Oct. 12, 2010 -- The family of a 7-year-old Trenton, Mich. girl who is battling a terminal illness has had to take on a very different battle: taunts about the child's condition from their neighbors.
Kathleen Edward is in the late stages of Huntington's disease, a genetic degenerative brain disorder, according to media reports. Her mother, Laura Edward, died of Huntington's last year.
Because of what the Edward family said was a longstanding feud with their neighbors, Jennifer and Scott Petkov, Jennifer Petkov posted images on Facebook of Laura in the arms of the Grim Reaper and Kathleen above a set of crossbones. Neighbors also say the Petkovs built a coffin, put it on their truck and drove past the Edward home, honking the horn.
When asked by a reporter from Detroit television station WJBK why she posted the photos, Jennifer Petkov said it was for "personal satisfaction" and because it upset the child's grandmother.
Shortly after the feud was mentioned in news stories, people from around the world posted Facebook, YouTube and Twitter pages of their own attacking Jennifer Petkov. The Petkovs have also allegedly received death threats and had eggs thrown at their house. The Petkovs have since apologized to the Edward family, telling The Detroit News their actions were "ignorant." They said they would apologize in person, but the Edward family has personal protective orders against their neighbors.
Mental health experts, who have no relationship with either family, say without knowing more about the Petkovs, it's difficult to say exactly why the couple behaved the way they did. The experts believe there could be a variety of reasons for their behavior, including poor conflict resolution skills, a lack of moral development and the desire to bully.
An 'Extreme Case' of Cyber-bullying
"This is probably the most extreme case [of cyber-bullying] I've ever heard of," said Cheryl Dellasega, author and professor of humanities at Penn State University College of Medicine in Hershey, Penn. "It's another way that people can say things that are really cruel that they wouldn't say to somebody's face. They're angry, resentful and jealous and put it up on Facebook knowing that the other person will see it."
Peter Sheras, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia as well as an author of several books on bullying, disagrees that what the Petkovs did is a form of bullying. He said it's a very striking example of how many people in society have tremendous difficulty settling disputes.
"We don't have very good skills at managing conflict," said Sheras. "We don't have enough mechanisms for socializing people into civility."
Family With Huntington's Disease Taunted Online
Dr. Ken Robbins, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, said, "Some people don't make it to full moral development and don't learn about empathy or feel guilt or remorse."
He also said that the Petkovs did exhibit bullying behavior, and adults who are bullies lash out at others for the same reason children who are bullies do.
"It's a way to feel like they're taking control of a situation, acquiring power by demeaning others and by making others feel humiliated."
Experts believe there could be some underlying psychological problem as well.
"I have to wonder if there wasn't some pathology involved that they would need to express something so heinous online," said Dellasega. They couldn't work their negative feelings out in some other way, like through counseling."
They stress that people need more lessons in civility so incidents like this one and other well-publicized cyber-bullying cases don't become a nationwide epidemic.
"There are lots of ways to solve problems. We need to have a commitment to actually resolve the problem in different ways," said Sheras.
"We need classes on being a good citizen, on supporting each other and being aware of the culture we live in," said Dellasega.
The Edward family told a reporter from WJBK that they want people to leave the Petkovs alone so their neighborhood can heal.