In February, Michigan mom Kelli Stapleton began blogging about the fear and challenge of raising a young teen daughter whose autism, diagnosed at age 2, fueled sometimes violent outbursts. Her very first post contained a photo of Kelli with a black eye, “in the EXACT same place as the previous black eye,” she wrote.
“I would also like to mention that we LOVE our disabled daughter very much,” Kelli, 45, posted in the online journal she titled “The Status Woe”. “But you should know that living with her is beyond horrific. There are screaming tantrums, property destruction, hitting, biting, pulling hair and kicking. It’s always loud and we’re always tensed up to take a blow.”
On Sept. 3, Kelli wrote that 14-year-old Isabella – “Issy” to her parents and two siblings – had “successfully completed treatment” and would enroll this month in a special-ed program at the building where her dad, Matt Stapleton, was a high school principal. Issy would have her own classroom aide.
Then the rug was pulled. After a shouted disagreement between the mom and the special education instructor over the student behavior plan, Kelli wrote that school officials had “uninvited” her daughter, and recommended a school program in another town more than two hours away. The mom also was encouraged to try homeschooling, she said.
“I am devastated. My husband is gutted,” she wrote. “I have ruined everything.”
Later that day, Matt received a message from Kelli that police described as “despondent.” He sought help to find his missing wife and daughter. Police located the family’s van that night parked in a rural spot near their Elberta, Mich., home. The windows were rolled up, and coals burned inside had caused the vehicle to fill with carbon monoxide, the Associated Press reports. Kelli and Issy were inside, unconscious, according to AP.
Kelli survived, but Issy was placed on a respirator in critical care, according to a Facebook post by her dad. And while Issy struggles, Kelli was in court on Thursday, arrested and charge with attempted murder, which carries a maximum penalty of life without parole.
A defense attorney, Anthony Cicchelli, could not immediately be reached for comment. Attempts to reach Matt have been unsuccessful.
The tragic turn contrasts with the parents’ stated hopes for their oldest daughter’s future, as they shared earlier this year when the family’s struggle was profiled by the Traverse City, Mich., Record-Eagle newspaper.
“She is a great kid with a lot of potential,” Kelli said at the time. “She’s so smart. She started reading when she was 2. She’s got so much to offer, but her aggression is going to limit her life as much as anything.”
Matt added: “She’s gotten to that point where she can’t help herself. She’s hurting herself and she’s hurting others. She’ll always be autistic and she’ll always be with us, but unless we’re able to get some help for some of those behaviors she has, I don’t even know how to predict how the next 20 years will look like.”
Kelli’s blog detailed that search for help, from the successful interactions with caseworkers who made a positive impact, to the family’s burden caused by the high cost of care. And in his own latest update to the tragedy, Matt showed a continued optimism for his daughter’s recovery.
“At this time, she is still unresponsive after being lifted from the medically induced coma she was put in for the treatment of her injuries,” he wrote this week. “She has not yet been conscious since the incident. This is not entirely uncommon as some people go 24-48 hours before waking. We remain upbeat and positive as we expect to see many improvements in the next 12-24 hours.”
In the time since Matt’s update was posted, PEOPLE has confirmed through a friend of the family that Issy is conscious, off of her breathing tube and talking, although she is still in the hospital. (Contacted by PEOPLE, the Devos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids hospital would not release any patient information.)
But Kelli’s despondency lingers on social media.
“I have to admit that I’m suffering from a severe case of battle fatigue,” she wrote in her final blog post, which she concluded: “If you work with families please try to minimize the soul shattering disappointments you hand out. At least let me believe you’re trying to figure it out. It’s my job to do my best for my daughter. It’s your job to be professional and help me do mine (and only one of us is getting paid).”
“There is much more to say,” she finished. “I’m just too tired to write more.”
• Reporting by ANDREA BILLUPS