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Dr. Phil’s Interview with Kelli Stapleton

As many in the autism community know, Dr. Phil aired part 1 of his interview with Kelli Stapleton yesterday. Part 2 will air today.

It was hard to watch for many reasons. What we’re witnessing, in all the splendor of the mid-day talk show circuit, is the complete destruction of a family. People’s lives have been left in shreds…small pieces they must gather up and try desperately to reassemble into some sort of grotesque mosaic of life that barely resembles their old lives. Three children who once had two loving parents, now only have the presence of one loving parent.

Kelli’s actions changed their lives forever. She knows that. The reasoning behind her actions clearly shows someone who was not in a mentally competent place. It’s obvious that living with the challenges of autism for many years was a contributing factor to her lack of mental stability.

But I wish Dr. Phil’s show had been edited differently. Was it necessary to see the same clip of Issy attacking Kelli, and Kelli’s piercing screams, four times? Granted, maybe they had limited access to video footage, but still…was it necessary, and was it even right to use it? How would Issy feel, having that played on national television?

As Kelli stated, Issy is a little girl who doesn’t want to hurt her family members, she just can’t seem to control herself. She’s a little girl with a disability who was exploited. She didn’t have a choice about what was shown on the show, and that’s not right. If they wanted to demonstrate the severity of aggression, they could have simply interviewed people who have worked with Issy.

In addition, I don’t feel like it was made clear to viewers that Issy is not representative of everyone’s autism. One study has suggested that as many as 58% of children on the spectrum exhibit aggression, whether that is due to autism deficits or a comorbid condition, is unclear. Despite this, it’s irresponsible to let viewers assume that Issy presents as the average autistic person. This portrayal only serves to enforce a negative stereotype about autism that is already prevalent in our culture. It should have been reinforced that the Stapletons were living under extreme conditions that don’t reflect everyone’s experience with autism.

Despite these glaring errors, there was merit in this interview if, for no other reason, than for Kelli Stapleton to let the world know that she is remorseful for what she did. I speak for no one but myself when I say that I needed to hear that from her. I needed to know that she was sorry, that she had an emotional response to what she’d attempted to do to her child.

I believe it’s an absolute truth that every single person has a breaking point. Each person’s breaking point will vary, depending upon the life experiences and personality of that person. So whatever combination of life events and personality came together, it found Kelli at a point where she no longer was able to make logical or competent decisions.

My hope is that someday there will be a set of protocols in place to address families living with chronic aggression and violence. It is simply not possible to live with chronic aggression and not be negatively affected by it. I have no idea what that would look like, whether it was mandatory, ongoing involvement of CPS with families living under these conditions, or something else in its place, but I fear that we will not see an end to tragedies unless we do something to help these families.

Kelli has been a friend to many in the community, and has helped many struggling families. I wish she could have helped herself. I wish she would have let someone else help her. I wish her family wasn’t broken and that her daughter wouldn’t always have the memory of her mother trying to end both their lives.

I wish…

I wish there were answers.

I wish there was peace for these families.

I wish there was more compassion in the world.

And I really wish there wasn’t a part 2 to this interview today.

 

But most of all, I wish for Issy to have some peace in her life. To be able to find her way, with support, and to cease being fodder for journalists and media outlets.

As for my friend Kelli, in her own words, she should “be in jail for a very long time.”

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About Flannery

Kid, husband, dogs, my mother, full-time job, maximum stress, minimal relaxation...sooner or later I had to vent. AND we moved from California to Texas. I could start a whole other blog about that.

10 responses »

  1. I have so much to say, but thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject and raising awareness of this topic. As we’ve learned from the Ray Rice/Baltimore Raven’s recent domestic violence situation, a video is *much* more powerful than just words. I think it is appropriate to show Issy’s behavior. It provides context for Kelli’s actions. I know it is hard to watch.

    As a parent of a child with a severe behavior problem, most likely on the level of Issy or above, it may *seem* out of control, but a lot of it IS most likely intentional. Only her behavioral and medical team can determine the function of that behavior and help her replace it with more appropriate reactions. While this is what her six month residential treatment tried to do, in reality it takes YEARS to decrease the level of behavior that Issy presents. It takes a team of people to do that, in-home and in-school, and without access to the funds and the supports that they needed, I’m not surprised Kelli cracked under that pressure. I can’t imagine my husband letting me move to live alone with a child with that level of behavior! Why didn’t Kelli’s husband stay home with the aggressive child if he could handle her and let Kelli go to work to support the family? This whole story is sad, sad, sad, a failure of our society and our community in supporting a family struggling with autism spectrum disorder. (On a side note, CPS is not the answer. These children are not being neglected or abused, most likely. CPS is not equipped. It’s a failure of state mental health departments, the medical community, and the lack of requisite funding and staffing to help these families IMHO.)

    Anyway, I am in awe of you for taking on such an important issue. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. I have an autistic teenager with some challenging behavior and seizures, but nothing akin to the level of Issy. We did experience problems with educational settings) , and I eventually had to homeschool him. Thankfully, the behaviors are much milder and reduced though we continue to deal with some seizure activity despite meds. This was a difficult interview to watch and I am not sure if I will watch the second half.

    I agree that Kelli snapped and I too wish she had let the husband know that she was not able to handle Issy on her own when the school option fell through. My guess is that the family responsibilities had been allocated and the husband didn’t realize quickly enough that Kelli was not thinking clearly. I think that he is probably a good father (she acknowledged this a few times) and may be less vulnerable to injury/stress due to size (and temperament?). Still, it remains a difficult situation from what I have read and I hope that time and some type of new intervention will make it better as he is left now to cope,

    I was also glad that she seemed to realize that this was a tragic choice, but I am not sure that she could ever handle this situation again. Prayers to them and any/all of us who I know could use a lift everyday.

    Reply
  3. I sobbed through the whole thing. Heartbroken 😦

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  4. I know we are all about out of spoons on this one, so I want only to say that this is really beautiful, Flan. In a melancholy way, but it is real and raw, and I admire your courage in putting it out there.

    Reply
  5. I’ve been aware of the situation with the Stapleton family, but have been very hesitant to express anything about it. Not having a child with autism myself, I guess I feel completely unqualified to respond. And yet, just as a fellow human being, I have found the whole situation to be utterly heartbreaking. I’m sure there are a million and one “if only”s.

    I didn’t see the interview. I don’t watch daytime TV, or really much TV at all, but I don’t think Dr. Phil is anything but another sensationalistic show that exploits the human condition. Sadly, people do watch shows like this and believe that the “information” they provide is full of merit.

    Reply
  6. I was going to write on this subject myself, but you nailed it; no reason to reinvent the wheel. All I will do is talk about my own situation and perspective, nothing more.

    My son is 14, my daughter almost 12; both are on the spectrum. My son in particular has grown increasingly violent over the past year and a half. He attacks me, mainly me, because I step in to prevent my wife and daughter from injury. He also self-injures, mostly by head-butting.

    As his behavior has spiraled out of control recently I have had to take him to the ER numerous times. Same situation plays out every time. Because my son was taking psych meds for his behavior, medical floors won’t admit him, “it’s a psych issue”. Because my son’s meds were prescribed by a neurologist, not a psychiatrist, psychiatric floors won’t take him, suggesting that it’s a medical issue. He was admitted twice for some tests but only because I got a little intense and called a couple of doctors on the carpet for their condescension. At discharge both times we were urged to contact a slew of social services for help. I was given a sheaf of papers toward that end.

    We have had Children’s Services involved in our lives because our house occasionally gets a bit out of control. Pretty easy to do, actually, when you are getting beaten on a regular basis and have no time or energy for cleaning. “Children’s Services does not exist to take your children away but connect you with the appropriate services you need.” Umm, yeah. That’s why after one home visit I haven’t heard from them again. And likely won’t, unless someone else complains who has seen our house one time without any attention paid to context.

    My emotions have been at the brink of collapse many times. I end each day wondering how the hell I can keep going on. I get desperate. How does a person like me get help to handle the desperation? Is it from counselling? Children’s Services? Respite? A group home for my child? How would someone tell counselling that their emotions are stretched tighter than a rat’s ass over a barrel? They are required to report anything that smacks of the possibility of child endangerment to Children’s Services. At that point, Children’s Services will definitely exist to take your child away, and appropriate services be damned. The service agencies listed on the manifold sheets of paper, if they are not location-specific, require intake forms, and committee meetings, and home visits, all of which require weeks, and at any time these services can be revoked if someone decides that the funds would better be spent on midnight basketball for city council members and their families.

    The point of my diarrhea of the keyboard rant is this: it isn’t always as easy as people think to get help. I need help for my son right now, not a week from now, not a month from now, not when he turns 18, RIGHT NOW. But the only way to get it would be to sign away parental rights to the county. Yeah, not gonna happen. I have to watch what I say with my counsellor. A statement as benign as “I get angry when my son kicks me in the knees” could be misinterpreted a hundred ways. Certain therapies aren’t covered by Medicaid, and without insurance coverage, they can be godawful expensive. I have not been able to work for several years because the needs of my children require my presence at home; my wife could not handle things by herself.

    The answer is never to harm your child. But what is the answer apart from that? Is the answer in pithy 140-character hashtag Twitter wars? What is the best way to get #JusticeForIssy? Is it to lock Kelli Stapleton behind bars making license plates for the rest of her life, until the next incident actually occurs and the focus goes away from #JusticeForIssy to the next hashtag du jour? Could the answer be preventing the next incident of someone harming their special needs child, by more readily-available services or intervention?

    Tell me, what is the answer?

    hmm, this is good, I might put it on my blog after all 🙂

    Reply
    • I’m so, so sorry that you’re dealing with so much stress and so little support. I really wish I had some solid answers, honestly I do. All I can say is keep reaching out to others in the community. There are FB groups around that offer emotional support. MSG me on FB if you need help finding a group. Please don’t ever give up.

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    • 60 minutes on Sunday addressed this exact topic. Not necessarily how it relates to autism. But how families in crisis (in this case mental illness) do not have the resources for help. Until tragedy strikes and judgement comes. I wish I had answers for you. I know a lot of us have been on the brink. I think that is why while not one of us excuse what Kelli did we all can say, there but the Grace of whatever God you believe in could have been me in that one moment where you seriously see no light, no help and no understanding.

      I think you should blog about this, from your perspective. The more of us out there that says this life isn’t as easy as you think, the more understanding we can get. Thank you for sharing.

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  7. Flannery, I’m surprised and troubled by your last sentence.

    We all see the case through the lens of our own experiences. I’ve read opinions from people with autism, who want Kelli in jail for life (and maybe feel the same way about her supporters). If you didn’t know what they went through as children, you might walk away thinking that in their view, the world should revolve around the needs of people with autism, and parents exist to serve them. Parents should just take their beatings and shut up, right? Because they are somehow triggering meltdowns in their sons or daughters, who are not responsible for their aggression.

    But the ABA treatment that autistic kids used to go through was experienced by those children as torture. Fighting back was self defense, and the more forcefully they were “restrained” the more forcefully they struggled to defend themselves. Those memories must be horrific. I have to think that some autistic adults feel like Issy was dealing with that kind of struggle, and it drives them crazy that anyone could suggest that she should be murdered as a result.

    My lens, on the other hand, is as a survivor of domestic violence, and the mother of a child with mental illness. This is no coincidence. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my ex husband’s “anger management” issues were almost certainly a milder form of the brain impairment that tortures my child (whose privacy I want to protect). We escaped from my husband; I will never abandon my child. I am regularly bitten, punched, and kicked. I never escape the stress of worrying about my children — the mentally ill one, and also the healthy one who never gets enough of my attention, and who is the only other person on earth who cares about his sibling. He will be the caretaker when I am gone. I cannot meet either child’s needs to the extent they deserve, and this kills me.

    If we had a socially acceptable challenge I’m sure that we would have a ton of family and community support. We don’t.

    So let me tell you this. Kelli suffered from traumatic brain injury, as a result of being beaten into unconsciousness. By definition. I’ve always suspected that she also suffered from PTSD, as a result of the domestic violence. (Living with the everyday fear of being beaten to death will do that to you. ) Issy is not responsible for the beatings she inflicted on her mother because of her autism. From what I’ve seen and read about Kelli, I expect that she similarly cannot be held responsible for her attempt to kill Issy, and herself, because of the effects of repeated brain trauma, PTSD, and the resulting crippling despair. From what I’ve seen and read about Kelli (and as you can guess, I’ve kept a close eye), she NEVER deserved to be jailed.

    But I’m trying to keep an open mind. I realize I only know the info that’s public. You know Kelli. Do you really feel qualified to say she was compos mentis when she attempted to take their lives?

    Reply

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