I read an awesome blog last week about Kelli Stapleton.
For those that don’t know, Kelli Stapleton was just sentenced 10 – 22 years in prison on October 8 for attempting to murder her daughter, Issy, then 14, who is autistic. Kelly took Issy to an isolated area, drugged her, shut herself up in a van with Issy and two lit charcoal grills, told her daughter that she loved her, and quietly waited for the both of them to fall asleep together. Luckily, someone discovered them and took them to a hospital before it was too late. Issy was in a coma for three weeks and has suffered some brain damage. Kelly pleaded guilty at trial to first degree child abuse, and advocates feared that she’d receive a more lenient sentence than she would for attempted murder on a non-disabled child. However, her sentence is commensurate with one for that crime.
I’ve tried to write this blog post many times already and can’t seem to get it right, so I’m going to try to make this as simple as possible.
There’s a long, long list of disabled people who were murdered by their parents. The list to which I just linked begins with Canadian Tracy Latimer, who was 12 years when she was murdered by her father, Robert Latimer. I was fifteen, just three years older than Tracy, and just starting volunteer work with disabled people when Tracy Latimer’s death hit the news. I was just starting to develop a different lens through which to see her death than the 73% of Canadians in 1999 who thought that his action was taken out of compassion, and the 41% who believed in mercy killing (Ipsos 1999 ). I always thought that he should go to prison.
I vacillated as to how long as the case developed. Even at that age I could appreciate how difficult it must be to watch your kid in pain and not be able to do anything about it…not even give her pain medication, because it didn’t work. And to know that her body was just going to keep breaking down, requiring surgery after surgery, until keeping her together was going to be more painful than letting her fall apart. It had to be hell. How long could you really keep a father in prison who only wanted to spare his daughter more pain?
I don’t know when I turned the corner on it, but now I say that he should have served the same amount of time that he would have if he’d murdered a non-disabled child, as Autistic Self-Advocacy Network’s Ari Ne’eman argued at Kelli Stapleton’s sentencing hearing. A disabled child’s life is a life, and there’s already a perception out there that disabled people are disposable that doesn’t need further encouragement.
Besides, I think Robert Latimer’s desire not to see his daughter in pain was also at least in part about him no longer having to watch his daughter in pain…and it’s not fair that she ultimately paid the price for that.
Because of a technicality with his first trial, it was 8 years before Latimer even went to prison for second-degree murder. He was out in 9 years.
But back to Issy and Kelli Stapleton.
Issy and Kelli Stapleton – Two Important Discussions
As I said, most Canadians supported Robert Latimer’s actions, and Kelli Stapleton definitely has her supporters too – particularly on social media, and on the blog that she wrote. This isn’t unusual when a parent kills a disabled child, especially since the media tends to paint the parent in a sympathetic light and to play up the difficulties involved in parenting the disabled child. The Dr. Phil Show in particular drew a great deal of criticism for this after interviewing Kelli Stapleton from prison.
I watched Dr. Phil’s two-part show about Kelli Stapleton’s actions – twice – and I think that part of the problem was that there two important discussions that arise from stories like this, and one really got almost totally ignored – by the Dr. Phil Show and in general by the media.
There’s a complicated discussion about lack or scarcity or resources that meet the needs unique needs of disabled children and their families. Kelli Stapleton said that she couldn’t get any help. I’ve heard this before in stories where a parent murders a child. I also read her blog – it does seem like she was receiving some supports.
Were they not meeting Issy’s needs? The family’s needs? Would something have worked more effectively? What?
We’re discovering in Canada that slotting people into inflexible supports and saying “This is how it is – adapt to us” doesn’t produce the best outcomes. It’s led to provinces adopting individualized funding, where people receive funding to purchase their own supports from a variety of providers – the improved flexibility lets families create a support system that meets their needs more effectively and produces better outcomes for everyone involved. Because a great support is useless if it’s only offered at a time that the family is unable to access it, or if a family must accept a whole package of services that won’t work for them just to access one that might. Everyone has different needs.
Maybe this is what was going on with the Stapletons, maybe not, but it’s worth thinking about in general. Perhaps, as some have suggested, Kelli Stapleton is just a person who wasn’t interested in effectively using what was being offered to her. I don’t know. But I’m hoping that the people offering supports to the Stapletons at the time of the attempted murder thoroughly went over what everyone was doing with the family at the time, because a few things that came up during the Dr. Phil interview that made me think, “That needs to be looked into. Someone dropped the ball there.”
And then there’s a second discussion, the one that the media in general hasn’t been having about Issy and Kelli Stapleton. doesn’t have. It’s arguably the more vital of the two, and the fact that the media doesn’t have it is a huge problem.
Few in the mainstream media say that it’s simply wrong to murder disabled people.
Lack of services is not an excuse.
Difficult behaviour is not an excuse.
Sparing a person pain is not an excuse.
Parents convincing themselves that the disabled child would be better off in Heaven is not an excuse.
There is no excuse.
Plenty of people in the disability community have said this since Kelli Stapleton tried to murder Issy, especially since the Dr. Phil interview. Dr. Phil tried to say it, I think. He was clear with Kelli Stapleton that he found her actions unacceptable, but the message was lost. It didn’t make it through to the people who are used to the very direct, “What were you thinking??” approach that he takes with other parents of children in crisis. He went extremely easy on her. There were many questions that I wanted answered that weren’t asked, and and the social media response showed that people came away with a sympathetic view of her.
The media needs to tell people that there’s no excuse for that, either. It’s victim blaming, and it doesn’t happen when parents murder non-disabled children. This should not be a society where, when a child is murdered, the murderer gets our sympathy.
Justice for Issy Stapleton
For justice’s sake, let’s take it down to the bottom line and leave autism out of it: Kelli Stapleton tried to murder her daughter, Issy, and got the usual sentence of 10 – 22 years in prison. That’s the justice that Issy Stapleton deserves, and that’s what all of us who have been standing behind her were hoping for.
I think that this is the closest that I’m going to get to what I want to say. The awesome blog that I mentioned in the first line was written by Beth Ryan at Love Explosions.
Here’s some more great writing about Kelli Stapleton and her daughter Issy Stapleton: