On Monday and Tuesday, “Dr. Phil” aired a two-part exclusive interview and show called “A Mother’s Worst Nightmare,” which featured a Michigan woman named Kelli Stapleton. Last September, Stapleton was accused of trying to murder her daughter, Isabelle “Issy” Stapleton, and attempting suicide.
Issy Stapleton is an autistic teenager who was prone to violent outbursts, with her mother and sister taking the brunt of the abuse. Horrific photos and descriptions during the interview showed Kelli may have suffered brain damage at Issy’s hands, as well as other bruises and signs of physical pain.
Rather than being charged with attempted murder, Stapleton was only indicted on charges of first-degree child abuse. Despite the lesser charge, she could face a maximum of a life sentence behind bars. She has not talked to her daughter, whose violent condition is improving after treatment and therapy since the incident.
The treatment of this tragic and complicated issue by Dr. Phil has been deeply troubling and misleading. Kelli Stapleton said on the program that the “jail of Benzie County has been a much kinder warden than the jail of autism has been.” Dr. Phil then brought on another guest: a mother who thought about killing herself and her severely autistic and violent son but couldn’t bring herself to do it. Dr. Phil framed these segments in a way that seemed to practically excuse these mothers for attempting to murder their disabled children.
I first read about the Stapleton incident last year in People magazine, and it kept me up at night. It appalls me that Stapleton is apparently being treated less harshly for her attempted murder-suicide simply because her daughter is mentally disabled.
Issy did not consent to her mother’s attempt to “take her to heaven.” Although Issy expressed violent tendencies, it doesn’t mean Issy was unhappy or in a bad place — she may have had difficulties expressing herself, as many individuals with autism do.
Certainly, Issy Stapleton is not fully innocent either. Issy would habitually attack her sister, and the girls’ mother would suffer the brunt of the violence in an attempt to protect her. However, Issy is, without a doubt, the true victim in this situation, as she was the one who suffered an attempt on her life and languished in a coma, all caused by her own mother.
Dr. Phil should also be criticized for his flippant treatment of this sensitive issue. The media already has a penchant for portraying autistic people and those with other mental health issues as violent and destructive. The high profile cases of mass murderers Adam Lanza and Elliot Rodger — both believed to have Aspergers’ Syndrome — have further damaged the reputation of those with mental illness or neurological disorders.
Giving favorable treatment to Kelli Stapleton, someone who attempted to murder her own daughter because of her disability, is appalling and absolutely unacceptable. Disabled lives are not worth less than anyone else’s life. Murder is murder, no matter who the intended victim is.
Haley Moss is a UF psychology and criminology senior.
[A version of this story ran on page 7 on 9/24/2014]