On September 3, 2013, Kelli Stapleton published a blog describing an IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting where it was decided that the district school would not offer services to her 14-year-old autistic daughter named Issy.
The girl had been discharged recently from an 8-month inpatient program in Kalamazoo, MI (three hours from her home) where she was being treated for, among other things, aggressive behavior related to her autism. While attending treatment, Issy had developed a good rapport with a teacher and the Stapletons were hopeful.
Kelli and her husband, Matt, had decided that Kelli and Issy would move to Kalamazoo so Issy could attend school there and Matt and the couple’s other two children would remain at home. They had sacrificed a lot but it was the right thing to do for their daughter.
Later that same day, police found Kelli and Issy in the family’s van near their home, both unconscious, during an apparent attempt by Kelli to end both their lives. Issy spent a week in the hospital and Kelli is being held without bond on a felony attempted murder charge.
Kelli’s murder/suicide attempt sent shock waves through the special needs community, especially the autism sector.
Kelli and Issy were victims of a system that ended up victimizing them both. We could say they were powerless because the therapies, education and help they needed and were seeking, would come to them through a bureaucracy that held all the cards, had the financial power and final say. They were not wealthy so they had to depend on this rigid, insufficient and uncompromising system. These parents were completely invested in getting help for their family so they could lead a so-called ‘’normal’’ life, but the chances of them getting the level of help they needed were very slim.
What happened to Issy and Kelli should not surprise anyone; the decision to keep Issy from attending school as planned became the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.
Kelli Stapleton has been in jail for over 9 months now and her trial will start on July 16th. A group calling itself “Friends of Kelli’’ are raising money to hire an expert witness for her defense. Without it, the charges filed against this mother could hold a maximum sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Kelli Stapleton was writing about her experiences with her 14-year-old daughter, Issy, in a blog called The Status Woe. The family was featured in a Traverse City Record-Eagle story in March that told of Issy’s acute autism, episodes of violence, and the family’s struggle to fund a full eight-month treatment program in Kalamazoo County.
According to Stapleton’s recent blog posts, that treatment ended at the end of August, and Issy was preparing to enter a special-education program in her local school district.
Upon learning that Issy would not be admitted in the local school, Kelli wrote desperate sounding blog posts and was subsequently found with her daughter in a van filled with smoke from portable charcoal grills police believe Stapleton lit. The doors were locked and the van’s windows were closed; Issy Stapleton and her mother were both unconscious.
After mother and daughter were hospitalized and treated for carbon monoxide poisoning, Lt. Kip Belcher said he was not aware of a suicide note and that investigators were are at work trying to piece together a motive for the mother’s alleged actions.
“We are still trying to determine what sort of crisis she may have been facing, “Belcher said. He said she was reportedly despondent “but as far as the basis for her arriving at this decision, we are still working to make sure we are taking care of that properly …
“I don’t believe she has had much to say. My understanding is she has not been extremely forthcoming.”
Belcher obviously had not read Stapleton State of Woes where she was very forthcoming. (http://thestatuswoe.wordpress.com/tag/kelli-stapleton/)
Her last entry, dated Sept. 3, is titled “When a Power Player Takes You Down.” In it she tells of learning that her daughter would not be allowed to participate in the local school program as planned.
“This week the special education teacher came to the same behavior plan training meeting as my home staff. It was clear within the first hour that there were going to be problems…” Stapleton wrote.
She writes of having a heated argument with the teacher, and of a meeting the next day at which she learned “Issy was not going to be allowed to go to school there.
“So less than a week before school is to start, she is uninvited.
‘’I am devastated.’’
“My husband is gutted.”
She concludes the post:
“If you work with families, please try to minimize the soul shattering disappointments you hand out. There are ways to say ‘no’ without being inhumane. Please don’t make your problems mine. I’m sorry you have 22 kids on your caseload, but that doesn’t mean Issy should be denied consideration because you’re busy. Please don’t tell me there are 50 other people on a waiting list to use general fund dollars. Please don’t tell me that when I’ve found the perfect staff that Medicaid will only reimburse $16 but staff charge $18. At least let me believe you’re trying to figure it out. It’s my job to try to do my best for my daughter. It’s your job to be professional and help me do mine (and only one of us is getting paid).
“There is so much more to say. I’m just too tired to write more.”
If that is not revealing, what is?
We will never know if The Great Lakes Center for Autism Treatment and Research in Portage was involved in helping make that transition back into public school programs.
“These situations require the utmost confidentiality, thus I am not at liberty to discuss this situation,” the receptionist there read from a script during the phone call. She would not give her name.’’
Kelli Stapleton depicted in her blog, the woes of parenting an autistic child. She was inventive, creative and dedicated but she did not have the money to get Issy in private treatment and had to battle with a heavy bureaucracy to get her child in the right programs. Reading her posts, you wonder if someone like Kelli did not make it, who will? But her constant quest to battle and conquer might have been her undoing. She had huge goals and was a perfectionist. She fought so hard that her energy was depleted.
Birmingham-based psychiatrist Gerald Shiener said caregiver fatigue can be a difficult problem for those who are in charge of a disabled relative.
“It can be overwhelming,” he said. “It can cause severe depressive symptoms and cause a depressive syndrome, with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.”
Caregivers also may struggle with feelings of being ostracized or isolated, said Judy Kotzen, medical social worker for Beaumont Health System.
It’s important for caregivers to set aside time for themselves and seek help when needed, Shiener said.
“When a caregiver neglects themselves, that’s when they get overwhelmed, that’s when they feel guilty, that’s then they feel a sense of resentment, that’s when they get discouraged … and that’s when something bad happens,” he said.
And something really bad happened to Kelli and Issy when despair took over and overshadowed all the rest.
I was told by the mother of a severely autistic child that during support group discussions, most of them admitted to having had thoughts of suicide and murder. Not to get rid of the child they loved, but to solve the problem. To spare themselves and their special need child, the agony and constant roller coaster of pain.
I have read many comments calling for Kelli Stapleton’s head on a platter. Some say that if she is not thrown in jail, it might give parents of special needs children, the green light to do the same. I find it offensive that any parent who has not walked in her shoes, would stand in judgment of her actions.
No parents will kill their child because Kelli has tried to harm herself and her daughter. On the contrary, they might find the ounce of energy and courage necessary to keep their own head above the water not to drown like her.
Instead of saying she needed help and did not receive it, and let’s work at improving the system, we are supposed to solve the problem by victimizing Kelli even more?
Some questions the huge argument she had with the teacher and blame the outcome on her lack of finesse and diplomacy. Whatever went down to unleash her wrath must have been very important in her eyes and she snapped. You cannot expect diplomatic skills from a mother fighting for her daughter’s right to a good educational program and school plan. It is a very frustrating process in itself and Kelli was at the end of her rope.
Kelli must have realized her mistake when she said ‘’with this teacher, I pushed when I should have pulled, bobbed when I should have weaved, bit when I should have kissed.” But to have her child dismissed because of the argument, must have been the final blow. They held the purse strings and had all the power so they decided the fate of that family based on the combative argument with the mother.
This very sad event should be a wake-up call for all of us.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurobiological condition that can affect the normal function of the gastrointestinal, immune, hepatic, endocrine and nervous systems. It impacts normal brain development leaving most individuals with communication problems, difficulty with typical social interactions and a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behavior. There is also a markedly restricted repertoire of activity and interests. Individuals on the autism spectrum tend to have varying degrees and combinations of symptoms and therefore treatment needs to be specific to the individual.
Issy Stapleton was prone to extreme violence and had once beat her mother unconscious in her car. Kelli was actually afraid that her daughter would end up killing her. The situation was very serious and it is not surprising that Kelli Stapleton saw no light at the end of this dark tunnel when she was told that her daughter should be home-schooled.
The video posted below is an example of how Issy could become physically difficult to handle.
Some suggested that she could have given her daughter away to the system if she did not feel able to take care of her. Or that she should have sought help from the numerous groups offering help to parents, guardians and other people who think they might commit violence or murder in such a situation.
Relinquishing your own child is rarely perceived as a solution for a dedicated mother. Especially in times of trouble. For obvious reasons, a mother rarely decides to give a child to a system that has failed her countless times. The nurturing instinct is too powerful and the instinctual reflex is to take the child out of the situation.
You see it in nature, when there is a threat, a mother will destroy her young offspring to withdraw from danger. A mother usually acts on instinct and not by the book when it comes to saving and taking care of children. I was told by some mothers that at least, the child would no longer suffer.
Kelli did not act out of love but out of desperation. So to try to attribute guilt and shame to her actions is an exercise in futility.
The only option is to try to fix the problem that created this situation which transcends the case of Issy and Kelli. It is about a system that does not serve the needs of the autistic sphere.
There are not enough support services for Autistic people and their families and they are in desperate need of more support. You have to go on waiting lists and play the waiting game for a long time. Kelli was very proactive and she had managed to get Issy in a residential facility with around the clock care but it had come to an end and she was facing other road blocks.
I was totally shocked to read that because Kelli had a blog and had documented and videotaped some of her daughter’s outbursts, she was considered a bad mother who saw her daughter as ‘’not fully human and not worthy of the rights and respect that most of us take for granted.”
Here is an example of what was said about Kelli “Capturing media as fodder for one’s blog should be about the furthest thing from one’s mind. And I don’t believe that it is with this type of parent. The martyr mommy/daddy. Sure they can claim that they are trying to help other parents not feel so alone…or whatever the party line is. But even if that is true, if my belief that their attention seeking is wrong, they are doing so at the expense of the privacy of their children. “Helping” other parents should not override the sacred trust of a parent/child relationship.
Parents prone towards these acts of betrayal of their children are not merely poor parents. Because the ones that I’ve seen and am speaking of are also prone towards despicable acts of emotional and verbal abuse towards Autistic adults that are brave enough to face their wrath.”
So her blog made her a bad parent who betrayed her daughter and a martyr mommy. Wow, that is harsh!
Instead of focusing on the fact that Stapleton resorted to a blog probably to reach other parents and get support by the same token, she became the bad guy.
For parents of ‘’normal children’’ it might seem unthinkable, but people like Kelli are living on the edge and might resort to unorthodox methods. Would I do it? Probably not but it was her way of dealing with her predicament.
And anyone who is trying to say that she should have acted like everything was fine and that Issy was like any other child, I say try living through your child attacking you in a fit of rage, and tell me what you are going to do about this sacred moment of betrayal.
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) issued a statement expressing dismay at the media coverage of the attempted murder of Issy Stapleton.
‘’Both local and national media coverage of Issy’s attempted murder have emphasized her mother’s alleged stress, the “burden” of Issy’s disability, and the insufficient state of autism services today (although Issy had returned home from an intensive 6-month residential placement less than 72 hours previously.) Rather than rallying with sympathy and support for the child victim of attempted filicide, media coverage has consistently attempted to excuse and justify her murderer and paint the person who tried to kill her–her own mother–as the “real” victim.’’
I find it very disappointing that ASAN would attack Stapleton because her daughter had been recently admitted to a program. What about everything else that happened in between? They are refusing to support her in this tragedy because it will give them a bad name. So they throw her under the bus and distance themselves from the problem as if they were not part of it.
Hilary Clinton was right about the old African saying it takes a village to raise a child. And it takes a huge collective effort to raise a special need child. So when the boat is sinking, let’s blame the entire village and not only Kelli Stapleton. This is way too simplistic and especially cruel.
Kelli is not the only parent to have gone down that road and help is urgently needed. She does not belong in prison and blame and useless shaming is totally uncalled for. It should be a wake-up call and a joint effort to make sure our society has the right support, programs and treatment to avoid this type of tragedy in the future.
Update: Kelli Stapleton recently pleaded guilty to a felony charge of first-degree child abuse and is awaiting sentencing.
On October 8, Stapleton was sentenced to 10 to 22 years in prison. Strangely, the same judge sentenced Alyce Morales to no less than 29 months in prison with a credit for 432 days already served behind bars for killing her newborn child. She will spend one year and three months in prison, give or take.
In the courtroom, it was mentioned that her religion caused her to feel isolated and fear repercussions of having a child.
So what about the fact that Stapleton had spent years enduring attacks and being depressed? And unlike Morales, she tried to take her own life. They were both overwhelmed mothers, but one of them did not spend years trying and received the lighter sentence. Should Kelli’s husband receive jail time for not helping out enough? This kind of twisted mentality has no end and no logic to it.
Judge Batzer has some explaining to do. Could it be that the media was not as involved in the Morales case?