September 7, 2013

Making Positive Changes in the Wake of the Stapleton Tragedy

If you follow many autism blogs or are involved in the autism communities on Facebook, you have certainly by now heard about the attempted murder-suicide of Issy Stapleton by her mother, Kelli.

I did not know Kelli, nor did I follow her blog closely. I make no attempt to defend an indefensible act and I certainly won't give any of my blog's space to those who do. She has been arrested and is in the hands of the justice system now. Last I heard, Issy was still unconscious and is likely to have brain damage.

There is a Stapleton dad and other Stapleton kids who are left to deal with all of this. It is nothing short of a tragedy. My heart breaks for Issy, for her family, and yes, even for Kelli Stapleton who has done the one thing a mother is never supposed to do: harm her child.

Some of what I'm reading suggests that there are only two camps: those who condemn Kelli Stapleton and those who defend her. This is not true. As intelligent, feeling, human beings, most of the people I know are shocked and saddened. They know this was a horrific act and make no excuses, but are having trouble reconciling the act with the Kelli they knew. They wonder what could have brought her to such a desperate point. And most importantly, what can we do to keep it from happening again?

My son Moe is only six. He barely weighs 40 pounds. But he is strong. He scratches and bites. He once walked up to Jelly while she was sitting at a table, grabbed her ponytail, and threw her to the ground. It was scary. The truth is, he is a difficult child to parent. And while it is my job to do so, while I am learning to parent him with love and acceptance and understanding, I am only human. It is hard. There is no shame in admitting that.

Moe is with me 24 hours a day because we do not have an appropriate schooling option for him. There are days when the attacks are relentless. When every diaper change, every buckling in and out of the car seat, every single interaction comes with aggression. My heart races. I spend entire afternoons running interference between Moe and Jelly and the dog to keep them all safe. Nobody enjoys that. Days are coupled with serious lack of sleep. In those times, I do not feel like myself. My patience wears dangerously thin.

In those times, I can't help but think about what happens when Moe is 12. Or 20. How will I keep Jelly safe then? What happens when he's bigger than me? It is an honest question.

I hope Moe and I will continue to learn together what he needs to avoid this aggression. I hope that with better communication skills and more maturity, Moe will be able to manage his frustration. But when I watch videos of fourteen year old Issy, pulling her mother's hair and attacking therapists, I see Moe. I see him in the way she moves. I also recognize Kelli's pain, both physical and emotional. I don't defend her final actions. But her life before that point? Looks a lot like mine.

We say "get help." But there simply aren't a lot of options. Let's get to the nitty gritty. Yes, in an emergency there is 911. But the long term outlook is tough to think about. It's not like I can just check Moe into a residential facility with 24 hour 1:1 care, where I know he will be safe and happy. These places don't exist in great numbers, and the ones that do have waiting lists of several years - assuming one could even afford it. And it makes me incredibly sad to think of Moe not being at home. Respite options are there, but we're talking a few hours at a time. At the end of the day, it is me and Jeff and Moe.


And sometimes that feels overwhelming. Frustrating. Scary. Desperate.

The Stanford Prison experiment studies, Stanley Milgram's obedience to authority experiment and others show that we as humans can be pushed to do things under stressful conditions that we wouldn't have thought ourselves otherwise capable of doing. It isn't that hard to push people to that level. And make no mistake, raising an aggressive, autistic child is stressful. It is not the child's fault. Issy did not deserve to be hurt. But the reality is many parents are under extreme stress.

Some say that the only legitimate reaction is to cry "monster!" and refuse to discuss any potential solutions to the seemingly growing (or maybe just more visible) problem of caregiver stress. To those who have suffered abuse, it seems unfeeling that we would give the abuser a second thought. I wish we could brush them off as monsters. I wish it were enough to say "stop killing kids." It isn't.

It isn't enough to hate and vilify. This keeps happening. Something has to change. We can simultaneously have empathy and say that Kelli Stapleton took the unequivocally wrong path. How can we change the outcome for next time? We can't just say "get help" and not provide that help.

And we certainly don't need to add to the conversation of hate. It gets us nowhere to make claims that Kelli's blog was just a cover for some master plan to murder her daughter. It gets us nowhere to make a petition to get this filed as a hate crime. It doesn't help Issy or her family. It doesn't help any other child or adult who might be in harm's way.

I only want to know how we keep this from happening again. And we cannot have that conversation without admitting that it could be any of us, that we are fallible even in our enduring love for our children. And that sometimes the future seems so desperate, so without answers, that logic and reason and love for our kids and hatred for those who would hurt them are not enough.

I don't have the answer. I have ideas for better living situations for families, for early intervention programs for parents as well as kids, for true long term care solutions for people with autism. A friend of mine is working on a petition to amend safe haven laws. There are lots of things we can do.

But what we have now? It isn't working.


  1. You are a really good writer, a great mother and what you have said here is exactly the point.

  2. Absolutely spot on. "What we have now isn't working."

  3. We still have a lot to learn from each other.

    I honestly cannot relate to Kelli now that I know what she's done, and I find it hard to summon much empathy. However, before this...I related all too well to her posts and struggles. You know that my young child has similarities to Moe too.

    I'm not going to say this could happen to any of us, because I can't believe that's true. I don't. (And I don't know Kelli at all - it's easy to distance myself.) Honestly, even when we blog; even when we're close never really know what goes on behind closed doors.

    Still, it's devastating and scary and disturbing and eye-opening. People feel betrayed, outraged, pained. All are valid.

    But you're right: how we now channel that passion - whether driven by anger or compassion - is critical to finding our way out of this.

  4. Exactly. Everyone wants to believe autism is the world of Temple Grandin and high functioning people. Well it isn't. My little girl has similarities to Issy and I feared a year ago if we didn't get her into a full day private placement that we would end up like Issy. She's only 5 now but it's still possible. There are more Issy and Kelli's then Temple and Eustacia's.

  5. This is great. I like the comparison to the Stanford Prison experiment. The changes in those participants were in a matter of days. We are all capable of things we cant fathom when put under unimaginable stress. There are so many valuable lessons to learn form this most terrible of events.

  6. Temple was sent to a boarding school as well as her aunt's ranch where her animal career started. I don't think 24 hours is healthy in any situation, much less a sleep deprived one with no end in sight.

  7. Exactly. One can be empathetic to Kelli and the situation without also believing that this excuses her actions. It is also not helpful to the autism community to simply state that "help" was available and that should be enough. As you so perfectly put it, what we have is not working. Something has to change.

  8. It is a common feeling among special needs parents to want to be preceded in death by their children. They can't imagine that anyone could care for their child as much as they can. Their dedication and patience is unmatched.
    My six year old son is loving and easy to parent, yet the thought of someone other than myself taking care of him is too much to bear. I think that her case in unique from other murders in that she was trying to end her life also, because she did not see herself fit to live without her daughter. My prayers go out to her family now.

    1. Our lives have value. And they have value by themselves. They do not cease to be worth living when our parents die.

      You're suggesting that Kelli Stapleton was a loving mother who merely tried to commit murder because she couldn't bear the thought of her daughter living without her. That's not love, no matter how sincerely she may have believed it was. That's selfishness. Horrible, dangerous, homicidal selfishness. Forcing another person to join you in death may be the most selfish act conceivable.

      Incidentally, it's quite common for murders of disabled people to include a simultaneous suicide attempt by a parent and/or caregiver. The Alex Spourdalakis murder is just one recent example.

  9. Kelli had a 6+ month break from Issy, while she was in residential treatment. Kelli had a Medicaid waiver that paid for trained, professional 1:1 staff for all of Issy's waking hours. Issy had been discharged from residential treatment less than 36 hrs before her little attempted suicide-murder.

    Despite the breather, the reprieve, the paid staff the fact that she had LESS THAN TWO DAYS with Issy home she still felt "desperate".

    I don't get it. What could have been done differently? What service or support would have prevented this extraordinarily well-supported woman from trying to murder her kid based solely on the fact that she was autistic??? Kelli decided Issy's life was so horrible that she wasn't entitled to live it??

    An imperfect analogy: The lovely Mr. Shafia, a successful middle eastern businessman immigrated with his family to montreal a few years back. He was so horrified at his daughters behavior (wearing western clothes! Having boyfriend! Behaving like *gasp* Canadian teens!), that it was just too horrible to contemplate his daughters going through life like that, that his daughters had to be saved from themselves, so he killed them, horrifically:

    Mr. Shafia really, truly believed that murdering his daughters was the right thing to do, the living thing to do, the compassionate thing to do -- just like Kelli. Because Issy's life would be so horrible that she would be better off dead.

    (Incidentally, Mr Shafia was convicted of first degree murder).

    1. Look, I make no excuses nor apologies for Kelli Stapleton. She should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

      I don't buy the argument that the reason parents keep killing their autistic children is because society doesn't accept autistic people. As you point out, it is a sad and unfortunate fact that people kill their children for all sorts of misguided, irrational reasons. I wish it weren't so.

      I cannot say what was going on in Kelli's mind that day, but since you asked, I could imagine one scenario. Her daughter comes back after several months in a treatment facility that was designed to help with severe aggression. She comes back home, and after just a short time, Issy behaves violently again. So what then? Life is the same as it ever was, all the fighting for the past years seemed to be for nothing. The insurance money has run out, and school is unable to implement the new behavior plan. The situation - in her mind - seems desperate. Kelli is suicidal, but she decides that no one else would be able care for her daughter either. One study shows that this "altrusitic" (their word, not mine) form of filicide is perhaps the most common reason parents kill their children:

      I don't know if this is what happened. Regardless, it isn't rational. It isn't right. But it does no good to just call Kelli Stapleton a horrible person. It alleviates us of any responsibility. It allows us to make her an "other" and do nothing to stop it from happening again.

      So I ask you. What would you do to make sure this never happens again?

    2. That was my ending question too: What do we do to make sure this never, ever happens again?

      I've no idea. Sadly. Scarily. Kelli really did seem to have every single support known to mankind.

      The only vaguely helpful suggestions I've come across are:

      1) Amend current "safe surrender" / "safe haven" laws to include people with certain special needs, with no age limit. Meaning just like the newborn safe surrender laws, a parent could surrender their kid at a safe location (usually hospitals and fire stations) and would not be prosecuted for child abandonment/neglect but would immediately and irrevocably relinquish their parental rights. The "Adventures in Extreme Parenthood" blogger has a petition on this issue set up (and I'd definitely sign it if I lived in Maryland).

      2) Detailed Family Energency Plan: Specifying who does what if a kid is too violent to keep at home, signs if burnout/stress/depression to look out for specifically in mom or dad, list of names/numbers to call if mom or dad is on the brink of losing it, list of emergency respite caregivers, etc.

      (The fundamental flaw in both options is that one needs to be minimally rational in order to exercise either option... and by the time someone is committing a murder-suicide, they clearly aren't. It is also why the newborn safe surrender laws aren't terribly effective either - a woman who is scared but willing to acknowledge they're pregnant are in a position to decide to have an absorption, keep the baby or find an adoptive family, thus unlikely to need the safe surrender option. The one that can't or won't face it, who theoretically could avail themselves of the safe surrender option, often have so much else going on that they're either unaware or not thinking clearly enough to safely surrender the baby. Catch 22 at its worst. Sigh).

  10. It's admirable that you're calling for Kelli Stapleton to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. However, I maintain that it is impossible to talk about Issie's aggression as a cause of this attempted murder without engaging in a very real form of victim-blaming, however unintentional. It's like saying: "I don't condone rape, and rapists need to be fully prosecuted; but we really need to do something about girls dressing in skimpy clothes." I for one would really appreciate if teenage girls would refrain from wearing shorts that show their butt cheeks. But the aftermath of a rape is not the time for that discussion. The same principle applies here.

    I also maintain that the cause of the attempted murder of Issy Stapleton is something even more uncomfortable and less easily resolved than a lack of services: namely, the privileging of some abilities over others. Because when we say that some people's abilities are less valid or useful than others, it's not a great stretch to say that some people are less useful than others. And from there, it's not a great stretch to say that those people have less fulfilling lives than others. And from there, it's not a great stretch to say that some of those people have truly miserable lives. And from there, it's not a great stretch to say that some of them may be better off dead. And that sets the stage for a murder masquerading as a mercy killing. And as an autistic person, that chills me to the core.

    1. Let's be clear. In no way do I blame Issy. In fact I very clearly state "It is not the child's fault. Issy did not deserve to be hurt." As for the rape analogy, you're right: we don't have the discussion about wearing short shorts. We have the discussion about why someone rapes. It has nothing to do with what a woman wears. It has everything to do with power, with what has happened in his life. We need to understand what brought the rapist to that point. And we need to understand what brought Kelli Stapleton to this point. We may not like the answers but how else will we address the problem?

      Every time our community experiences a tragedy of this sort, I hear "this is not time for the discussion." Then tell me, when is? What better reason to have the discussions? Because if we wait, we forget. People move on to whatever their daily challenges are. When there is a rape, or a school shooting, or drunk driving accident, we talk about why. We talk about how to keep it from happening again. You have the ears and eyes of a lot of people right now, including mainstream media. It is the *perfect* time to talk about it.

      Again (I mention this in a prior comment), I don't buy the argument that autistic people are murdered because of privilege or ableism by their killers. I know of no evidence to suggest that children with autism are murdered by their parents in any greater numbers than people without autism. People kill their children for all sorts of horrible, misguided reasons. It is a shame, but not one that is unique to autistics.


I love comments! Respectful disagreement always encouraged.


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