One example of how cutting social programs can have a devastating effect on families

Issy StapletonSocial programs are being slashed at both the federal and state level. In states where Republicans are in control social program budgets are being devastated in favor of tax breaks to businesses. As a result many families caring for disabled members of their household are forced to shoulder more of the burden. The consequences of the cuts on individual families are often ignored when totaling up the true costs of budget cuts.

One glaring example of the toll is on families caring for an autistic child or young adult. Studies have shown that early intervention is crucial for autistic children. Behavioral modification helps to integrate the child into society and lessens the burden on the family. However, programs that offer this type of training are rare and expensive. Additionally, insurance does not offer coverage for this type of program or offers coverage of limited duration.

Autism is reported to affect 1 in 68 children in the United States. Currently there is no cure for the disease which causes a variety of behavioral issues. One of the more troubling behavioral problems is a tendency toward a violent acting out when the autistic child does not get something tangible that he/she was expecting. Often this violent behavior is directed at a family member responsible for caring for the child.

Mothers, who are often the primary caregivers of autistic children have been found to experience chronic stress similar to that of a combat solider. Yet very little help, if any, is available to help mothers suffering a mental, physical and emotional crisis on a daily basis. What follows is one woman’s tragic story of reaching a breaking point after many years of fighting to help her autistic daughter.

Issy Stapleton

The Stapleton family began to notice that something was wrong with Issy as an infant. Issy, the middle child, became non-communicative and began lashing out violently at her mother. When Issy was small it was easy to qell her outbursts, which were triggered by her being denied something, Kelli Stapleton (Issy’s Mother) wrote.

But as Issy Stapleton entered adolescence she gained a great deal of weight due to the medicines used to treat her behavior problems. As a result, at 5 foot 2 and 160 pounds, she outweighed her mom and could easily overpower her during her out bursts.

In one blunt post on Stapleton’s blog she declared her daughter a member of the “autism’s hard to love club.” When Issy was young she was beyond cute…with bright blue eyes, ringlet curls and deep sweet dimples, Stapleton wrote. “Now she is a teenager. She could care less about hygiene. It’s not uncommon to see her with wildly unruly hair, food in her teeth, stains on her shirt, or even smelling of body odor.”

The Search For Help

Issy would hole up in her room playing on her iPad and only emerge when she wanted something: McDonald’s, to visit a friend, red nail polish. If denied, she threw a tantrum, raging through the house, hitting herself, other people or inanimate objects.

In one particularly violent outburst, Stapleton was hospitalized after Issy beat her unconscious in the car. She was convinced her daughter would eventually kill her. “These are problem behaviors. Not ‘annoying.’ Not ‘peskey.’ These are OHMYGODHOWDOPEOPLIVELIEKTHIS behaviors.”


Issy’s violent outbursts, at its peak, were charted at 625 a week or about 93 episodes a day. Most were directed at her mother or younger sister.

A Tragic Result of Cuts to Social Programs

Many prior attempts at treatment had failed to curtail Issy’s violence. Finally the Stapletons found a behaviorist program that had just opened in Portage, MI just a few hours from their home. Stapleton referred to the program as a “godsend.” But the center cost $765 a day and the families insurance would only provide coverage for eight months.

The State of Michigan has closed several of the state run mental-health facilities that would normally provide care for children like Issy. Instead vouchers are issued for services, however, Stapleton in an attempt to find help through the state discovered that only one voucher was available for the entire state.

The program was successful in reducing Issy’s aggression. But shortly after her return home the family’s situation took a turn for the worse.

Issy Stapleton
Kelli & Issy Stapleton

Returning to Life with Issy

Issy Stapleton returned home on August 30 and was due to enter a special education program at the local high school the following week. Stapleton wrote that she “got into a heated argument with the woman who would be Issy’s teacher.” The argument began after the teacher, with 22 other students, wanted to tweak the center’s program to make it fit the school’s schedule. Stapleton objected to any changes. The next day the school told her that Issy should attend a different school 2 ½ hours away. A school that Issy had attended before, but wasn’t successful in the program. Kelli Stapleton’s September 3rd post in her blog would foreshadow a tragic end.

Several hours later she would lure her daughter to the family van by promising a camping trip. She then drove to a secluded area 15 miles away and gave Issy a medication to drug her. Two portable grills were placed on the floor of the van between the front and back seats. Stapleton lit the charcoal and waited for the van to fill with carbon monoxide. She would later tell a nurse that “she wanted to send Issy to heaven.”

Only the police found the two unconscious later that day after her husband, Matt, called police. After interviewing Stapleton, a detective testified that “she told us she wanted to make life bearable after her daughter’s violence toward her. She was kind of at her wit’s end and thought this would be the best solution for the family.”

Issy suffered a great deal of physical damage from her mother’s actions. For three days “she was barely clinging to life, then Issy staged what doctors called a miraculous recovery,” according to her father. After finishing physical therapy she has resumed a similar treatment program as before.

Issy continues to be violent, but the number and duration of the attacks have receded according to the family.

Kelli Stapleton Facing Murder Charges

While the future for Issy is looking better, her mother cannot say the same. She is facing attempted murder charges and her trial is set to begin soon. Her attorneys were considering an insanity defense, however, Stapleton was found fit to stand trial.

Shortly after the attempted murder-suicide her husband, principal of Frankfort High School in a nearby town, filed for divorce.

The small town where the Stapletons live is divided. Some believe she should have relinquished custody instead of trying to kill her. Other said they understand her struggle, that she was hamstrung in a system that offers little help for disable individuals and those caring for them.

As social programs continue to be cut by governments around the country we will continue to read about the tragic effect on families who rely on them. And with 1 in 68 children diagnosed with autism, this is a problem that will only worsen.


  1. YES! YES, Kelli should have relinquished custody of Issy instead of trying to kill her daughter!

    Kelli didn’t try to kill her daughter due to lack of social programs, as at the time of the attempted murder Issy:
    – had been in residential treatment for 6+ months
    – had a Medicaid waver that paid for a 1:1 support for all her waking hours (that Kelli had already trained on Issy’s behavior program!)

    It’s also worth noting that the special education teacher that recommended Issy NOT be placed in a regular public school MAY not have done so out of spite — Issy was a big girl (150+ lbs) who’d knocked kelli unconscious more than once and who required restraint on a near-daily basis while in residential treatment. It’s probable that Issy was a danger to herself and other students in a “regular” school!

  2. Just curious–how does a parent relinquish custody? Are they allowed to do that? What happens to the child? Is it permanent? If the parents do that, are there state facilities then available for the child or do they go into foster care?

  3. Wow…I have a cousin with a non-verbal severely autistic son. He is only six years-old and to my knowledge hasn’t gotten violent but has watched the movie “Cars” over 100 times and plays on the iPad constantly. There are also two sisters and the father is in Afghanistan. My cousin has had issues here in Florida getting the exact same school programs Issi has had. As her son gets older and grows in size and weight, I am gravely concerned about the situation. There is a lot of family support so my cousin, the mom, does get a break and her son has actually held hands with his baby sister. She also got a therapy dog specifically trained for autistic children to help him and that seems to calm him and he has something to care for. It seems that any help for autistic children is so expensive that it makes it impossible for parents to deal with. Just the therapy dog was over $10,000 and a fundraiser was held to raise the money. I am interested in how the father, who is a principal at a school, had to do with helping Issi’s mom. Such a sad story but so important. Thanks for such a great read.

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