The very painful story of Kelli Stapleton, the mother who attempted to kill herself and her 14-year-old autistic daughter Issy last year, has created a highly emotional rift among autism parents and advocates. Some feel very strongly that examining what might have led a mother to attempt murder is tantamount to condoning it. Others feel that not trying to understand her emotional situation is tantamount to turning your back on how traumatizing caring for a violent child can be to a parent. The cover story on New York magazine this week isn’t likely to change that. But it does point to several important realities that I think cut through the debate.
In the wake of Kelli’s guilty plea in September and sentencing earlier this month, Hannah Rosinreconstructs radically different perceptions of the sequence of events leading up to the attempted murder and Kelli’s mental state during that time. On the one hand is a portrait of a woman emotionally undone by the strain of managing a violent autistic teenager—one who had assaulted her, knocked her unconscious, and put her in the hospital repeatedly. On the other is a vision of a calculating attention-seeker who was tired of being stuck with a high-maintenance autistic child whose rights she failed to respect.
Whether or not you buy either of these views, the first inescapable conclusion is that respite and emotional support for caregivers is critical—both for the caregivers themselves and for their kids. When parents get emotionally isolated and desperate, it’s not safe for either parent or child. This doesn’t excuse Kelli Stapleton’s apparent decision, described as an elaborate murder-suicide fantasy, that her teenaged daughter’s life was hers to take. But if we want to avoid children being harmed by parents, we should try to prevent parents from becoming trapped and overwhelmed.
And the second inescapable reality is that parents, like everyone, can have emotional problems. You can argue that it’s not useful to diagnose mental illness—did Kelli have PTSD, was she delusional?—in retrospect, after a murder has been attempted or committed. But if the goal is not to excuse but to prevent more such killing, it’s useful to try to understand the path that led her to that moment.
One person who disagrees with me about this is Shannon Des Roches Rosa, mother of an autistic boy, who argues that this discussion creates too much sympathy for Kelli, when it’s Issy who is the victim. “I want us to be more careful and compassionate when we talk about cases like Issy’s, to remember who the victims are,” she writes on BlogHer. “And if we parents find ourselves empathizing with Kelli, I want us to think long and hard about why.”
Des Roches Rosa acknowledges how important support from a community is for parents who are struggling, but it’s important to find the right kind of support. “You need to prioritize your safety and that of your child by finding parents who will help get you through trauma and crisis,” she writes, “but would not ‘understand’ if you harmed your child.”
Flannery Sullivan, the autistic parent of an autistic son who blogs at Life on the Spectrum: The Connor Chronicles, argues that discussing the strain of caring for aggressive kids and lack of services for them is critical to preventing future crimes, and that it does not equal justification for a crime.
“My hope is that someday there will be a set of protocols in place to address families living with chronic aggression and violence,” she writes. “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.”
The one thing both Des Roches Rosa and Sullivan point out is that it’s tragic that Kelli Stapleton didn’t reach out for help.
“Parents—like me, like you—need to hear that it’s not a failure or shameful to ask for help, and we need to feel safe about doing so,” writes Des Roches Rosa. “For our own sake, of course, and also because reaching out protects our kids as well as ourselves.”
Adds Sullivan: “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.”