People who equate truth with fact are missing the point.

Issy and Kelli Stapleton: Murder, Suicide, and Family

I have been deeply disturbed for weeks. I keep trying to write this blog post and backing away from it, over and over. I have decided not to publish it, and alternately been compelled to publish it. Ultimately, this is my truth. This is what my family survived, and if it was the reality for my family, then it’s the reality for other families because we aren’t unique. But back up; this doesn’t begin with me, but with another family.

The facts of the story: On September 3, 2013, Kelli Stapleton published a blog post in which she described an IEP meeting that ended with the district school refusing to provide services for Issy, Kelli’s 14-year-old autistic daughter. Issy had just been discharged from an inpatient treatment program in Kalamazoo, MI (three hours from the Stapleton home) where she was being treated for, among other things, aggressive behavior related to her autism. While at her inpatient program, Issy had developed a good relationship with a teacher in the junior high she attended while she was in treatment. Kelli and her husband, Matt, 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.

Later that same day, police found Kelli and Issy in the family’s van in a rural area near their home, both unconscious, during an apparent attempt by Kelli to end both their lives. Issy spent about a week in the hospital and is now recovering at home. Kelli is being held without bond on a felony attempted murder charge.

Kelli’s act set off a virtual bomb in the special needs/disability blogosphere, and especially in the autism world. I will not guess at Kelli’s motives for trying to kill herself and her daughter (we will only know her motives if and when she tells us), but I do know how I got to the edge of the cliff that Kelli went over.

I have been consumed by what Kelli did since I heard the news. Part of that is because I know Kelli and part is because I have been close to doing what she did. Since the news broke, the cry that has gone up from autistics and people with other disabilities is, we have been dehumanized. We are not considered valuable or worthy of consideration, kindness, freedom, or even our very lives.

That is true. Our culture as a whole, and we as individuals, have not honored every person as we should. We have hurt, isolated, ostracized, assaulted, sterilized, tortured, and killed people we don’t understand. We have deemed those who seem different less worthy, and often we have done the hurting in the name of helping, calling it therapy, treatment, or religion. If you or someone you love have been on the whip-crack end of that terrible phenomenon, I am sorry. You deserve better. You deserve all good things, all the support and kindness and love that this world and the family of humanity has to offer. The people who hurt you were wrong. If they had good intentions but hurt you anyway, they were wrong. If they loved you but hurt you anyway, they were wrong.

All that said (and all that true), there is a complexity that we’re losing by insisting that a discussion of what may have caused Kelli to do what she did (or that any discussion of why so many caregivers kill or attempt to kill the disabled people in their care) is necessarily devaluing Issy and other victims. Condemning Kelli will not stop the next desperate parent from taking a similar action, and in fact may prevent people from reaching out when they are in danger.

Kelli and Issy were (and are) victims of the same system, and that system made them victims of each other. When we, the ground-level stakeholders (people with disabilities, caregivers, and people who would like the world to be more just), focus on the ways Kelli and Issy victimized each other, we let all the other people off the hook. When we vilify Kelli, or autism, or the various therapies (on which I am no expert, since my disabled child has serious mental illness, not autism), we don’t scrutinize all the people who hold the power and the pursestrings.

Think in terms of power and investment. Kelli and Issy and the rest of the family were relatively powerless. Therapies, education, and help for Issy would only come via the bureaucracies that hold the purse strings, as they do for most of us who don’t have a few million dollars at our disposal. So let’s say the Stapleton family needed a level of help we’ll call X. That X represents the amount of help that enables the family to have a life that is life. Issy goes to school all day and there is adequate care there for her to be safe, healthy, and to learn as much as she can. There is enough help in the evenings and on weekends so that the other Stapleton children can have the attention of their parents, help with homework, family meals together, and regular outings. The Stapleton parents have the space they need to nurture their relationship and their individual interests. Issy has all the appropriate therapies that her team parents, teachers, and other care providers agree she needs, and her parents and siblings have therapists, too. There is so much help that the parents are not overwhelmed and the children are not afraid.

The Stapleton parents are completely invested in the family getting help level X. Their desire is for a life that resembles normal family life as much as possible. I’m making that assumption, of course, but it’s based on what I want for my own family so it’s not a big stretch.

What are the chances that they will get help level X? In my experience, nearly zero. I know dozens of families in which there are children with extraordinary needs, and the amount of help they get is always X minus at least half.

In late 2009, I had begun to consider that suicide was reasonable, as was ending the life of my mentally ill son, Carter, then 7 years old. There was no hate in me for Carter; in fact, it seemed to me that ending our lives was the only loving thing I could do. When I read of people condemning Kelli’s actions, saying that autism or disability is no excuse for murder, I am perplexed because I wasn’t looking for an excuse to kill my son; I was looking for an excuse not to. I believed that ending our lives was the only loving response to my son’s illness and suffering that was available to me.

(Pause. Breathe. We are all well now, and very safe.)

I’m not a stupid person, nor am I in general delusional, but when I lived with unrelenting and profound stress, fear, grief, and anger, coupled with severe sleep deficit, I changed. I watched the light go out in my other children’s eyes, watched my husband descend into periodic despair, and that changed me. Some people told me I was overreacting and others told me I was a saint, an angel, and a hero, and that changed me too.

Everything about Brian’s and my lives was shredded in the early years of Carter’s life. All the things we did that gave our lives meaning and joy were gone: church, prayer, sex, family relationships, play, conversation, reading, walking, writing. All the things we did that made our lives work were destroyed, or minimized to the point of dysfunction: maintaining our home, maintaining our yard, keeping up with the laundry, preparing meals, shopping. Those things that kept us feeling good about ourselves disappeared: hobbies, friendships, art, routine medical and dental care, taking care of our personal appearance, even hygiene, and of course sleep. We slept so little for so long, I’m not sure how we functioned at all.

I’m not talking about things that we experienced occasionally, or sometimes, or during the day, or for a few weeks here and a few weeks there. I’m talking about every minute, day and night, for months and years. We know that war and poverty change the structure and function of the brain; it’s not a stretch to assume that living with unrelenting and profound stress at home can do the same. And just as some infants come out of their painful early years in Russian or Bosnian orphanages just fine, and some come out deeply damaged, parents come to special needs parenting with our own strengths and weaknesses. Some of us will bounce, and some of us will eventually shatter.

In the midst of the chaos of our home life,  we were condemned and criticized everywhere. I was patted on the head (once literally) and called a worried mom (many times, in many ways) when I told doctor after doctor after doctor that my child did not sleep, could not laugh, smashed his own face into the floor, and was not happy. I spent hours on the phone with the insurance company and got very little in return for my efforts because we just don’t cover developmental delay. I heard the questions again and again, searching for how Carter’s problems were my fault: did you take medicine, what do you feed him, were your other kids this way? I saw the nasty looks and heard the foul words from people at the grocery, the post office, and restaurants. We called for help and were added to waiting lists for tests, waiting lists for appointments, waiting lists for services.

I begged for help and heard, in a million ways and on a thousand days, no, we can’t help you. There’s nothing to be done. Go home. Deal with it.

I never devalued my son’s life. Our culture, society, and systems did that. When I waited on the playground for the kindergarten bell to ring and none of the other parents would talk to me because my son was “that boy,” the one who attacked other kids, couldn’t sit still, and occupied all of the class aide’s time and attention, I felt that shame, but it wasn’t mine. That shame belonged elsewhere—with  the principal, lawmakers, and supervisors who refused to provide appropriate placement. They devalued my son and my family. Doctors who saw me, frantic and pleading, for a standard 5-minute visit, and handed me a book about sleep instead of sitting and hearing me and working with me to find a solution—they devalued my son, my family, and me, but I felt the shame.

In the midst of all of that, with my life swirling in pieces around me, the dominant emotion was sorrow. My little boy was in agony. He was afraid, sick, psychotic, depressed, aggressive, suicidal, manic, and miserable. Even the most basic pleasures of life, a good night’s sleep or an easy poop, were denied him. I would have happily chewed off my arms if that would have eased any portion of his pain. I have held him through thousands of hours of sleepless anguish, pulled him back from the brink of his own attempts to hurt himself or end his own life, and watched a million hurts chip away at his heart. I would have done anything to fix it. I did everything I knew to do, and still, he suffered.

We lived like that for eight years. It changed me. It very nearly broke me. I didn’t get to the place where suicide and murder seemed like appropriate actions because I was selfish. I didn’t get there because of hate or even anger. The world was hopelessly dark, help far too scarce, and the shame too large. Most of all, the agony seemed endless, limitless. I have read over and over in the weeks since Kelli Stapleton tried to kill herself and her daughter, “A mother should protect her child!” Sometimes, I couldn’t see any way to protect Carter except to take him home to Jesus.

We have enough help now. Carter isn’t nearly as sick as he was, and my husband and I have more ability as caregivers than we used to. We survived long enough to get to the tops of some waiting lists, and we finally gained access to an excellent pediatric psychiatrist, a therapist, and a behavioral management specialist. We found a parent support group and a wonderful school that my parents have paid for. We began the process of turning our lives around, and while it hasn’t gotten easy, it has gotten manageable. There is joy again. My gratitude for Carter’s relative health and my family’s improvement runs deep like a river, but many families don’t get to experience the relief we have enjoyed in the past few years.

Violence perpetrated upon people with disabilities is a dark and ugly part of the human story, but I refuse to believe that we’re not capable of thinking around the corner and separating the cruel perpetrators from the desperate ones. Issy, Kelli, and the whole Stapleton family were left twisting in the wind. They had services, but they weren’t enough. When someone in a family is repeatedly aggressive, that means that family needs more help. When people in a family are repeatedly seen in the hospital for injuries sustained at the hands of a family member (Kelli sustained brain injuries when she was attacked by Issy), that family needs more help. When people are being bitten, scratched, and punched; when people are not able to stop biting, scratching and punching; when some children are hiding in closets dialing 911 (as one Stapleton child is said to have done); that family needs more help.

Silence and condemnation are not the solutions to those problems. The only solution to the problem of not enough help is more help.

We need a serious cultural shift in the way we think about family and caregiving in general, and caring for people with disabilities specifically. Even in the worst times, I was not a cruel or bad mom who hated my child; I was a desperate and isolated mom of a very sick child who I loved. We have to speak the truth, listen to each other, and insist that we all deserve better.

No Points for Style

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198 comments to Issy and Kelli Stapleton: Murder, Suicide, and Family

  • bs

    melanie, I just read your post and I just want to say that it does sound like you’re making excuses for her actions and that’s what a lot of us just don’t understand. Plus, it sounds like you believe her claims about the school, and that’s another difference in our opinions. the school was accepting the daughter with no problem until the day the mom went ballistic against the teacher. don’t you see that a mom who is claiming there’s no help doesn’t tell people off then laugh about it on her blog like she did when she told some agency worker to ‘munch’ her you know what. I think to the more objective viewer as this case unfolds, meaning people who don’t fall for her martyr routine, her own words and actions are lining up pretty well to show her as being a very selfish and sick woman.

  • Anonymous

    Bs i feel very hostile towards you and your comments. You call kelli a nutjob and u claim to be a psychologist? Awful just awful. Obviously you clearly have a “i want to win” mentality. Personally i would never seek your services i wonder if your clients know how closed and disrespectful you are?

    • bs

      anonymous, I never claimed to be a psychologist and I think kelli’s actions are pretty much dictating whether or not she’s got issues. what I find interesting is that her supporters never discuss the issues and just keep saying that everyone I guess is supposed to overlook what she’s done b/c her daughter is autistic and to me that sounds absolutely wrong on so many levels.

  • bs

    also to anonymous, somehow the idea that you are feeling “very hostile” toward someone who is posting on a public opinion board seems a bit over the top. maybe it’s best if you just try to see what i’m saying by just reading the websites and her fb comments, take a look at her videos, especially check out kelli’s kittens, listen to when she called in to the radio show, just try to read her words and hear what she’s saying while asking yourself really how overwhelmed she was by her daughter or whether maybe she was trying to create it to get some attention.

    • Jennifer

      Who is trying to get attention? You might want to hold up a mirror. You have said your peace. We know how you feel. We get it. Your position has been stated again and again. The hostility is likely from reading all of your comments and seeing how it is YOU who is actually the one who refuses to listen to any other opinion. You go on and on like a broken record and insist we are all naive for feeling the way we do. You use the word “compassion” like it’s a weakness and act as if we are all conspiring for her release. I feel pretty comfortable in saying that the people here are not against Issy, or justice, or anyone who has suffered at the hand of a caregiver. We are for understanding that not every situation is the same and that it is not our place to judge – especially without being in possession of all the facts. Adrienne asked about one of your earliest posts if you had even read her story. I urge you to read it. This is a topic that needs to have light shown on it. This is a powerfully important and serious topic that deserves well thought- out responses. I also believe the hostility comes from your sheer lack of reverence for a blog post that had to have been terribly difficult to wright. A place that could have offered others still hiding in the dark a place to share their feelings and connect with others facing unspeakable despair unfortunately has become a sparring ground over one isolated incident because you refuse to drop your personal agenda. Tell me again who is being narcissistic?

  • bs

    jennifer, there you go again, you can’t seem to discuss an issue, it seems you only know how to be insulting instead. btw, peace? or piece? so now you’re okay with someone feeling “hostile” and making excuses just like you make excuses for the person who says she tried to kill her daughter. yes, I read the article, and I am concerned that people are using autism as an excuse, which is despicable to most thinking adults.

  • Jennifer

    “Actually, it’s peace, and it is not talking about war. It’s talking about the cognitive turmoil of not being heard. Once you say what you “have been dying to say,” then you will have said your peace.”

    Other than that I am at a loss for words. Uncle. I give up.

  • bs

    so compassion and understanding as long as people bow to your rendition? yikes. try the mirror.

  • bs

    I think one of the worst parts of this case is that good and loving parents of autistic children are being encouraged to believe they could possibly do the same thing as this woman did when she drugged her daughter and attempted to kill her. If you are a parent of an autistic child, or a parent who is feeling overwhelmed, distraught, exhausted, etc. please don’t consider what this woman did to be anything at all as something you might suddenly do. This woman spent many hours away from her child, months, in fact, had a regular wage earner in the home with excellent insurance coverage, plus the state of Michigan footing a huge portion of the costs, she had caregivers, she had fundraisers, highly suspect to see her using autism as any excuse or explanation for any of her actions.

  • Ali

    I am the mother of a sweet, loving, and adorable son. He is autistic. My son does not use violence as a coping mechanism, but is not an easy child. I too have two other children, both of which are “normal”.
    Being a parent to my son is the most frustrating and rewarding experience I have ever had. Autism doesn’t present itself in a way that is easily noticeable to others. Instead, people perceive my son as being “badly behaved” or “difficult”. Whenever we go places as a family, he is looked at either with pity, wonder, or disgust.
    Autism does not seem to be understood by my sons school or most adults he encounters. People really don’t seem to get the big idea of this complex disorder.
    My other 2 children do get less attention. My youngest child gets jealous and acts out because of this.
    None of this is easy. As the mother of an autistic child you become everything…even with other care givers. I am a pharmacist, a behavior therapist, an occupational therapist, an evaluator, and his advocate. I also have another full time job.
    The system that supports these kids is broken. It’s unfortunate that some of the people commenting don’t understand, but you can’t unless you live it.
    It all seems so simple to some of you to fault a “selfish” mother for her failures. It makes me sad, because this level of ignorance is part of what’s broken. How about instead of judging we look at the broken system that lead a mother to not only attempt to take her daughters life, but also her own? How about instead of spewing hatred and disgust we try a little empathy?
    I’m not saying the choices this woman made are good choices. I’m not advocating that anyone follow this same path. I am telling you though, that unless you live this life you cannot begin to understand.

  • bs

    Ali, nobody is trying to spew hate or to judge unfairly. AT the same time, it does appear this mother, and I use that term loosely, did have help, did have support, did have services, was in constant need of attention, and premeditated her crime longer than most of us could even fathom. it is offensive for her to use autism as her excuse. All of the experiences you discuss, pharmacist, behavior therapist, etc. all mothers and fathers become whether their child has autism or not. people with autism are feeling hurt by all of the support for this woman and rightfully so. THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR WHAT SHE DID and trying to minimize her actions by saying she had it rough seems ludicrous especially when she seemed to have it rather easy compared to most parents.

    • BS, I’m cutting you off, which I probably should have done long ago. It’s not because I don’t agree with you (though I don’t), but because, as I and several others have pointed out, Kelli’s actions aren’t the point of this discussion, and since this isn’t a public forum, I’m exercising my rights as the one who pays the bills and showing you the door.

  • Ali

    BS-

    I ask you, do you have a child with Autism or psychological condition of any kind?

  • Me

    BS

    You have every right to your voice…But after weeks of postings I think I can speak for most and say your input is now falling on deaf ears as you appear to be very stubborn making others no longer want to join in on this very important conversation. Shame. I know you will reply to this – you won’t be able not to I’m sure, but my advice for the sake of all the others who do have stories and feelings to share on this matter is that you let go now – We have all heard what you have to say now pass the mic along. This is not a competition.

  • Me

    Adrienne. Good call. This article and discussion has been so valuable to so many, we rarely speak so openly about such deep matters. BS was putting us all off, so therefore was not being a productive member of this discussion. Once again thanks Adrienne for starting this very important conversation and ending it (with some) when their time was up.

  • Momage

    I thought this article spoke well what I could not say. I am on the other side, finally, looking back. It was a deeply desperate situation. If we remove the focus from the lady in this article from the discussion, we can begin to empathize with the impact it has on a family, neighbors, isolation, church( no one understands… When they should the most), school, all social interactions. I finally questioned if it would be the most unselfish thing to do for my family and for his life since there seemed to be no end in sight. What future would he have? He was lonely, unwelcome and knew it.Absolutely heart wrenching to watch your child call people over and over and no one wants to be their friend. At 13 he was suicidal.Even siblings wanted him to go away. His first friend encounters of any longevity was XBox live. He had to be homeschooled so there was never a break for me. If I went anywhere he called me incessantly. We rarely, maybe once, took a vacation. Our total ability for a date was to go shopping together, knowing we might get a call. No one would watch him, insurance would not offer support for counseling, the school played games so long that the stress caused me to crash. My adrenals and thyroid came to a screeching halt and I had full blown depression. It amazes me how people realize soldiers get PTSD and get violent but we understand, or how a mother can abort but she isn’t considered cold as so many stated in their comments regarding a mother of a handicapped child thinking of ending it together. So, abortion is also selfish, by your inference.Yet, it isn’t about selfishness; I gave more than I had to give. There’s only so much and you snap. I wondered daily if this would be the day. How much can one person take? He only wanted to ever talk to me because he trusted me so all the pressure was on me. No one was patient with him( including teachers, aides, pastors..you name it). I was his seeing eye dog, so to speak. As a mom, you know and watch how he is targeted, would he end up in jail or beat to a bloody pulp by saying the wrong thing.? It was a fear you can’t know unless you are in their shoes. Childless couples always have advice for parents until they are forced to eat their words when they have one of their own. No one is advocating euthanasia,(although I would ask again why this is worse than abortion),the schools treated me as a bad parent yet they did nothing for him, everyone eyes you as THAT. Mom. He finally overcame some hurdles when he hit puberty and now is just about to finish his AA degree. Taking him out of public school by 3rd grade was the best thing for him because it reduced everyone’s stress and let him be able to be protected from the system. College has been a gift from above. They aren’t so particular and he has been there for 4 years. He wanted to go by the time he was 15.5 and he has loved it. Short increments and quirky people so he blends in. No real peer pressure so he avoided the labels and bullying. I have lived the worst nightmare imaginable and am here to say I understand. There is no compassion from those who haven’t been there and by now I’m not gonna hold my breath. I’m glad the mod deleted some comments. Let them go troll elsewhere. This is a tough, gritty roll-up-your-sleeves life sentence( which would be fewer years in a real prison term), that you know you are responsible for. My others have grown and as a mom, you let go and they move on to maturity. You never know if there will be freedom with these autistic children. What other situation takes that much from one person, abuses them in the process and then everyone cries ‘ foul’ if you don’t keep taking it and taking it? Even prisoners crack under far less pressure; we are warm, loving , limited humans who feel helpless as we stand by and watch everything crumble without knowing what to do about it. You have to become a student in a field with no answers. I read books constantly and even the ones from top autism research centers said there is no known remedy. I will only be reading the positive comments in response to this since Ive paid my dues and don’t need your judgements and criticism. I survived but only by avoiding those people who have no clue.

  • MP

    I want to thank you for this post.

    I have a three and a half year old little girl with a neurodegenerative disorder of unknown origin. She is blind, unable to move voluntarily, suffers epileptic activity approximately every ten minutes, is fed via a g-tube, vomits after every meal for weeks on end for no discernable reason and cries frequently because she lacks sufficient muscle tone to release wind. She does not sleep for more than a few hours at a time and since she is unable to move or help herself in anyway, we live tuned to run to her every sound out of responsibility, love and guilt.

    Shay functions at less than the level of a newborn and will never develop further. Every day is another day of helplessly watching her suffer.
    Her brain degeneration has affected every part of her brain except her brain stem. This means that she could live to twenty years old.

    The future is black and endless.

    The only reason I haven’t ended it for both of us is because I’m so afraid that I may fail or am only partially successful. If I was selfish, I would institutionalise her, or pass off her care onto a paid carer. But she is ours. I love her more than I ever imagined it possible to love. Which is why my heart is broken beyond what i ever imagined it possible to break.

    Suicide will not be a “cry for help” in my case. There is no help

    Knowing that there are mothers who have been there and who understand is beyond value.

  • Sharon

    I am horrified that Kelli tried to murder her child and herself. That’s, without question, immoral and illegal and she does need to face the appropriate legal consequences.

    And I am extremely thankful that Issy was rescued before her mother’s illegal actions cost her her life.

    But I can also find some sorrow for her mother, that she believed death was preferable to continued life, both for her and for Issy. I am sad for the rest of the family, too, who have to sort out daily life with Kelli (rightfully) in jail.

    As a mother of a son with autism, I can imagine myself reaching a place where the only hope I see is Heaven.

  • CR

    All I’ve thought since I first heard about Kelli was “my God, why were people not supporting this poor mother more? Why is it only NOW will that poor child finally get all the help she needs? Why does a mother have to go to such lengths to get help?” I an afraid to imagine the depths of despair Kelli must have felt to take the actions she did. But I refuse to condemn her for them, regardless of the outcome. She was left out to dry by the system. And until every one of us has been in those shoes, don’t you dare condemn her. This blog post is the most common-sense reality check I’ve read about this case. Thank you! But what I can’t find, no matter where I look, is whether or not her husband & kids have rejected her because of these events, or whether “political” pressure to reject the wife & mother will eventually cause that reaction. Only time will tell.

  • Laura

    Adrienne- thank you for this kind and intelligent piece. This mother was driven to a breaking point. Those who argue that killing her child was not the solution are stating the obvious. But why? why was the mother driven to the breaking point? Because the system failed her. I don’t know how she managed as long as she did without snapping earlier. I feel for everyone in this story.

  • purplewowies

    I couldn’t get through the whole post, but I do feel the need to say this:

    Whether or not Kelli needed help, her actions should not be excused. Just as we don’t handwave when a parent gets frustrated and shakes their baby, a breaking point is not an excuse. Put the kid down. Get them to someone, ANYONE, else. Go get help. But there is NEVER a reason to kill your kid.

  • no

    its great that your family managed to come out of the funk and your son is doing better
    that being said
    theres no excuse for what was done to that little girl. it doesnt matter that she was disabled, theres no excuse.
    killing her would take away her chances of any improvement.
    as a child i barely spoke – bordering on nonverbal all together-, i could easily be set off into a fit of shrieking and flailing, i never slept -the first day i ever slept more than 4 hours my mom woke me up thinking i was dead-, i slammed my head into walls and floors, id run out of the house and keep running until someone got me, and my first memories of suicidal actions and self harming was 8 years old.. even in high school, i was only semiverbal and could start screaming at the drop of the hat, i never slept, and was still doing things like hitting my head, showing suicidal actions, and run from the house without warning.
    while i was a junior in high school i got into a fight with other students -i told off a boy who everyone feels bad for because they think hes autistic, though hes not, because he was continuously violating me- as soon as i started telling him off the other 19 people in my class all started throwing things at me and yelling. one person, only one, was defending me. i stood up and started screaming and one persongot in my face, scaring me so bad that i curled into the fetal position on the floor and cried. after that i dropped out.
    now im an adult going through medical school and in the process of moving in with a great man, i have a relatively normal sleep pattern now and i manage to talk when nessicary, and im working on the suicide and self harming issues. all of which i was only able to accomplish because nobody tried to ‘mercy kill’ me and actually gave me the chance to get better

  • Valerie

    It’s possible, I suppose, that Kelli is the evil narcissist her critics insist she is. Perhaps she decided some time ago to rid herself of an unwanted daughter and came up with an elaborate plot that included writing a blog for nine months, and culminated in risking her own safety in that van. If so, then I agree with the commenters like bs. Lock her up and throw away the key.
    But I think it’s unlikely.

    For one thing, assuming she were that evil and cagey, she certainly could have come up with an easier way to commit that unspeakable act.) Her blog rings true to me. I am familiar with that desperation, isolation, and the disdainful unkindness of the people who are supposed to be helping your child. I am familiar with the feeling that you live in a different reality from the people around you. Some parents go to Italy, some go to Holland, and some go to Beirut. The Italy/Holland parents live in one reality — the Beirut parents in quite another. Assuming her blog is truthful, Kelli was in Beirut. The daily physical abuse alone would be enough to destroy a person’s coping mechanisms, and there was so much more. Most Beirut parents, if we’re being honest, HAVE contemplated the same act Kelli committed, and it’s certainly not out of resentment of our child, or a lack of love.
    Yes, Kelli had a six month respite from Issy, but during that time, it seems she developed a fair amount of hope. Hope can destroy a Beirut mother, and when Issy returned home, her mother was flush with it. Within a few days, that was destroyed. I would never condone what Kelli did — nobody does. I thank God that Issy survived, but my heart still goes out to her mother.

  • PDD twins

    First – thank you for this post! Sharing the “dark stuff” helps so many of us. We have to be able to admit that sometimes we hit the wall – and for that, I thank you.

    I do want to say that it disturbs me that posters who have a negative perception of Kelli are being called “judgmental”. Anyone who has expressed an opinion about her, positive or negative, is judging. Unless you are a friend of hers or the family, or were somehow involved, we were all privy to the same information. It is perfectly reasonable that people would come to different conclusions.

    I have empathy for Kelli as a fellow autism mom, but very little sympathy. Her blog struck me as contrived, and I perceived an antipathy towards her daughter. There was one video in particular that felt very manipulative to me.

    I guess my point is, you can agree about all of the challenges in being a parent of special needs children, but disagree about Kelli in particular. And the fact is that normal mothers don’t typically murder their children, special needs or otherwise. “Bad” mothers abandon them to the system, or just leave themselves. Actually taking the life of your child is an extraordinary act. And there’s a huge difference between thinking about it and doing it. Just because a lot of us have thought about it on our darkest days, doesn’t mitigate Kelli’s culpability for actually attempting it. Who has thought about murderinf a cheating spouse? A horrible boss? Hell, the person who cut you off in traffic? It takes a special kind of entitlement to actually do it.

  • PDD twins

    To be concise – I believe that Kelli did this terrible thing because there is something wrong with Kelli, not because there is.something wrong with Issy. This is by no means meant to minimize the very real challenges of parenting severely disabled children. I’m living that times two. But, murder/suicide is not a “normal” reaction, even to our extremely abnormal situations.

  • PDD twins

    And the ultimate selfish act a person can do is to end the life of another. It drives me nuts when people say that giving their child to someone else is selfish, and in the same breath say that they could see themselves reaching the point where murder seems like a viable option. That’s “virtuous mother” narcissism nonsense.

  • Valerie

    Yes, I agree that there was something wrong in Kelli. I suspect it resulted from years of unrelenting physical abuse from someone she loved dearly. I’ve seen the outraged sentiment expressed many times– that if Issy were a neurotypical child whose mother tried to kill her in a murder/suicide, we would be baying for her blood. But I disagree. If Issy were a neurotypical child who beat and battered her mother on a daily basis, occasionally causing hospitalization, I expect that there would be calls for leniency. It is the very fact that Issy is autistic that causes Kelli to be vilified. And I understand why. Issy is not responsible for her aggression, and in this sense she is innocent, in a way that a neurotypical child could never be.
    The only murder/suicide that came close to my life, thankfully, was a man who could not get over the girl who left him. He was suicidal, and decided to take her with him. There, I agree. It was the ultimate act of entitlement. It was cowardly, and unforgivable. This is SO different from that.
    And while we disagree about Kelli, PPD Twins, I respect your opinion and admire the way you express it. God Bless.

    • purplewowies

      Personally? As an autistic person who has gone into violence, I tended to have deep reasons that I could not hold back (it tended to happen in meltdown, usually as a protective measure). It was like a primal form of self-defense I could barely control. I can’t speak for what happens in situations I don’t know all the details of, but even in cases of where violence is involved, I do think she needs to be held accountable. Because I could have BEEN that kid (and am actually frightened some ex-stepparents are the kind of people who would have done that).

      • Anonymous

        Purple W, the first time I read your comment I thought you were saying Issy needs to be held accountable for her violence, because you were able to control yours, though just barely. I was taken aback.
        Came back here a few days later to see if anyone responded. Now I think I read your comment wrongly the first time. You are saying KELLI needs to be held accountable, right? It’s true. But what does “accountable” mean in this circumstance?

        Did you use to beat up your step parents? Was it in self defense? How badly did you injure them? How frequently? Do you think they would have attempted murder/suicide, or just murder? And would THAT have been in self defense?

        All of these factors come into play when deciding how to hold Kelli accountable, and I’m not comfortable saying what the consequences should be. A surprising number of mothers of autistic kids are willing to make that judgment. They’re dealing with autism too, and it’s hard, sometimes overwhelmingly so, but they would never ever…. In my opinion they are incorrect in thinking they are facing the same challenges she was, though. It’s not the autism, it’s the violence. It’s the daily punches to the head, and the constant fear of the next blow, where it’s coming from and whether you will survive it. There is also the internal churning arising from the fact that it is your loved one inflicting this abuse, and you shouldnt feel angry or resentful because it’s not her fault. Combine THAT with the nastiness of the insurance adjusters, the condescending attitudes of the school staff, the public stares and stigma, the worries about her future, the guilt because your other kids are basically raising themselves, and the other daily challenges of having a child with these issues, and it’s a lot! But I think primarily it’s the unrelenting physical abuse that Kelli lived with, that led her to that intolerable end.

      • Valerie

        PW, are you saying Issy needs to be held accountable? Or Kelli? If you are saying Kelli, I think everyone would agree. The only issue is what “accountable” means in this case.
        You said you sometimes became violent, I think when you were a child. Did you beat up your step parents? How frequently? Did you ever cause broken bones, concussions, or wounds that required stitches? Were you doing it in self defense?

        Were they injured, and if so, how badly? Did they ever have to be hospitalized?
        Do you think they would have considered murder/suicide, or only murder? Would THAT have been self defense? All these factors go into the measure of “accountable.”

        In my opinion, it seems like people are placing too much emphasis on autism, and too little on the effects of living with daily physical batterings.

        Many parents of autistic children seem to judge Kelli because they think they have lived the same challenges, and would never hurt their kids. Most parents of autistic kids deal with meltdowns regularly, including kicking, scratching, and hitting. But Kelli was dealing with being punched in the head, sometimes to the point of unconsciousness. I saw a tape on the news, of Issy’s aggression with three adult teachers at her school (Kelli wasn’t there)and it was frightening. It took all three of them to stop her.

        It’s incredibly stressful, living in a home where you get beaten on a regular basis. You are constantly wary, not knowing when the next blow is coming, only knowing that it will. You wonder if you will survive — especially if once you almost didn’t. You wonder what will happen to your family if you don’t survive. Then there is the internal turmoil arising from the fact that the person hurting you is the daughter you love, and you are not supposed to blame or resent her for it. Eventually, it damages you in ways beyond the physical. Add all that to the challenges faced by everyone else — the disdainful unkindness of the insurance company, the careless condescension at the IEP meetings, the baleful stares of strangers who think you are a lousy parent, and the never ending worry about who will take care of your child when you are gone. This is not to say that Issy is to blame. She’s not. But when it comes to Kelli I’m not ready to judge.

  • Kimmie07

    I haven’t read all of the comments, because honestly I just don’t have time. My 14 year old bi-polar son is at the moment quiet and supposedly doing his homework (supposedly because he flies into a rage if I try to see what he is doing) because he is getting 5 “E’s” and 1 “C” in school despite no learning difficulties. My other son who is 16 has cognitive delays, ADHD and is on the autism spectrum. He lately has been having bouts of panic attacks and acid reflux because of my other son’s erratic and increasing violent behavior. Both of my children are now taller and stronger than me.
    I adopted my children out of the Foster Care system as a single mom. I love them both dearly and have fought very hard to advocate for them. Not that easy when you have limited mental health visits per year and don’t qualify for any other help do to my income (which is enough to keep me from getting free help, but not enough to pay for help). Because I do not have state aid, we don’t qualify for respite care.
    All of our knives are locked up after he use one to try and attack my adult brother with one. At that time, he didn’t go to jail because they felt he needed help, not punishment (and I agree) but because he quickly regained control (for the moment) no psychiatric hospitals would take him. I just found a large hunting in his backpack that he bought for a dollar a garage sale last week.
    Working full time to provide a roof over our head and insurance, I have to rely on my aging parents to care for them after school since there are no options for teens with behavior problems available and no one I can find to hire to care for him. They are starting for fear him. They are also helping raise a 4 year old and they are afraid CPS will take him if my son has another meltdown in front of him.
    My other son, because of his own issues, can’t walk away when he is taunted. They can’t sit near each other in the car. He is now saying that being dead or living on the streets would be better than trying to keep living here.
    Both are medicated and have a great psychiatrist. We have seen many. Meds help, but when he falls apart again, getting him back to have a med adjustment takes weeks as she is always overbooked since there aren’t many good pediatric psychiatrist in the area that take my insurance. And of course, med adjustments take time to take affect, if they work at all.
    My biggest fear used to be that I am going to live my whole life caring for them. Now biggest fear is what will happen to them when I am gone. Due their issues, I stopped dating when they I took tem in. I have few friends outside of work because I can’t go anywhere without them(no one will watch them)and they have always been too disruptive to hang with my friends’ children.
    I have a degree in psychology (specializing in children with special needs). Until recently, is was so hard to keep up, but I was doing it. But all of a sudden, with his growth spurt, he is now almost 5 feet tall and weighs about 260. Restraining him, stopping him, controlling him is no longer possible physically and when he is angry, no amount of taking, hugging, threats of consequences or promise of rewards will slow him down. Items fly, things are broke and threats of violence are expressed.
    We are all isolated, sad, angry and hopeless.
    Would I kill myself and my children? Right now I can say no way. Do I condone anyone killing their child? Maybe not. But do I understand? Yes. Our society looks down on those with mental illness and medical/mental health field has no answers for us. We teeter on the edge of disaster daily. I have to ponder ever decision I make and pray it is not the wrong one. I have to accept the fact that there is a very real chance that one or both of my children will end up in prison, a victim off suicide, or a victim of the other child.
    Geez, maybe I need my own blog, eh? Sorry to ramble on like that.

  • Kimmie07

    Wow, there needs to be an edit option, lol. I just read my post and there are many errors. Please forgive me. I tend to tear up when putting my life in writing and the words tend to get a bit blurry as I type.

  • Blee

    Kelli is a warrior that fought for her daughter and family until she simply didn’t have the strength to fight anymore. We can all have opinions but very few of us have the strength it would take to fight and live like her.

  • PDD twins

    Fighting for your child is giving her away when you can’t deal, not killing them. Mothers put their children up for adoption or foster care all the time. I truly believe that Kelli may have PTSD. And she needs/should have gotten help for that. Either the system failed her, her family did, or she failed herself in not seeking it. But good mothers don’t try to kill their children. Issy would have done better being institutionalized. At least she would have had a chance to live. Death is final. And now that poor girl has to live not only with autism, but with the lasting effects of this murder attempt.

  • PDD twins

    Valerie – thanks for the kind and diplomatic words. I get what you’re saying about the twist in outrage because Issy is autistic. You may be right about that. But, keep in mind that Kelli could not have attempted this with an NT child of Issy’s age. They would have fought to protect themselves. It is that strange combination of power and powerlessness that makes this case so heartbreaking. Kelli had complete power over Issy’s life, but apparently felt completely powerless. I tend to think that we, driven by society, put so much pressure on ourselves to be good mothers that we can’t bear to face the judgment of others. Instead of institionalizing Issy, or putting her in foster care, or even leaving the family completely, Kelli chose murder/suicide. Why? Because those other things would be “wrong”. But what can get more wrong than murder? And the suicide part is just so you don’t have to deal with the judgment and consequences afterwards.

  • Melanie

    I’m so hurt by the first comment made. I am a mother of two children with LD issues, but not autism. I am Kelli’s cousin, and have seen her in action. I’ve known her for several years, and have never seen her act out in any demonstertive act toward her daughter Issy, or anyone.
    But I do know for a fact, that educational systems are different everywhere you go. My system for my children were so much like what Kelli faced, and I was in the same boat as Kelli, except I didn’t want to hurt my child, but I had thought of hurting myself, just to take myself out of the picture, just so she could get the help she needed. But thought thru it much further, to realize that my children’s father wasn’t much help, altho supportive, but he didn’t know what to do, either, anymore than I did; yet I was also trained to be an advocate for our children & myself, thru the State, Governor’s Planning Council for Persons with Disabilities. I had a Law book, but the school didn’t care to comply with it, even tho I had the book sitting there in front of me & them, and yet, they turned everything around to suit themselves. I would leave crying hysterically, as I love my children so much, it hurt, but hurt even more to see them frustrated and not being given a chance to move forward.
    I later, years later, learned our school system is an experimental system thru the State, but they also didn’t want to accept
    Dyslexia as a learning problem. They had their way of dealing with it. It was dealt with like all learning disabilities, not realizing the Dys. is it’s own way of learning, and so is autism. It’s a specialized learning curve.
    Some schools don’t want to deal with it.
    Now, you refer to the articles upon which you read about all the help that Kelli received for Issy. That’s not the way I read it. I read it as, and talked with her, as she/they were not receiving any kind of help, because they didn’t want to deal with Issy. She only got spuratic help as to caretakers., cause once they found out Issy’s violent tendencys, the caretakers would leave. So it wasn’t substantial, and consistant. So what good does this do, to help anyone? Kelli,
    may have been trained in her own educational life, but this training doesn’t do her any good, with a child like Issy. You want to love that child, but it makes it difficult to love someone, who shoves you away, and mistreats you! I feel so sorry for you BS, as you obviously have no feeling, or understanding for any situation you have no understanding of? I’ve never, nor will I condone what Kelli did, even being her relative, but I do understand what she did.
    If you look at what other ppl in the news in the last few years have done to their children or others, and yet they’ve been released from their jail terms, why didn’t Kelli? I’m also upset in the way, the testing went for her. They say that she can stand trial for what she did! Well, in my book, she is innocent til proven guilty, by reason of insanity. She may be able to stand trial now, but what kind of mental state was she in at that time? This is not fair! She’s been in jail now for a few months, and has time to realize what she’s done. But I’m sure those first few weeks, she was mentally unstable. I know I was at the time I was dealing with my children’s problems. I felt total releif the day they graduated HS. On their own they’re
    fine now, doing much better, and so am I.
    We’re still dealing with alot of issues with our daughter, but some of that is her learning disability. I’m out of dealing with insensitive ppl where she’s concerned. But you take the cake! I think you must have a learning disability, when you can’t read articles and make true sense of them, and understand what you read. I also have a learning disability, and misunderstand things sometimes, but I taken classes to get past my issues, maybe you should too. It’s not too late.
    I’m tired of you putting ppl down, and criticizing me for my feelings. These are my opinions. I do know how special ed., staff differ from State to State, they’re all different, none are the same.
    So you need to be the one to keep your opinions to yourself, unless you have something nice to say. I’ve not been commenting, as my feelings are way to hurt, to even comment back to you without saying hurtful things.

  • Rose

    I’ve worked 30+ years supporting individuals with developmental disabilities in community living arrangements. I’ve seen all levels of functioning and behaviors, and for that matter, all levels of abilities within families to cope. We all share similarities in our stories in life, but no two experiences can ever really be compared. One person’s limits may not be another person’s limits for an infinity of reasons.

    I am only just hearing of Kelli’s and Issy’s journey. To be honest, my first thoughts were that I hoped Issy survived the experience without further neurological issues. Then I realized that Kelli tried to take both of their lives, and my compassion for Kelli also grew.

    It is a shame that this issue is dividing a community that needs to stand together. Under no circumstances would I ever condone Kelli’s actions, yet I feel a great deal of mercy and compassion towards her, as I do Issy. I don’t know Kelli, so I cannot judge her personality, how she handled the school system, or her motivations that others feel compelled to judge. What is evident was that she was willing to leave her other children and her family and friends, and no amount of argument will ever convince me that stress had not pushed her over the edge. I believe that Issy’s life is sacred and needs to be protected, and my compassion for Kelli in no way minimizes the value of Issy’s life.

    I leave the judgement of Kelli for God. He is far more merciful than I can ever be. While I would hope that caretakers in stress would choice other options, and would never want to see a trend to condone the murder of others that society needs to protect, nobody can change what has already happened within this family. Hopefully, the experience can be used to enlighten and educate. Let us judge less and continue to work towards a better future for those with autism. Thanks for your blog. I had read responses from both sides, and really was hoping to find someone talking about the complexities of this situation. Grace be to the Stapleton family.

  • John

    BS never answered whether he has ever been in anything like Kelli’s situation. I don’t see where his opinion matters.

  • I just read this post for the first time and I am blown away by it. I am lucky to have two healthy children. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to have a child with special needs and I really appreciate hearing your point of view, Adrienne. You are very compassionate, and I believe after reading your post, that is what we need more of; compassion. I will do my best not to judge others and to offer my support when I get the chance. I am not religous, but all I can think of to say is, God bless you.

  • jen

    Thank you for showing BS the door.I echo Motherinalameda in every sense. This was a beautiful blog post and Adrienne you were right on the mark. I am confused as to how the Michigan school system could simply refuse to admit Issy. Isn’t there a law which states every child has a right to an education? At least in my state there is. How could they simply refuse this child an education? No matter how many aides she required?

    I also read that Issy had sleep problems that persisted until the family found some help for her at the age of 8. Can you imagine the exhaustion – not having a good night’s sleep in 8 years?

    yes, their problems may have been helped had they had a few million dollars in the bank to help pay for relief help/therapy/staff to assist with Issy. How many among us do? Instead this family had only the beleagered insensitive bureaucracies to fight to get the expensive care they needed for their low functioning prone to violence daughter.And Kelly was virtually alone in dealing with this. This was a disaster waiting to happen and speaks volumes about the way our society is set up to care for children with serious special needs.Thank you Adrienne for your thoughtful and beautifully written blog post. My heart goes out to Kelly and please no more sanctimonious comments in judgement of this woman (as if any of us are in a position to judge)

  • PDD twins

    I agree that compassion is required. But, what about compassion for Issy? The school system wouldn’t admit her; that is terrible. Her mother tried to kill her – which is worse?

    I am in no way saying that the system doesn’t need a massive overhaul. But, at the end of the day, it is not the system’s responsibility to keep us from killing our children. We cannot control everything in life, but we do control that. She had other options. None of them were appealing to her, so in her altered thinking, this one seemed like a good idea. Maybe she was temporarily insane, or maybe she had PTSD. I don’t know. What I do know was that it was no one’s responsibility to keep her from hurting Issy except her own, and her husband’s.

    Kelly has a severely autistic and violent child. That’s the hand that she was dealt and that stinks. There is a real possibility that one one could fix that, not any therapy, school placement, intervention, etc. So, where do parents in this situation go from there? Sometimes, things aren’t fixable, and sometimes life sets you up in hopeless looking situations. You have to choose from your limited set of options – live with it, institutionalize the child, run away from home. Murder can no be one of those options.

  • PDD twins

    And as I stated before, everyone on this thread is “judging” Kelly, either inclined to understand her position, or disinclined. I am clearly disinclined to follow her train of thought because the stakes are too high. But many other people on this thread have “judged” Kelly too; they’ve just judged her favorably. It does bother me when dissenting voices are silenced simply because they don’t fit in with the majority view.

  • jen

    Agreed that murder cannot be one of those options and she did have other options-all of them bad, none of them appealing to her, or anyone for that matter. Leave the other 2 kids and her husbandf and accompany Issy to the treatment center , or leave her husband and 3 kids altogether.

    Institutionalizing Issy likely was not an option-we no longer institutionalize children at the state’s expense. Look at all the shuttered state hospitals around the nation.

    Kelly needed(and needs) help, not condemnation.

    And lets not forget the culpability of the school system for refusing to educate her child-to me that is where the travesty and much of the blame lies.

    I suppose she could have hired a lawyer to sue the school system to get them to do their job, but lawyers require money and they may not have had the resources. A few million in the bank might have prevented this tragedy and kept Kelly out of jail. You said she was dealt a terrible hand and no one could fix it. I disagree. The school could have helped by giving her 6 hours of relief a day. Extra caregivers athome could have helped. Therapy in her own home could have helped. But a typical middle class family living off a middle class income, when faced with a child like Issy, has few options. Kelly was, literally, trapped with a violent child in her own home.

  • jen

    I don’t think anyone here is judging her actions favorably (after all it is her actions we are talking about-not her). No one in their right mind would agree that trying to kill yourself and your child is a good thing. I am simply saying until you have lived in another person’s shoes none of us are in a position to condemn.

  • Twinkle

    I found your article after reading about Kelli in People Magazine. Let me state something straight away….I am the mother of a “normal” 22yr old son and have zero familiarity with autism. This being said, I personally find Kelli to be a rather remarkable and courageous woman. Her unable to forgive hubby….far less so. I’ve just celebrated 25 yrs marriage and have been survived my sweet hubby’s enormous health issues. I’ve been his health care and/or nurse on more occasions that I can count. Still – we love each other deeply and are a TEAM! I married for better or worse. Kelli’s husband Matt comes across as holier than thou and u forgiving as h*ll.
    Upon watching the video that’s available on Issy, let me just say ….wow. There is NO WAY in the world that I could have dealt with such a child. No sleep. Countless violent/aggressive behavior with other children in the home? No way, no how. Our system IS broken if there is no place that can work with such a child however (and now I KNOW that I’m going to infuriate many)this same child does NOT belong in her family home FULL TIME. It is simply impossible to care for someone who is that size and violent too boot. It is unfair to the other children in the household. Perhaps this is why “Matt” has given up on loving his wife and instead is among her accusers. If you never sleep and simply EXIST in the midst of such a handicapped person…this is NOT living. You cannot possibly care for such a person and still be a “normal” person yourself. No way, no how.
    I truly hope Kelli’s defense is able to show video after video of this child. Her violence and brutality are unbelievable. My hats off to the professionals who work with/and are physically a used by Issy. No amount of pay would be too high for such a stressful job.
    In extremely rare circumstances, death might be a blessing for children/adults whose lives seem to exist in pure violence and misery 24/7, 365 days a year. I can truly sympathize with Kelli and would vote to acquit if seated on her jury.

  • Vicky

    One of the best written pieces of writing I have ever read in my nearly 40 years. I looked the subject up after reading an article in Australia’s “Who” magazine. I will be sending them a link to this and sharing this on Facebook. Simply spot on. Thanks for sharing and I wish you and your family all the best.

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