued people with disabilities for a number of reasons - how they look, how they interact or don't interact, their behavior, the label we've given them because of their perceived limited intelligence or competence," explained Guy Caruso, Western Pennsylvania coordinator for the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University.

"So when a crime like this occurs, sometimes society doesn't see it as a problem," he said. "But it's a major problem, and until we change some of these cultural perspectives, people with disabilities are going to continue to be at risk, not just for so-called mercy killings but for other types of abuse."

People who knew Mickey only from a distance may have made assumptions about his needs, observed Cathy Krajack, a family friend who cleaned the Liposchok home and had grown close to Mickey. Contrary to comments in the news, he was not bedridden, he did not wear diapers, nor did he need to be fed, she said.

Krajack knew Mickey as a shy, gentle person who loved Donny Osmond and Elvis, who looked forward to a trip to the store each week to buy the latest National Enquirer and Star, who had an extensive and beloved collection of VHS movies and oldies.

"He was mentally challenged but very smart, too," she said. "I miss him."