A tragedy, there really is no other word for it. The unthinkable not only thought, but attempted.
Was this a mother so deep in despair, so overwhelmed, so afraid of what was ahead for herself and her child that she attempted to kill herself and her non-verbal autistic child? Was this a case of a selfish evil monster seeking attention?
The line is drawn, but is it wise to simply choose a side?
I was approached by the mother, Kelli Stapleton, several months ago when she asked if I would interview her about the challenges parents face raising a special needs child with severely aggressive behaviors. Due to the sensitive matter and severity of impairment, I invited an expert panel to address the issues and offer possible options. I initially titled the episode “A Secret Life of Shame and Fear” as I wanted to reach out to other parents, many of whom had reached out to me over the years regarding their children. Their children were with varying disorders but presenting with the same insurmountable obstacles and they sought help for their child’s aggression and rage. These mothers wrote looking for resources, options and support being too embarrassed or afraid to seek help and expose the physical and emotional chaos that was consuming their families. They feared losing their children to substandard institutions, they feared for the siblings and they feared for themselves. This interview was for them all.
I was stunned and shaken when I received the call about the attempted murder/suicide by my guest. As the news spread so did the intense feelings. For some it was anger and for others compassion. As would be expected, this tragedy has brought out very strong emotions and opinions among those in the special needs community not only here in the United States, but around the world.
What I find troubling is the importance of “vocabulary” as the focal point of many blogs and Op-ed’s in the media. It seems the line in the sand has been drawn and we are to either be on the side of “Condemnation” or “Understanding”. Those who stand with the beige granules of condemnation seem disinterested in any explanation for what Kelli Stapleton did. To attempt to “understand” in some way, I presume, they fear could be misinterpreted as “condoning” this horrific act. The ones dredging their feet through the grains of “understanding” are at a bit of a disadvantage being left with a poor word choice. As it is unfolding, as it often does, it is getting ugly. Some parents are being bashed for expressing any compassion for this mother. Compassion is one of our best human traits, it is needed, but to have compassion without action will do little to save the next child. There are no winners here. This tragedy, for many, is personal and has hit the community at its core.
The line is drawn, but not clearly defined.
Understanding is not condoning. Understanding is not permitting. Understanding is not encouraging. Understanding has several definitions and yes, one definition is to have sympathy or tolerance but the other definitions, the ones that need apply here are “understanding” as comprehension and knowledge or to perceive and comprehend the nature and significance. No one is condoning this tragic act but we BETTER well try to understand it.
Without the “why” without the “how” we can do nothing to prevent it from happening again and again. Without trying to “understand” and identify those parents at risk we are doing nothing but sticking our heads in the sand as well as our feet. Even with services many parents simply cannot cope. The argument that it is unacceptable to have “understanding” for a parent hurting a special needs child or leniency verses a parent with a neurotypical one has validity and children with disabilities deserve the same protection under the law, however, I’m not convinced that the sentence, no matter how harsh, will prevent this from happening again if we do not get to the root of the problem.
The state of mental health care for children in the United States is a national disgrace leaving parents to navigate a broken system with few affordable, let alone quality options for severely impaired children. We cannot continue down the same path we have been on. We need to fix it and in order to do that we need to “understand”. We need to “understand” how to overhaul our funding through county, state, health insurance and school districts. We need to take the fight out of obtaining services so parents can focus on their children and not disability law. We need to stop accepting the unacceptable and invest in long term quality care programs to give these children, their parents and siblings a chance at the life they deserve. What we equally need is to “understand” why a loving mother could turn into an attempted murderer. We need to “understand” human limitations, we need to respect and respond to true despair, we need to identify red flags, we need to establish safety nets, we need to start the conversation and not stall it with unproductive bickering, we need to uncross our arms and extend our hands to lift these parents out of the trenches, not push them further into the abyss.
For a community that has fought long and hard to end stigma for their kids, why are we now projecting it onto broken parents? Why are the mothers and fathers who have tirelessly and victoriously put an end to the hurtful names and labels put on their children now so easily attaching the words “monster” “animal” and “evil” to another human being? If we want to save these at risk children we need to take great care not to stigmatize at risk parents who aside from their children’s challenges may have challenges of their own. Have we not learned from the staggering rise in suicides among those ashamed, afraid or unwilling to admit their depression or irrational thinking due to the stigma attached? The last thing this community needs is for parents to feel unable to talk about their frustrations, depression or anger for fear of judgement and blame. The last thing we need is for parents to use murder as a treatment option. As I revisited that interview with Kelli Stapleton to try to somehow wrap my mind around what happened the vocabulary there too struck me. The title of her blog said volumes ….. “The Status Woe”. The word “Status” the relative position or standing and “Woe” great sorrow or distress. Yes, many special needs parents are living in a status of woe and would never attempt to hurt their child but for that one or two that simply cannot endure, we need to create an environment for them to come out and ask for help without judgement.
What this mother did was unfathomable, of that we can all agree. From it we can continue to build walls within the community or we can work together to build a system that provides quality educational and therapeutic treatment to all children with disabilities and offer support through therapy for the caregivers. There is no shame in being overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, there is no shame in needing help, there is no shame in being broken, the shame will be to allow another parent to fall to such depths as we stand with our feet and our heads firmly planted in the sand.
Wishing you all strength and calm,
Our interview with Kelli Stapleton