Kelli Stapleton was recently sentenced to 10 to 22 years in prison for child abuse, after attempting to kill her autistic teen daughter Issy. We spoke with attorney Sam Crane, who is the Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s Director of Public Policy, about ASAN’s efforts on the Stapleton case: both in helping the prosecution send the message that disability does not justify murder, and in urging the court to ensure Issy saw the same justice as any other victim of felony child abuse.

TPGA: How did ASAN get involved with the Stapleton case?

SC: ASAN generally issues statements after individual incidents of violence that come to our attention, often statements concerning media coverage. But with the Stapleton case, since I’m a lawyer and I started at ASAN one month after the attempt on Issy’s life, we really wanted to see if we could influence the trajectory of the case, not just the media coverage.

So, on the recommendation of one of ASAN’s members — we get a lot of good input from our membership — we reached out to the prosecutor on the Stapleton case. We thanked her for taking the case on, and for taking it very seriously, and for really pushing to make sure Issy got justice. And we offered ourselves as a resource to educate the court and the prosecutor’s office about the issue of violence against people with disabilities by caregivers.

TPGA: And how was your offer received? Were you able to influence the prosecution, and/or the court?

SC: The prosecutor was very friendly and said that our efforts would really help. What we ended up doing was writing a sort of a Sentencing Statement. In criminal cases, at sentencing, there is an opportunity for anyone to submit a statement to the court, on how they feel the judge should sentence the defendant. For example, Issy’s sister Ainsley sent in a sentencing statement, I believe Issy’s father Matt submitted a sentencing statement, and the prosecution submitted its own statement. And ASAN submitted sort of a third party sentencing statement through the prosecutor’s office.

Our statement, which is up on our website, really goes into a court-friendly argument about how the sentencing needed to be treated the same as any other incident of violence. The court was hearing a lot of messages from the defense, from other witnesses, about how Issy’s disability was so stressful that it should be seen as some sort of mitigating factor. That Kelli Stapleton had been suffering for years with Issy, and that she snapped — exactly the same kind of messaging that we often seen in the media. Which is very dangerous.

We wanted to make sure that the court understood that stress is involved in almost every incident of serious child abuse, but it should not be seen as a mitigating factor more than any other source of stress should be seen as a mitigating factor. By and large, parents of people with disabilities are able to take care of their children without trying to kill them. And in fact the majority of parents of people with disabilities have less access to services than this mother did. She had gotten her child into a residential placement, there were some issues with her school, but she had been getting a whole lot of help — including securing almost continuous care in the home, a level of support far higher than almost anyone else in the state was receiving.

And the court heard from many of Issy’s family members, many of whom contradicted the mother’s description of Issy. They said Issy was fine with other family members and care workers. Kelli tweeted that aides had offered her tips on how to manage Issy’s behaviors in a way that wouldn’t cause meltdowns, and she rejected their advice. And parents sometimes do know their children better than care workers, I’m not saying whose advice was correct. But it certainly wasn’t the case that Kelli Stapleton didn’t have help.

The final goal for our witness statement is to just keep the focus on Issy, and make sure the judge understands that the case is about Issy, about something that happened to her. Issy understands enough about what’s going on around her that it’s really going to be very dangerous to her — and to many other people with disabilities — if the court sends the message that we should just expect abuse. That her disability is so severe that she should just expect to be abused by those around her because they are so stressed out. And that’s basically what it would mean if the court were to say that the abuse simply was a natural result of caring for a person with a disability.

We kept in touch with the prosecutor, and that really helped us develop our opinion of how the sentencing decision went. The prosecutor, unlike us, was present in the courtroom when the judge announced the verdict, and was able to tell us that the judge was really focused on treating this incident the same way as any other incident of child abuse. The court didn’t really mention anything about Issy’s disability making the woman’s life harder.

TPGA: We often have to counter misleading messages about cases like Issy’s, messages implying or stating outright that abuse (or worse) happens because “parents just need more support” — which was certainly not the situation here. What did the court have to say on this matter?

SC: The judge did acknowledge that Kelli Stapleton was in need of help — for emotional problems, not in terms of needing help caring for Issy. She was having personal difficulties in the time leading up to the attempted murder. But she wasn’t in need of intervention in managing Issy’s behavior — she was in need of intervention in managing her own behavior. And the judge did take that into account, but very fortunately kept the focus off of Issy, and off of this argument that Issy’s disability was somehow the cause of the mother’s act of abuse.

Kelli clearly had a history of responding to stress by lashing out at others, mainly Issy, but she had been making statements about her frustration and clearly terrible relationship with her daughter, for a long time. We don’t take the position that there wasn’t anything that couldn’t have been done. But the intervention that needed to be done was someone noticing that this person was expressing persistent hostility towards her daughter, and noting that maybe that might be a dangerous situation, and intervening.

TPGA: Are there interventions that, in your opinion, might have helped?

SC: What we need is for social workers and other such officials to be able to try and intervene in cases of violence in families, including in ways that are short of removal. It’s possible that social workers weren’t observing anything in the Stapleton case that in itself merited removal, but should have been ringing warning bells. They could have started intervening in less dramatic ways — started by offering counseling to the parents, and respite services, depending on what is available in Michigan. But people needed to be aware that this was an at-risk family because of Kelli’s attitude towards Issy.

TPGA: Were there any indications as to how Issy is doing?

SC: Issy was in a coma for days. She has permanent traumatic brain damage. The brain damage very luckily has not affected her communication skills, but she has mobility and coordination problems that are greater than what she had before. And she’s going to have to live the rest of her life knowing that her mother tried to kill her.

We have members of ASAN whom I know personally, whose parents tried to kill them, or who acted extremely violently towards them. Fortunately that’s not an experience I had personally, but being able to hear people talk about what that was like for them is an important part of developing awareness that acts like this have real consequences.

TPGA: Was ASAN satisfied by Kelli’s sentence of 10 to 22 years?

SC: A lot of people were calling for life in prison, and I certainly wouldn’t have objected; I feel like if any act deserves life in prison, attempting to murder your child would be one of those things. The reason we believe Kelli Stapleton’s sentence is a significant penalty, and not a slap on the wrist, is that the sentence is in line with those we would typically see for a similar crime, for other people in that same situation but where disability wasn’t a factor.

It is never acceptable to hold a child’s life hostage in the demand for more services. There are many things that we as a society can do to prevent these kinds of acts of violence. But those things need to be focused on preventing abuse, communicating that every person’s life is valuable, and detecting the warning signs of possible violence ahead of time, and really providing targeted anti-violence services rather than simply giving the parents more support in whatever therapy they want for their child and hoping that that will somehow improve the parent-child relationship. If the parent is so antagonistic toward their child that they’re contemplating violence, then something needs to change and it’s not the child — it’s the parent.

This is really the first time ASAN has been directly involved in the advocacy around a particular prosecution. We’ve been challenging media narratives, we’ve been blogging, we’ve been issuing our own statements — but now we’re really coming into our own. We’re really able to participate in the actual process, and influence the people who are making important decisions about sentencing, about the kinds of services that need to be given, about the kinds of defenses that are acceptable, and about the kinds of defenses that are going to be recognized as straightforwardly anti-disability. We’re really, for the first time, able to have a direct impact on that.

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Neon scales of justice; image by DALL-E