The autism community is reeling from the news of the attempted murder/suicide by Kelli Stapleton, toward her daughter, Issy. I know I was reeling. I was literally sick over it, because I know her. At least I thought I did. And I was so angry with her, angry that she stopped fighting, and angry she didn’t reach out for help. Initially I didn’t want to contribute to the slew of posts and articles swirling around. I’ve spent the last few days thinking about the situation, mulling it over until the headaches forced me to sleep.
But for all that’s been written, either condemning her as a monster or empathizing with their situation, I felt like there was something missing. Between the two, there’s a story of a support system in disarray. And at times, a support system that just isn’t there. There are broader ramifications than this one family, because this isn’t a new story. It’s not a new occurrence. It’s become frighteningly common to hear about an autistic person being abused or murdered by a parent or family member. There has to be more to it than just a “bad parent” making a bad choice. So I decided to write and explore the questions and circumstances.
I’m not going to defend her actions. I’m not. There’s no defense for harming a child, we all know that. What I’m most interested in are the events that brought her from here to there, because if we can’t figure out how a 45-year-old woman with no criminal history, no history of aggression, and a pillar of her community got to a place where she would harm her child and herself, then we have very little chance of preventing this kind of thing from happening again.
Now I’m well aware that many advocates will say that no one should even be discussing the circumstances leading up to this because all we should care about is the crime perpetrated against Issy. Well I, for one, do care about that crime. I care a lot. But there is much more at stake than just justice and punishment. I don’t ever want there to be another story of an autistic person being murdered or abused. But it is not just remiss, but negligent, to equate Kelli Stapleton to any other run-of-the-mill person that attempts, or actually does, commit murder.
Some people commit murder our of revenge or a jealous rage, or in the midst of something as common as a robbery. Some commit murder because they’ve endured years of being abused and battered by a spouse. Whatever the particular case, we learn these factors because the cases are investigated to understand the motivating circumstances.
While none of us was there in their home or privy to their personal lives, we have a lot of information available that was posted on Facebook or Kelli’s blog.
We know that Issy just completed treatment to address behavioral concerns, particularly, severe aggression. There is a post on Kelli’s blog, the Status Woe, that includes a picture of the data tracking report from the center. The data clearly shows that during the first week, there were about 650 instances of aggression. Kelli asserts that this mirrors the behavior exhibited in the home. That’s roughly about 93 instances of aggression PER DAY. Now if we accept this as legitimate, then we must ask ourselves what effect this kind of environment has on an individual who lives with it for YEARS. Every single day, hitting, kicking, biting, scratching, punching, over and over again.
It’s easy to dismiss the report as being exaggerated, or to say that Kelli exaggerated the behavior. But there is also video proof of the aggression. The following video is from the facility’s camera, taken during a session where Kelli was asked to sit down with Issy and reward her for quiet hands and feet, and for coloring with her. There is no audio, but it’s clear that the aggression was as intense and sustained as reported.
And before you say it, NO. No, it isn’t a reason or excuse to do what Kelli did. But this post isn’t about just repeating the mantra of how wrong it was. It’s about dissecting the circumstances and dynamics so that we can find a way to prevent this from happening to someone else.
So I have to ask again, what does it do to a person’s mental health to endure years of physical attacks by their beloved child, attacks that have hospitalized Kelli twice for head injuries?
Kelli’s blog chronicles their journey to secure the necessary funding for Issy’s treatment. You see, she battled insurance companies and government agencies that would not fund the full treatment. The family engaged in fundraising, letter-writing, and media pleas to get their daughter help. This does not present a picture of someone that was contemplating harming her daughter. And remember, Issy is 14-years-old. The aggression has been taking place for a very long time, as have the battles with schools and support agencies. All of this information does not paint a picture of an unloving mother, but demonstrates a desperate, yet determined, parent with great love and compassion for her child.
How did a mother of three, wife to a high school principal, former molecular biologist with a long history of community involvement and leadership, who advocated tirelessly for her daughter despite years of physical abuse and trauma, suddenly become someone that could attempt a murder/suicide?
If we don’t seek to answer that question, our community will continue to bleed.
If this woman was suffering from PTSD, depression, anxiety, or any combination of those, it would not be surprising. Not surprising and also NOT a reason to do what she did. But it does tell us that parents of special needs children (particularly those with intense needs) are in danger of compromised mental health. If we don’t start looking at a whole-family approach to supporting and treating disabilities, this danger will always be lurking in the shadows.
As it stands, disability support services don’t just vary from state-to-state, but are different from one county to another. Without a continuity in the delivery of services to individuals and families, we will forever have some that are getting excellent services, and some that get almost no services.
As I see it, those are two of the biggest flaws in service delivery today. And if we don’t ask that question, if we don’t demand a family approach and a continuity in service delivery, we will stay the present course and things aren’t likely to change.
You may not agree with me, and that’s okay. But know this: I’ve personally heard at least 20 mothers, in the past two days, say that they could “understand how someone could get so desperate, and so defeated, that they could lose their grip on sanity.”
And that should scare the hell out of you.