UNTHINKABLE

The Mommy Blogger Who Tried to Kill Her Autistic Daughter Talks to Dr. Phil

Dr. Phil recently interviewed Kelli Stapleton, a mother who tried to kill her teenage autistic daughter. Why were no autism advocates included in the conversation?

10.01.14 9:45 AM ET

The facts of Kelli Stapleton’s attempted murder-suicide of her 14-year-old daughter, Issy, are not disputed. Kelli invited the girl to go camping and make s’mores. When the two were together inside the family van, Kelli lit two charcoal grills, and waited to die along with her daughter, “nose-to-nose,” as she says. Kelli’s husband, Matt, had called the police, who saved the lives of Kelli and Issy. Issy’s last words to her mother before entering a three-day-long coma were “I love you, Mommy.”

Dr. Phil McGraw, who devoted two episodes of Dr. Phil to Kelli’s story, interviewed her from prison in Benzie County, Michigan. He ended the interview by shaking her hand and saying, “I wish you the best, Kelli.” He also opined directly to the camera, “In Kelli’s case…I don’t think that serving time behind bars is the best solution. If allowed, we would like to provide the court with some sort of evaluation and a clear mental health plan.”

If you are unfamiliar with the case, you may be wondering why Kelli, who by her own admission tried to kill her own child, doesn’t deserve prison time. There’s a simple answer: Her daughter Issy has autism. She exhibits unusually challenging and aggressive behaviors, and according to Kelli, Issy hit her repeatedly and knocked her unconscious twice.

The idea that Issy’s autism might excuse Kelli’s actions enrages some disability advocates, most notably the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), an organization consisting of autistic people devoted to advancing disability rights. They track media portrayals of caregiver violence and murder of people with developmental disabilities, and have argued that such portrayals are usually sympathetic to the abusive parent rather than the victim of abuse. Dr. Phil repeatedly said that he did not condone Kelli’s behavior or believe it a rational response, but he generally seemed to be offering understanding to Kelli.

ASAN quickly released a vehement statement against Dr. Phil:

“Dr. Phil offered an abusive and murderous parent a platform, with no regard for the consequences to the victims—or the potential copycat effects…The victim of child abuse is not the adult abuser. The victim of murder is not the murderer…Join us in sending this message: it is always wrong for a parent to murder their child. There is never a justification. There are always other options. The only victims here are disabled people murdered by those we should have been able to trust the most.”

The Arc, the largest community-based advocacy organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the United States, issued a statement calling for more services for stressed caregivers of people with disabilities. They also denounced the show. “Kelli’s actions are indefensible, and sensationalizing this family’s tragic story only hurts the public’s perception of autism. Issy’s voice, or the voice of a peer on the autism spectrum, should have been heard by the millions who tune into Dr. Phil. His audience should have had the opportunity to learn from an individual with autism what it’s like to live with autism, and how services and supports can make a huge difference in their daily life,” they said.

Dr. Phil is certainly not the sole media outlet that has been criticized for coverage seen by some as too forgiving of parents who hurt their children with disabilities. Other coverage of Issy Stapleton’s story (this story from nbcnews.com, for example) suggests that Kelli acted from desperation due to her circumstances. This Daily Mail story about Alex Spourdalakis, a boy with autism who was allegedly murdered, suggests that it was the burden of caring for Alex that caused his mother and godmother to, according to prosecutors who have charged them with first-degree murder, overdose him, stab him, and slit his wrists.

A spokesperson for Dr. Phil emailed a statement to The Daily Beast:

“The Dr. Phil show is proud to continue to shine a much-needed light on autism spectrum disorder, continuing a 13 plus year commitment to educate the American public about the challenges faced by these children and their loving families.

The recent and tragic story of what happened to Isabel Stapleton was, of course, outrageous, indefensible and unforgiveable. It is important to separate the need to condemn the outrageous behavior of her clearly emotionally troubled mother, while remaining sensitive and sympathetic to the frustrating plight of all parents with autistic children who struggle in their quest for services, help and resources.

The victim in this particular situation is, of course, the child. To suggest that anyone associated with the telling of this heart-breaking story believes otherwise is insulting, absurd and irresponsible…

This reckless rhetoric is counter-productive to the battle to make gains on both research and treatment levels. To anyone who has actually watched the program in its entirety, our views on this issue were clear, and intended to provide a complete understanding of Kelli Stapleton’s mindset. As Dr. Phil stated during the broadcast commenting on Ms. Stapleton’s decision to another desperate mother … ‘Ending the life of your child, even if you sacrifice yourself in the same act, is just simply not an option. It’s just not something that you have the right to do…’

We are proud of our broadcast and stand by the content 100 percent.”

This statement is encouraging in its emphatic affirmation that Issy was Kelli’s victim. The sentiment expressed, however, could have been far more explicitly rendered in the show. There are several things the show could have done differently—and any media coverage of this topic should do differently—so that it would be clear to all viewers that Issy really was the victim.

This episode, and other stories that attribute caregiver violence to the difficulties of raising children with disabilities, purport to raise awareness of the need for services and community support for families with kids with disabilities. However, ASAN thinks that goal itself part of the problem. “Conversations about services and conversations about child abuse and murder need to be separated by a brick wall,” said Julia Bascom, ASAN’s director of programs, in an email to The Daily Beast. “This isn’t about services. And when we say, give us more funding or parents will kill their kids, we are saying, very literally: give us more money, or the kid gets it.

Talking about services may actually be misleading. You might think that the only people who commit such murders do not have good services or support systems. This, however, critics claim, is incorrect—which suggests that services (while hugely important for many other reasons!) are not the solution to this particular problem.

On Kelli’s blog, which regularly detailed her struggles raising Issy, the mother wrote a post just hours before she attempted to kill her daughter. In it, she describes her disappointment with Issy’s school’s last-minute decision that she could not attend, and that Issy would have to attend a school much farther away. However, Kelli also notes, “We obtained the single opening for the Michigan children’s waiver for the whole state! So Issy has funds for staff at home. Her very own human for nearly all of her waking hours! Can. You. Imagine?!…And as silly as it sounds, you know someone will be successful when they work not for just a paycheck, but they really invest in the program. That’s what I’m feeling here.”

Such waiver programs are available in every state, but there are usually long waiting lists. The Michigan waiver benefits include, besides the staff at home, respite care and environmental adaptations. The Stapletons, then, had just received services that most of us with kids with disabilities would love to have (but don’t).

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According to a 2005 paper published by Richard Lucardie and Don Sobsey of the University of Alberta, both of whom study violence against people with disabilities, more than a third of children (PDF) with developmental disabilities who are killed by their families are younger than 5 years old—presumably before unmanageable behavior problems begin or more intensive services are needed. So deprivation of services does not seem to be the determining factor of when parents turn to murder.

While ASAN claims that well-publicized cases may trigger copycat incidents, there is no direct evidence for or against that, said Ray Surette, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida and an expert on copycat crimes. “Whether or not a perpetrator is portrayed sympathetically is not all that important,” Surette pointed out. “What matters more is whether the media is portraying what some people might see as a viable means for dealing with their life situation; if they provide an instructional video that someone can follow.” It is possible that someone could see a solution in Kelli’s actions, despite Dr. Phil’s insisting that Kelli was wrong. Surette noted that the media has improved in its coverage of serial killers: “They no longer run as many pictures of the shooters, but instead are more likely to portray the victims.”

This last statement is a reason for concern about the format of the Dr. Phil programs about the Stapletons, given that the entire two episodes involve interviews with Kelli Stapleton and her friends. No one autistic is brought on the show to give another perspective, nor was one included on previous or subsequent shows. A famous disability rights slogan, which appears on the ASAN website, says “Nothing about us without us,” seems a good rule of thumb for media coverage. Issy only appears in the Dr. Phil episodes in still photos and sensational videos.

“Dr. Phil never challenged Kelli’s story, never pursued any inconsistencies, never sought out any perspectives which might contradict her narrative,” said Bascom. There were certainly several statements of Kelli’s which could stand further questioning. In one striking moment, Kelli explains what happened when she sought help. “We were told ridiculous things like remodel your garage and put her in your garage. Put her in foster care.”

Dr. Phil didn’t follow up on Kelli’s comment. But he should have. Wouldn’t foster care, under the circumstances, have been a less “ridiculous” option? Surely it would be preferable to place Issy in foster care than attempt to kill her. Also, making home modifications is a commonly recommended strategy for helping families work together with their autistic loved ones.

The director of professional affairs for Dr. Phil, Dr. Marty Greenberg, is a passionate defender of the program—as well as of Dr. Phil himself. Greenberg expressed his disappointment to The Daily Beast that ASAN and other groups did not contact the show directly to discuss their complaints, to which the show would have been receptive. He noted that every show topic is vetted by a professional advisory board, and that Dr. Phil takes very seriously his obligations to help people on the show, even after the cameras are turned off. “His charitable foundation raises a lot of money for children’s advocacy,” said Greenberg. “And every nickel that comes in goes out. He pays the overhead out of his own pocket.” The show has taken on paying for Issy’s education.

Greenberg acknowledged that not all show topics were about crucial issues, but he said that Dr. Phil has done more than any TV show in history to provide education, resources, and opportunities for people with mental illnesses. “When we did a show on teen suicide,” he said, “the National Suicide Hotline told us that they had received more calls than ever in the days after our show aired.”

I asked Greenberg if there had ever been a Dr. Phil show devoted solely to a perpetrator of a crime. He said that Dr. Phil had interviewed an abusive husband, but said that he was not the sole focus of the show.

When I asked Greenberg why there wasn’t anyone with autism on the show, he stressed that the show wasn’t about autism, as such. It was about a desperate, out-of-control parent. (The show did feature one other guest, who was a mother of a child with autism who described how she had thought about killing him.) Greenberg said that Dr. Phil wasn’t tougher on Kelli Stapleton because “he is sensitive to people with mental disorders. He wasn’t going to beat up on her.”

Greenberg stressed that the show was about offering solutions. Dr. Phil repeatedly says that murder is not a solution—however, no practical advice on what stressed caregivers should do is in fact offered. The web page for that episode does include a link to a suicide hotline number. Bascom said succinctly, “If you think you are going to kill your child, turn yourself in. Call 911 on yourself.”

Yet Dr. Phil allowed Kelli Stapleton to turn her daughter into an ugly caricature on his show. The mother says in the interview with Dr. Phil that Issy would have likely killed her, that Issy is “amazingly violent,” and that “the jail of Benzie County [where Kelli is incarcerated] has been a much kinder warden than the jail of autism has been.” Issy did not consent to these descriptions, nor could she defend herself. When I asked Bascom what she would have wanted from the Dr. Phil show to have done, she said, “We would want to see a show that remembers that, one day, Issy will be able to see and hear everything that has been said about her.”

In their press statement, ASAN included a message for Issy:

“And to Issy Stapleton, the only victim of this tragedy, the only person whose voice deserves to be heard here, we say: what your mother did was not okay, and it wasn’t your fault. There is a whole world of people who support you. We are sorry this happened to you, and we are doing everything in our power to make sure it can never happen to anyone, ever again. You deserve nothing less.”