Sunday, February 10, 2008

The life and death of Tiffany Pinckney

Tiffany Pinckney died on April 2, 2005, in a filthy windowless basement under a fancy four-bedroom home in a well-off neighbourhood in Mississauga, Ontario. She was autistic. She died of starvation at the age of 23, having been neglected to death. She was skin and bones, when she died. She was found to have brain damage (Central Pontine Myelinolysis) consistent with malnutrition and deprivation of or inadequate provision of water.

I didn't hear about her until she had been dead for several months. At the end of July, 2005, after an extensive investigation, police laid charges against Tiffany's older sister Allison Cox and her husband Orlando Klass. Reports of these charges (failure to provide the necessities of life; criminal negligence causing death) were the first mentions of the death of Tiffany Pinckney in the media.

It was in Ms Cox and Mr Klass' basement that Tiffany died. It's possible that she died while Ms Cox, who had been Tiffany's legal guardian for seven years, attended a birthday party with her children.

In June, 2007, Mr Klass pleaded guilty to the charge of criminal negligence causing death. He did not go to jail. He was sentenced to two years of house arrest. Meanwhile, Ms Cox was additionally charged with manslaughter in Tiffany's death.

Here is a bit about the life and death of Tiffany Pinckney. The information comes from media reports about her death in 2005 (from the National Post and the Toronto Star, among others), and media reports in October and November, 2007, about the trial of Allison Cox (from the Toronto Star and the Missisauga News).

Tiffany Pinckney was born in the U.S. and lived there with her mother until the early 1990s, when they moved to Canada.

Tiffany was born with a heart defect, and was diagnosed as "mentally challenged" when she was four. She was diagnosed autistic when she was 10 (which would be circa 1992).

When Tiffany was 16, in 1998, her mother died of cancer. Ms Cox became Tiffany's legal guardian and principal caregiver.

The first reports I read about Tiffany's death (e.g., in the Toronto Star, July 27, 2005) suggested that she had been neglected for a long time--possibly more than seven years. This would be the entire time she was under the care of Ms Cox. Some of the reported testimony at Ms Cox's trial was consistent with this.

For example, a teacher at the school Tiffany attended until 2003 (when she would have been 21) testified about Tiffany's poor condition (weight loss, obvious lack of care, "she did not look well") going back to her teens. The same testimony suggested that at this school, Tiffany was loved. She "loved music." She was considered "lots of fun" and "great." She was "excited and happy" taking the bus to school but "upset" returning home to the care of Ms Cox (all from the Toronto Star, October 12, 2007).

There was also testimony from various sources that Ms Cox persistently refused offers of assistance and services in caring for Tiffany. Also, Tiffany was not taken to see a doctor in the last five years of her life.

But neither those who witnessed Tiffany's deterioration at school, nor those whose services were refused, did anything to ensure that Tiffany was getting at least the minimum of necessary care. One of Tiffany's teachers testified that if Tiffany had been 3 years old, she "would have called the Children's Aid Society" (also from the Toronto Star, October 12, 2007). But this teacher did not do anything and nor did anyone else.

In August of 2004, Tiffany was moved by Ms Cox to a four bedroom home, described in the National Post as being on a street "lined with two-storey homes and well-kept lawns."

Here, Tiffany was kept in an unfinished windowless basement room with bare walls. She slept on a deflated air mattress on plywood or pressboard. There was no toilet in the basement. There was no running water. No source of food. Neighbours reported being totally unware that Tiffany existed.

There was a lock, on the door down to the basement. And this door had been reinforced by the addition of weather stripping. So Tiffany was both locked and sealed into the basement.

Upstairs, there was a lock on the refrigerator.

She died of starvation over a long period of time, losing more than 100 pounds. When she died, she weighed 84 pounds and was described as "skeletal." There was expert testimony that adequate provision of food and water could have saved her life.

At her death, she was caked in dirt, urine and feces, as was the room she lived in, where the stench was reported as being appalling. She looked exactly how any person locked and sealed into a basement for many months and denied access to food, water, a toilet, the light of day, etc., might be expected to look.

It is hard to imagine how much Tiffany must have suffered.

On February 2, 2008, Ms Cox was convicted of manslaughter by Judge Joseph Fragomeni. She has been free on bail since her original arrest, and will remain free until she is sentenced in May, 2008.

While I have been writing about Tiffany Pinckney sporadically since 2005, it has taken me a long time to write this short and totally inadequate post about her life and death.

In trying to write this, I've often stopped and wondered if Tiffany had ever, in the months she was dying, sealed and locked in the basement, tried to escape. Maybe she had been neglected for too long, was too sick and weak. Maybe she had been, as many autistics are, successfully discouraged from any behaviours involved in escaping. Also I am thinking of her when she was younger and not yet dying, getting "upset" on the bus going home, after enjoying her day at school. It seems to me that she was communicating something important. Possibly, she communicated this important thing many, many times and when this made no difference (perhaps she was considered to be misbehaving) she stopped. I've often stopped and wondered whether she would be alive if someone, anyone, had listened.


Niksmom said...

This makes my heart ache for all the Tiffany's out there that have yet to be discovered and helped. I think the greatest disservice done to all non-verbal people (autistic or not) is to assume that lack of spoken word is the same as an inability to communicate. i look at every single one of my son's actions and reactions as a communication...and I try my damndest to listen even when no one else thinks he's saying anything.

Patrick said...

Free on bail several years for fatal neglect and confinement that is the equivalent of torture? I am truly disgusted, both by the conditions she was imprisoned in and the action of the court.

Club 166 said...

The teacher didn't say anything, and the sister tortured the girl to death.

Words cannot express how sad this is, and how angry it makes me.


Cyndi said...

So sad...thanks for bringing more attention to this. Tiffany can finally rest in peace...and as for her sister, I hope she burns in hell!

Patrick said...

happy Valentine's day Michelle!

Maddy said...

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." (Edmund Burke)

Anonymous said...

Michelle, I am an ABA educator and was given your story by a colleague. I agree that "normal" is subjective and many so-called "experts" are blind/ignorant. However, all students are expected to work toward "standards" as common denominators of our society and to give back to society. What would you suggest educators focus their efforts on for individuals with autism?

Michelle Dawson said...

For Dan, this blog post is about the life and death of Tiffany Pinckney.

If you want to ask me questions related to ABA-based autism interventions and your assumptions about what my position is, I suggest that you do this somewhere more appropriate.

E.g., there are other posts on this blog where your questions and comments would not be as totally off topic, inappropriate, etc, as they are here.

Also, there's the TMoB board.

Many thanks for understanding.

Seeker-After-Patterns said...

This is horrific.

There is no other way to say it, and the rage it sparks in me, as a father of a 2 yo autistic daughter, is contained only only as it lacks a valid target.

I freely admit, there are days when I cannot understand what she needs, what she wants, what she is seeing, perceiving, or wanting to know. Mainly, I simply try to allow her to do as she wills, without risk of injury, and try to figure out what it is providing.

In any case, and with as frustrated as we can get with each other as we try to find some way, any way, any thread of commonality, no matter how small, to reach one another, I could never countenance such treatment. Even the discrete trials of ABA are at least aimed at setting up some sort of communication of all of the verbal and non-verbal cues that go with the human race. Their ethics aside, at least they are trying.

These people, they essentially walled her in and left her to die.

There is a special level of hell for these people, whence they need to be dispatched as soon as is possible... words simply fail to provide any other conclusion...

AspieMama said...

This is so sad! I can't believe the light sentences either! Here in the US (at least in my state), we have adult protection services, as well as child protection services. However, the adult services, I think, are less well-known. If only they had been called in this case! What a tragedy; Tiffany sounds like she was a lovely person.


~A Blog for Parents with Asperger's~

Anonymous said...

Its hard to care for an autistic person. Some people just are not up to the task. Locking them in a basement and starving them to death is just plain cruel and totally uncalled for. A longer sentence is necessary.

Sometimes I worry that when I am gone if my son is not highly functional, who is going to care for him. Can't tell yet because he is only 3, but it worries me, espeically with stories such as this.

Maddy said...

I can't find an email for you, but I am part way through a families journey on the telly on autism, but they're at a D.A.N conference and have had to stop watching.

I cannot believe the amount of snake oil on offer. The exploitation of these vulnerable people is abhorrent.

I think I may be going off 'autism awareness' month if this is what is on offer.
Best wishes

Maddy said...

Actually, I should probably watch the rest of it before I step on my soapbox.
Best wishes

That girl said...

My son is autistic. This week we found out he also may have tourette syndrome.

I am devastated, of course by the thought of the difficulties ahead for our family.

But never, not for one minute do I think any less of him.

It sickens me when I read these stories where people with disabilities are not heard, not valued and not protected

Noah said...


I am an autistic man with a BA in psych. Do you have any suggestions as to how I can work on (good) autism research? From the little I have seen of your work with Dr. Mottron, it seems that I want to do something similar. I live in New York City, but would consider moving somewhere, if necessary, to accomplish this goal. Do you have any suggestions?

Thanks for anything you can tell me,
Noah Britton

Anonymous said...

I work in the field of developmental disability and am greatly saddened by this. Being in a workplace where everyone treats others with love, respect and dignity, to know that there's people who willfully cause harm to their relatives is unbelievable. All it would have taken is one person questioning the conditions or state that they observed this young lady at school....This is not just a result of the immediate caregivers neglecting......also the lack of taking action when noticed by service providers.

Unknown said...

She was because I worked with her.She truly loved music cos , when I sing for her,she would not her head and dance.She was a fun girl.I used to be her PSW.