Now what? A familiar fear when disabled children turn 26.

disabled teenager

The murder-suicide of a respected educator and his son serves as a rallying cry to some about the stresses that begin when special education ends. 

Crime and the disabled

National statistics show the disabled – particularly those with multiple disabilities – are more likely to be victims of violent crime. For 2012:

  • The age-adjusted rate of violent crime against persons with disabilities was 60 per 1,000. That's nearly triple the rate of 22 per 1,000 for persons without disabilities.
  • The age-adjusted rate of serious violent crime — rape or other sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault — against persons with disabilities, at 22 per 1,000. That's nearly four times higher than that for persons without disabilities, at 6 per 1,000.
  • More than half, 52  percent, of violent crime victims with disabilities had more than one disability.
  • Among persons with disabilities, those with cognitive disabilities had the highest unadjusted rate of violent victimization, at 63 per 1,000.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics

For Grant Heckman, the summer of 2015 could have been a time to celebrate.

He was graduating from school and was named prom king for a special education graduation ceremony north of Lansing.

But it also posed a dilemma for his parents, George and Jeanne: What comes next?

Grant Heckman, then 26, had cerebral palsy, could not speak and had significant neurological impairments. He had been in a wheelchair his whole life. Michigan’s state-supported education system for the developmentally disabled ends at age 26, leaving many parents at a loss for how to find support and structure for their adult child after they finish school.

Two years later, according to police accounts, George Heckman, a widely admired elementary school principal, shot his son and then killed himself in a van along a two-track road in rural Montcalm County northeast of Grand Rapids. The van was discovered June 19.

It's unknown why George Heckman did what he did. There was no report of a suicide note.

The case, sadly, wasn’t unique. A recent study found that the disabled are more likely to be victims of violent crime, and 10 people with disabilities in Michigan have been killed by caregivers or parents from 2011 to 2015. The report, by the Boston-based Ruderman Family Foundation, found 219 such cases nationwide during that time.

“This is a very conservative number due to under-reporting and the fact that a victim’s disability is not always made public. The real numbers are likely much higher,” it stated.

Nobody excuses or tries to rationalize the murders. But parents say the void after school year ends for a developmentally disabled adult child –  especially one with severe disabilities –  can be a terrifying time of confusion and anxiety for families. And that’s atop of years of stress.

Luke Pohl, a friend of the Heckman family – and with a developmentally disabled adult child of his own – said he would leave judgment of George Heckman to others. But he said the deaths should be a rallying cry to better understand the struggles of families affected by disabilities.

He likened it to life at the edge of a cliff.

“In a typical family, if you had a cliff in front of you, you would be quite a ways from that cliff,” he told Bridge Magazine.

grant heckman

Grant Heckman was 28 when he was found shot to death on a rural road in June. Police say he was killed by his father, who then committed suicide. (Courtesy photo)

“In these type of families (with a disabled child) you are almost always at the edge of the cliff because the stress is so great. All it takes is something to knock you off that cliff.

In addition to his long-term disabilities, news accounts reported that Grant Heckman had  recently suffered from ulcerative colitis, a chronic condition that often leads to abdominal pain and diarrhea mixed with blood.

“Grant suffered a great deal,” Luke’s wife, Janet Pohl, said at the time of the deaths. “I can't even begin to scratch the surface of how much that young man suffered throughout his 28 years.”

Shrinking options

The Pohls said they struggled for years to find structure for their son once he completed school at age 26.

Austin, now 32, has a severe form of autism marked by outbursts of aggressive behavior. It doesn't help that he weighs 230 pounds and can be hard to manage. Through their mutual challenges, they developed a bond with the Heckman family in the same small Clinton County community of Westphalia.

In 2010, the Pohls opened Austin's House, a nonprofit home they hoped would provide a nourishing home for their son and other disabled adults. But Luke Pohl said they had trouble finding staff that would provide the kind of structured support they expected. Staff quit in search of higher wages.

“This is a problem actually in the entire area,” he said. “They just can’t find any help. When the economy is going pretty well and unemployment is low, it's really tough to fill these positions.”

“You are almost always at the edge of the cliff because the stress is so great,” Luke Pohl, father of a developmentally disabled child.

He said Austin’s behavior was “going downhill” and in 2016 they moved him back home.

According to a state report for 2015, there were approximately 46,000 developmentally disabled persons in Michigan. By definition under Michigan’s mental health code, that means substantial limitation in three or more areas of major life activities, including self-care, language, learning and mobility.

In 1971, the Legislature approved standards that require that Michigan residents up to age 26 receive special education, the only state in the union to do so. Most states follow federal law and only require special education up to age 22.

Special education programs for those ages 22 to 26 are provided through the Michigan’s network of 56 intermediate school districts. According to the state Department of Education, there are about 3,600 students in that program in a given year. Its $78 million annual cost is paid by the state.

And while Michigan provides special education support longer than other states, one advocate for the disabled said schools should do more to ease students’ transition into society. That means assisting families in exploring appropriate care options and navigating a system that can seem opaque.

dohn hoyle

Dohn Hoyle, director of public policy for The Arc Michigan, says Michigan’s special education system is “so segregated and separate.” (Courtesy photo)

“I lay a lot of this on schools in not informing people and knowing what the possibilities are,” said Dohn Hoyle, director of public policy for The Arc Michigan, a Lansing-based nonprofit advocacy group for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“Why aren't they preparing them for an adult life?”

Robert Fall, special education director for the Clinton County Regional Educational Service Agency, which provides special education services, said the agency does what it can to help families find supportive activity programs for their adult children after they complete school.

But Fall said that can be difficult, especially for those with significant developmental impairments in a rural area like Clinton County.

“Their options are very limited. There’s not a lot out in the community for them,” Fall said.

“There’s not a lot out in the community for them,” Robert Fall, special education director for the Clinton County Regional Educational Service Agency.

For adult students that are profoundly developmentally disabled, Fall said, their classes look nothing like a traditional classroom. The goal may not be academic achievement.

Rather, teachers concentrate on improving motor skills and posture. They seek to improve the ability of students to communicate even if they can’t talk. That could be moving a switch – to signal a choice - with a knee if a student can’t use their hands, or indicating choice with an eye blink.

That kind of close interaction between highly-trained staff and student can be hard to replicate outside school.

Hoyle of the Arc Michigan said the overall care system for the developmentally disabled is still too dependent on a traditional model of care, where the disabled are segregated from the rest of society, whether in separate special education programs or isolated group homes.

“We still have a system that is so segregated and separate,” Hoyle said.

Instead of isolation, Hoyle said, the developmentally disabled can be integrated – with proper support – into society in what is known as “person-centered planning.” He cited the case of a nonverbal blind man in his 50s with cerebral palsy, a person judged to have the intellectual capacity of 6-month-old.

Hoyle said he now lives in an apartment north of Ann Arbor that he shares with another disabled individual, supported by 24-hour care. He previously lived in a nursing facility.

“The people who know him, including his relatives, talk about what a different person he is,” Hoyle said. “He used to pick at his clothes and destroy his clothes. He doesn't do that any more.”

Families also have the option of placing their adult child in a group home, its costs paid by Medicaid. Medicaid also pays for supports in the home. And unlike some other states, Hoyle said, Michigan has no waiting list for those services.

But families like the Pohls say it can be an ordeal trying to find a suitable group home, especially for an adult child with significant needs. Luke Pohl said he and his wife looked into several group homes for the disabled and for their son. They found none with which they were comfortable.

“Some of them were quite bleak,” he said.

End of school, start of mourning

Adding to the fears of these parents, a 2015 report by the state auditor general found that the state agency responsible for inspecting more than 4,000 licensed adult foster care and senior citizen group homes failed to notify authorities in the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services of patient neglect and abuse complaints in 12 of 48 cases.

For families who take on the caregiving load themselves, experts say, the psychological price paid can be considerable.

Indeed, studies show that parents of children with developmental disabilities suffer greater stress levels than other parents and are more likely to experience depression and anxiety.

carey sherman

Carey Wexler Sherman, a gerontologist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, sees parallel stressors for those who care for developmentally disabled family members and those with dementia: “They are running on vapors.” (Courtesy photo)

Carey Wexler Sherman, a gerontologist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, sees a similar pattern in family members who care for a loved one with dementia.

“They are a risk for added depression, added anxiety,” Sherman told Bridge Magazine. “We also know that they are at risk for their own mental health because they don’t tend to take care of themselves.

“They don’t get good sleep. They don’t even manage to take the vacations or respite care that they desperately need. They are running on vapors,” she said.

Ann Arbor resident Jill Barker recalls the uncertain time when her two sons – both with cerebral palsy and significant intellectual impairments – completed their special education at age 26.

One son is now 31 and the other 40. Barker said they have been assessed to have the mental capacity of a 1-year-old.

Barker likened the time after her sons finished school to a “state of mourning.”

“When you don’t have something like that for support and backup, it’s very stressful,” Barker said. “It’s hard to know what to do. I don’t think most people would understand how stressful it is unless they have done it.”

“I don’t think most people would understand how stressful it is unless they have done it,” Jill Barker of Ann Arbor, who has two adult developmentally disabled children.

As their oldest son neared completion of school, Barker recalled, she and her husband, John, looked around the area for day activity programs for the developmentally disabled. But they found nothing they felt suited their son.

“There wasn’t much there,” she said.

Their children are now enrolled in an Ann Arbor activity program called Just Us Club, started and overseen by families with children with developmental disabilities. With a staff-to-adult ratio of three to one, its board of directors is comprised of parents with children in the program. It is run out of donated church space, so its only cost is that of staff.

It costs the Barkers $300 to $500 a month, but they feel fortunate to have that option.

“It’s very unusual,” Jill Barker said. “There may be a couple other places (in Michigan) like it.”

Eating pizza in heaven

In the meantime, the community of Westphalia is still reeling from the deaths of George and Grant Heckman.

George Heckman was described as a respected member of his church, the community and local school district, where he had served as an elementary school principal for 20 years. He was set to take over at the end of June as superintendent for Pewamo-Westphalia Community Schools.

Grant Heckman, it was said, was beloved by those in the adult special education program. A visitation at the district’s high school gym drew hundreds of people to pay their respects.

Pewamo-Westphalia Schools Superintendent Garth Cooper told a TV station, “I would never say what I think George did is right, but anyone who knows George knows that he loved and cared for Grant.”

And while those were commonly shared community sentiments, the report by the Ruderman Family Foundation concluded that news coverage of murders of the disabled by their caregivers is typically biased in favor of the caregiver.

“Journalists, consciously or unconsciously, often write stories that build sympathy for the murderer and the circumstances that led them to their crime, while the person with a disability is erased from the story,” it stated.

“I have not seen a story that tells anything about the victim,” the study’s co-author, David M. Perry, told Bridge Magazine.

“I would not want my obituary to be a list of symptoms.”

In fact, the actual obituary for Grant Heckman was far more than that.

“Grant loved to be taken on walks and rides and had a very special bond with Grandpa Smith, who would walk him for miles,” it read.

“When Grant smiled or laughed, it was a joyous occasion to be shared throughout the family, the song, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ never failed to make him smile. There is no doubt that he is talking, running, and eating pizza in Heaven right now.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Thu, 08/24/2017 - 10:00am

Thanks Dohn Hoyle for laying one more thing at the feet of public education. Wouldn't it make more sense to say that agencies like Community Mental Health and other sources are failing these families because they refuse services for families until their children turn 26? The State of Michigan and the healthcare system fail these families, not an education system that provides resources to families for a longer period of time than any other state in the country.

Yes, we need to support these families in a better way to avoid tragedies like the one in Montcalm County. We also need to quit blaming educators for every ill in our society.

Thu, 08/24/2017 - 2:44pm

All public education wants to do is segregate so they don't have to deal with them

Fri, 08/25/2017 - 7:56am

As with health insurance and health care, much of the problem stems from mixing and mis-applying two different things, special "education" and care for the mentally disabled. From the cases described here, we're taking our education system and trying to make it into respite care or day care and ending up messing up both.

Sun, 08/27/2017 - 6:40am

Age 26 ?????????????????? How did we arrive at that age? For some who have children in Special Education it becomes a licensed day care. We need transition options in many case long before age 26. Part time school,part time work release, part time at home. Co-op has proven very successful in many places. Depending on student needs concentrate on life skills and employability. I was in public education for over 35 years. Comments. R.L.

Deb R.A.
Sun, 08/27/2017 - 6:02pm

We are the ONLY state providing education to age 26. We should undertake serious dialogue with other states and learn all we can about their systems!

Mon, 08/28/2017 - 2:48pm

Other states do far less that Michigan and have waiting lists years long for day programs. The institutions were closed (thank God), but the money needs to be there to support people in the community that will never be able to work.

Sun, 08/27/2017 - 10:54pm

This is so tragic! Mrs. Heckman was left all alone, having lost her son & had her husband commit murder & suicide. I hope she has support & I hope Grant finds his happiness, at last. RiP.

Mon, 08/28/2017 - 2:56pm

As the parent of a disabled 19-year-old son, I know the feeling of being on the edge of the cliff. There is just no support out there. As Medicaid pays for group homes and staffing at one's own apartment, the wages are a joke. Medicaid needs to pay enough for people to make at least $15 an hour. Forget McDonald's making $15 a hour. Direct care workers have the lives of people in their hands. They keep them bathed, groomed, pass medication, clean, do laundry, cook, tube feed, change diapers on adults. More money needs to be allocated to these people. My son cannot talk, wears diapers, has melt downs--he will never have a job. Good group homes are hard to find particularly when one has behavioral problems. When you have no family and must continue to work, that is the only option available. I hired people when he was home, but they never lasted long. What is one supposed to do? Quit a good job, lose income, lose insurance, lose their home and go on welfare? Group homes or staffed apartments are the only choice and getting good help for minimum wage is a joke.

Cindy Taylor, P...
Mon, 10/16/2017 - 12:04pm

When I read about this when it first happened it didn't say why, but I knew. I'm literally crying now...things have to change! Day Dream's Inc must become a reality. Only a Day Dream can stop the nightmare!

Karen Underwood
Thu, 02/08/2018 - 6:16am

Meanwhile, this March 1, ASAN and numerous other disability organizations observe a National Day of Mourning for disabled persons who, like Grant Heckman, are victims of filicide.

Whatever type of man George Heckman was, however much he loved his son, filicide was his final, irrevocable choice for Grant, and suicide was his choice for himself.

When we talk about disabled persons' lives and deaths, as we do here, only as an occasion to show what burdens they are to their families and to society, it does virtually nothing to bring them the help they need to be integrated into the community. It brings their families no real respite. It merely marginalizes them further, and makes it more acceptable for their lives not to matter.

Kathleen Martin
Sun, 02/11/2018 - 1:29pm

As someone who spent their entire career working with people who had a wide variety of cognitive, physical, sensory and psychiatric challenges, I have seen firsthand the challenge of transition from school to post school life. My first years of experience were with students who had been in State institutions where they received no developmental intervention whatsoever and it cost almost $100,000 a year.
As the intervention transitioned to local and intermediate school districts, there were growing resources for funding and research on curriculum and intervention techniques. The age of personal computers brought on some amazing intervention strategies for students who had speech and/or motor limitations.
Transition planning became an active part of programming for secondary & post secondary students. We began to see these students in work experience settings & a few moving straight to work after finishing school. A number moved to group homes or apartments with support staff and transportation integrated into their daily routines.
For the majority of students, this direct transition wasn't going to meet their needs.
This was clearly a difficult time for the parents and we witnessed a wide range of response patterns with them . All were very afraid of losing the infrastructure of daily activities for their children. Most did not have a plan in place & required a lot of support to connect with the available service agencies in our suburban metro Detroit setting.
As the funding has declined, services have become partial in scheduling, with very few five day a week programs available.

I remember working in a rural setting with no public transportation & great distance between home and available services. Public transportation is one of the best resources for keeping people with disabilities connected to the least restrictive community opportunities and reducing the burden on the parents. There is a high correlation of greater levels of employment when public transportation is available. The same variables apply to people with disabilities who require continued daily intervention and stimulation. We should not expect their families to take on the entire responsibility of mobility for their special needs transportation.
We need to expand the opportunities for day programming at the social -recreational -therapeutic levels for those who are not ready for the work environment or only work part time. In my community of Troy, we offer recreational activities targeted on those who work or are in sheltered employment on a part time basis. The day programs that run two days a week are operating at or above capacity. We also offer a wide range of sports and recreation. All programs operate on a cost based nominal tuition or activity fee. Our clients have access in some communities for Medi-Go or Smart connector buses. This allows parents who are still working to have some security of mobility and appropriate programming for their children.

There is potential to replicate some of these programs in more rural settings and Michigan needs to stand up and return to the commitment for quality levels of service that made our State a leader in the field of service to people with special needs.