Altruistic, Pyschotic, or Unwanted Child Filicide? The Question of Kelli and Issy.

Kelli Stapleton attempted to kill her teenage daughter who has severe autism, and to kill herself at the same time. She did not succeed in either task. Her daughter is apparently recovering well, and the mother is in custody. This much you know. You also know that the international autism community has variously turned it into a platform for existing causes; such as highlighting the lack of support for autism families, or the negative attitudes towards autistic people. Both approaches are actively drawing on Kelli Stapleton’s previous blogging and social media sharing, as evidence to support their position.

I quietly read the attacks, defences, counter-attacks, ad hominems and break-downs across the autism community, until I got to the point that I realised silence at this time is also being misconstrued as support for one or the other “side” of the arguments. Does my own silence imply I stand with other mothers who understand and support Kelli? Or does the fact that I’m choosing to not speak up and stand beside those mothers at this time, imply that I think they are wrong to support Kelli?

In truth, it’s the almost-lawyer in me that keeps me quiet. I prefer to comment after cases have gone through the courts (or after it has been decided they will not make it to court), because it is through those legal proceedings that the facts are drawn out and tested. I am weary of trial-by-media and the damage it does, and the defamation that usually arises in such a process. Still, there is a particular aspect of this whole public debate that I want to comment on, because I see two sides arguing about one event but as if it contains very different key elements, and I think ignoring those differences is leading to a lot of the subsequent fall-out.

The debatable difference, as I see it, is not the action or the intent per se – it appears clear that the intent was murder and the actions were towards that end. Rather, the questionable aspect, is the motivator, or if you will, the type of filicide we are seeing. I want to explain what I mean by that, and why I think it is crucial in these debates.

It appears to make sense of the filicide here, as one of three types:

  • Altruistic filicide, performed in the perceived best interests of the child, either because (a) the parent perceives the world as too cruel to leave the child behind (and thus often accompanied by the parent’s suicide), or (b) to alleviate the child’s suffering (such as due to a disability).
  • Psychotic filicide, where there is no other seemingly rational basis for the act, than the parent’s psychosis – those who attempt suicide are also more likely to be mentally ill – or
  • Unwanted child filicide, where the parent kills an unwanted child viewed as a hindrance, including the situations where personal gain such as insurance money accompanies the death.

From what I have seen, those supporting the mother assume Kelli fits into some mixture of altruistic filicide and  psychotic break, and those who attack Kelli as someone not deserving any sympathy or support, assume Kelli was motivated in accordance with something closer to the “unwanted child” category (or perhaps as altruistic type (b)).

Based on the facts that we do know – including the child’s autism, the mother’s attempted suicide, the (arguable) premeditation, and her views of the lack of compassion from those she turned to for help – one might be lead to suspect this is altruistic filicide of type (a). But you may think the facts better suit type (b), that seems a reasonable conclusion too.

The point being, whichever it may be, the type of filicide speaks to the appropriate attitude and punishment. If we use the three categories above for example, we are lead to at least these possibilities: (1) Kelli acted out of self-serving intent to benefit from the child’s death, (though this would appear highly unlikely since she attempted suicide), then your attitude to her should be utter unequivocal outrage, no question. Or (2) she did it out of some confused (or justified) version of altruism. If so, that may affect your opinion, or at the very least complicate the situation, and perhaps such motives will be relevant consideration in any court case. Or (3) she had a psychotic break. Again, this affects the punishment and public attitude, because she would thereby be lacking meaningful intent and deserves and needs help – and potentially sympathy – in an institution rather than a prison. Until you have enough facts to figure out what you’re looking at, how can you meaningfully judge, defend, or attack; let alone turn the situation into a platform for one cause or another?

I simply don’t know enough to know how to feel about the specific occurrence. I think the confused and conflicting emotions that many have right now, are because they don’t actually know what situation they’re looking at here. Some reactions and emotions are clear, and I have seen them on all sides of the debates and responses: Sad horror at the fact that a mother tried to kill her own child. That emotion is relevant regardless of the mother’s motives or state of mind. Beyond that though, the people who know best what they should feel and how they should respond, are those closest to the family because they have more information than the rest of us, and from them I have seen only outpourings of love and support. For me, at least, that tells me it is not time to condemn the mother as evil just yet. Yes, her actions were “evil,” but whether she is also evil is yet to be determined.

The child is alive, and recovering. The mother is apart from the child and any other children right now. Let medical intervention do its part, then let the law play its role, then let us also judge if required.

No one thinks what happened was OK, no one thinks the mother is more important than the daughter right now – even the staunchest Kelli supporter hasn’t said such a thing. So before we let the attacks tear our already fragile community any further apart, how about we have the humility and compassion to take a step back and see what we don’t yet know, and in turn resist the urge to turn an unquestionable human disaster into a highly questionable platform.

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15 Responses to Altruistic, Pyschotic, or Unwanted Child Filicide? The Question of Kelli and Issy.

  1. I’ve been operating from the assumption it’s type a) without psychosis, but possibly a mental ‘breakdown’. I’ve based this primarily on what those closest to Kelli are saying. And on my experience of working with high risk self harming populations as well as my own dark place some years back with my son. So yes, there’s some projection on my part when I consider the predicament and feel some empathy. Like you I agree we need to step back from the ‘burn the witch’ dialogue and allow the courts to do their job. In the meantime we are all sending our best thoughts for a full recovery to Issy and the entire family, particularly remembering there are other children who must surely be traumatised by this most terrible ordeal.

  2. nikki says:

    A good and thoughtful analysis of the situation as it presents itself from the outside. Firstly, this is the first time I read about recovery and I am glad to hear that for Isabelle. (btw I am not sure about the ‘severity’ of Isabelle’s autism as I thought to have understood that she read early and was vocal?)
    I, like many, have posted my thoughts and feelings on the case, shocked and certainly condemning what the mother did. But what struck me was the way how those who “knew Kelli” (online or from the internet..) described her. Because I had read some of her blogposts. I know now that I am not alone, but it seemed VERY unhealthy to me and at the time, made me move on. Others were more impressed by her very public, very intense fight with “the system” and she had managed to get a lot of support, including financially. As long as they are still online, read one of her posts if you haven’t, you will probably agree that it was a bizarre way to report about your life, and especially about your child with special needs. A very public, very wordsy and intense way.
    I am not condemning anybody for taking this or another camp but to blame it solely on “the system” (the US health and education systems I understand) and the lack of support for the special needs of the daughter seems a little one dimensional. I have been (too) close to people in psychosis, to violence and to people who lived – and actively seeked – life on the edge rather than working on real solutions. Kelli’s blog made me very uncomfortable and worried for the daughter.
    I agree with you though that now, it is up to local authorities to determine what level of responsibility the mother has in harming her child. On the day of the attempted murder suicide – and maybe even before that. I normally don’t like to be involved in this kind of public debate either, but I posted another blurb of thoughts about it two days later. Because I got asked “where were you” and I saw how people harshly attacked each other, “camps” formed? I think, and here I disagree with you, that this case made it very obvious, that we are NOT one big autism community. We are all as different as our children are different (which we all say a lot). We live in different countries with different support systems, we have different levels of success to get the existing support as well. We have different results and different levels of satisfaction from the support we are getting. And then we are all people with different perspectives, expectations and experiences to life in general. So, we all have a child with Autism in our life, does that really make us a ‘community’? I like to read the blogs from adult autists and do fully understand the autistic people who cry murder because from THEIR perspective this could have been them, in the car. I dare not imagine the feeling of realisation when/if Isabelle understands fully what happened to her. By the hands of her own mother.. I have read a few very good, thought-provoking posts over the last days. I am thinking about it all still. Of course, the family themselves should be left alone, apart from the legal and psychological steps that are now going to have to be taken. All those ‘online friends’ could not help either Isabelle or Kelli, (maybe yes, the US system will pick up on ‘respite’ and ‘carers care’ a little bit if a mental condition of the mother should be confirmed), and for me the illusion of an ‘international autism community’ is definitively furtherly fallen apart.

    • You’re right nikki, our experiences of autism and how it is thought of and addressed in different countries, does mean it’s hard to view the autism community in a collective light. I was aware of those differences of course, but hadn’t quite thought about the deeply – and perhaps necessarily – fractious comparative reality that it creates. I’m going to have to give that further thought, because it’s an important point I think I need to ponder.

      As for Kelli’s blog and her videos, I haven’t read or watched a single one of them, not one. But even if I’d watched them all, that wouldn’t tell me if she’d had a psychotic break on the day, or what finally drove her to try to kill herself at the same time as Issy, or whether she stood to gain personally and if that was her prime motivator. I could guess, sure, but I see everyone else coming up with conflicting guesses based on the exact same information, so I very much doubt that would be conclusive either. Which is why I think it’s all just painful conjecture until the courts have all the relevant information before them.

      Am I being intentionally ignorant by not watching or reading her material? I was completely unaware of the woman before this happened, and I feel ill at the idea of reading and watching a mother talking about a child she would go on to try to kill, I find the whole thing sickening and highly upsetting so I can’t bring myself to interact directly with that material just yet. It also feels a bit voyeuristic for my tastes to look after the events, though I wouldn’t judge others for looking and trying to understand in that manner right now, it’s just not something I feel personally able to engage with at this point. I may change my mind in the coming days though.

      • nikki says:

        Thanks for your reply. My point about the nature of this very fragmented and fragile community was not a critique of your approach at all, which is sensible and respectful, I had to remind myself of it after my first, emotional reaction too…
        As for the voyeuristic feeling, it was part of my initial reaction too, and I think it’s horrible how the media nowadays even provide links every time, a victim or perpetrator of a crime has not yet have their online life removed. One reason I did go back to, is because I knew I had replied to one post (and appealed to the mother to be more anonymous in her approach about it all..). And you know what? It’s even more disturbing now, as I had registered for follow up emails on comments – and people are leaving more messages…!
        Whatever lesson we take personally from this, I firmly believe that it is our responsibility to protect our kid’s privacy when we blog, especially when your child is special needs and we blog about the hardships related to this…
        Finally, I know I was extremely pleased to find your blog not too long ago, you have a very intellectual voice and I am interested how things are in New Zealand, which I believe is closer in many ways to my Australian experience than any of the US blogs anyway ..

  3. nostromo says:

    It’s difficult. I have read a fair bit on this, including some interesting comments from people in her community who know her, know her daughter and are not what you would call her gushing friends. She seems to be at least in part a self promoting narcissist.

    OTOH the video of her child shows how violent she could be, the mother was not exaggerating there – but then in my opinion they handled the child (who had signalled she wanted them to leave her alone) badly. Unless she is inexperienced, the behaviourist who is the woman with long black hair being thrown around, should know the signs and should know better how to de-escalate the situation (not to mention tie her hair up, everyone at SN units knows to do that).

    When all is said and done, it’s pretty simple, Kelli tried to murder her child and that is as wrong and unjustifiable as it gets.

  4. You don’t commit “altruistic” filicide on a healthy, active, happy-in-many-photos girl with her own Facebook page. It’s murder, however one wants to categorize it. and needs to be prosecuted fully. Because someone has been videoed being violent (after being provoked, if you can notice that in the video, please) does not “prove” that the attempted murder was somehow justified. It’s a short video clip. Who knows what happened right before all this? Why is there no sound? Notice that the man was touching her and messing with her arms right before she hit, and then the woman came up and got in her space…. all things you should not do and which escalate the situation. What is the woman doing, defending the rather large man? The video certainly does not suggest that a “mercy killing” is needed. If this were a kid who is “in trouble” or “acting out” but NOT Autistic, the words “altruistic filicide” might not be used at all.

    • Paula, the word “justified” is used in regards to Kelli’s perspective (in regards to her view of the world and suffering), not in regards to how the law and everyone else should see what happened. You are using it in the latter broader sense. I haven’t seen a single person ever say they think it was objectively justifiable and therefore OK, I don’t see the point in casting people’s views in this light. Perhaps you’ve seen posts where people have claimed it was actually justified, thankfully I haven’t encountered such an extreme view yet.

      Furthermore, no matter which three types of filicide may be at play here – if any – not a single one would act as a legal justification (for example, like self-defense, which would change the nature of the act entirely. It may fit into the category of “legal excuse,” but that’s an entire and highly controversial discussion too, and I don’t think the facts here would be viewed in that light either. The difference between “excuse” and “justification” is an important one, that I have written on before in the issue of violence, it’s not an issue I think as useful in this discussion at this stage though, as I said, let the law figure this out.)

      Edited to add: I found a link to my post on the difference between excuse, justification, and explanation, which you may find useful (or not). Anyway, here it is:

  5. Hilary says:

    Excellent post on an another topical and difficult issue. I am very uncomfortable with the whole idea of ‘altruistic filicide’ (and not just because this harks back to the Nazi holocaust which started when a father asked the state to kill his disabled child, and look where that led). There was a case in NZ a few years ago where a father killed his young physically disabled child and using such a defence got a very small sentence. But it was a failure of services and supports (including counselling for the father), not any inherent fault in the child. We have also had our 1998 NZ case of a murder of an autistic teenager, by her mother. Lots of issues going on there but one result was a focus on autism which led to some major policy work.
    One of my PhD markers had a friend who was killed by her adult autistic son – so there is another difficult topic.

  6. Angela says:

    Another thought provoking and excellent post-Thank you! As Hilary said we have had our own cases of this here in NZ too. I have never read any of Kelli’s posts like you but I believe we all process how we deal with our lives in different ways and for some people that is via an online forum so I don’t think we could really judge that she as nostromo states was a “narcissist.” From comments I have seen it appears Kelli helped a lot of other families. Just sad sad sad for everyone involved and for those of us out here in cyberspace a constant reminder to reach out to those who care for us and our children before we get to a crisis point like Kelli appears to have. A virtual hug to all of you and your children from me and my(now adult) children.

  7. Marlowe says:

    Not sure how I’ve missed this but I just wanted to say Thank YOU. Yes, this is a very unfortunate and sad situation but your ability to be empathetic and non-judgmental helps to change the negativism and create more understanding for those who criticize. By speaking out, you spread good and the world has enough bad. Thank you. I thank you and will spread the word to my BFF KRS.

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