On July 5, 2011, one day after America celebrated its 235th year of independence as a nation, police officers at the Fullerton Transportation Center in Orange County, California viciously beat a 37-year-old man named Kelly Thomas. At one point in the 35-minute surveillance tape that captured the entire horrifying encounter, Thomas can be heard pleading for his father, a retired law enforcement officer, to help him and saying, “I’m sorry.”

Five days later, Thomas died after being removed from life support, his once handsome face a swollen mass of black and purple bruises. In 2012, two of the six officers involved in the beating, Manuel Ramos and Jay Cucinelli, were charged with Thomas’s death. And on January 13, 2014, a jury acquitted both Ramos and Cucinelli of all charges, leading to angry protests by mental health advocates and others in Fullerton and beyond.

While some of the facts of the case remain in dispute, no one disputes that Kelly Thomas suffered from schizophrenia, a serious mental illness that affects more than three million people in the United States. This brain disease is also disproportionately represented in the homeless population, with as many as one in three chronically homeless people suffering from serious mental illness including schizophrenia. Kelly Thomas — a beloved son and brother —was one of these people. See Long’s recent Time magazine op-ed: “A different ending to my ‘Adam Lanza’ Story.”

As the jury in this case demonstrated, with mental illness, the line that separates victims from perpetrators is seldom a bright one. Like many people with serious mental illness, Thomas had a long history with law enforcement. In the past, Kelly Thomas had been charged with criminal behavior; according to the Orange County Register, Thomas was listed in 92 police reports, beginning in 1990 when he was just 16 years old. But on the day he was beaten, it seems clear from the video evidence that he was the victim and the police officers were the perpetrators.

Consider the case of another Kelli. On September 3, 2013, Kelli Stapleton, a stay-at-home mother of three children, drove her 14-year-old daughter Issy into the remote Michigan woods and tried to end both of their lives. Issy Stapleton has autism and a history of violence against her mother; Kelli had suffered two concussions and other injuries at her daughter’s hands. One video shows Issy attacking caregivers at the residential facility where the Stapletons sent their daughter to learn how to control her aggression.

“I have to admit that I’m suffering from a severe case of battle fatigue,” Stapleton wrote in her final blog post at The Status Woe, following a heartbreaking meeting with school district officials that apparently triggered her near-fatal decision. Fortunately, both Kelli and Issy survived the murder-suicide attempt, but now Kelli sits in a jail cell, charged with attempted murder. She may never see her children again.

Both Kelly Thomas and Kelli Stapleton were matches that lit media firestorms, pitting police against citizens, peer advocates against parent advocates, parents against children. Both of these tragedies, highlight the moral complexities of dealing with mental illness. Did Officer Cucinelli act morally when he battered Kelly Thomas’s head repeatedly with a taser? Few people would agree that he did. Did Kelli Stapleton act morally when she decided to take her daughter’s life? Again, few people would say that murdering one’s child is moral.

But the truth with mental illness is that morality is never black and white because the paradigm of choice and consequence does not apply. Even the language we use to describe these “crimes” is confused and confusing. What both fascinates and repulses me, as a mother of a child with serious mental illness, is the remarkably similar rhetoric both victims and perpetrators use to tell their side of the story, invoking Nazism and hate crimes, of all things.

In the Kelly Thomas case, the two officers cited their training as their defense for murder — and the jury apparently bought that argument. Officer Ramos’s defense attorney actually said, “These peace officers were doing their jobs… they did what they were trained to do.” To many mental health advocates, this statement was a bit too close to Nuremburg for comfort.

In the Kelli Stapleton case, disability advocates also made Nazi comparisons, suggesting that the Michigan mom’s attempt to use carbon monoxide poisoning to kill herself and her daughter echoed the gas chambers. One blog commenter wrote, “She [Kelli] lured her [Issy] with s’mores and drugged her and gassed her like an unwanted stray dog.”

Autism advocate Ari Ne’eman of the Autism Self Advocacy Network wrote in a press release, “Kelli Stapleton tried to murder her daughter. We do not accept any excuses for the murders of nondisabled children; disabled children deserve this same basic social protection. When someone tries to kill us, the crime is not that we had the audacity to be disabled — it is that we were murdered by the people we trusted and relied on most.”

Another autism advocate, Zachary Lassiter, started an online petition to have Kelli Stapleton charged with a hate crime, collecting a mere 337 signatures. Similarly, in a call for justice for Kelly Thomas, one blogger urged the federal government to get involved: “There are no disposable people. Kelly Thomas was a human being. He had the right to life… Kelly Thomas’s murder was a HATE CRIME perpetuated because he was mentally ill and homeless.”

While autism advocates focus on Issy and castigate her mother, they conveniently fail to mention that children with autism have also killed their parents, as the tragic story of Kent State Professor Trudy Stuernagel and her son Sky illustrates. Before her death at her son’s hands, Trudy wrote a letter that has eerie resonance for many parents of children with mental illness, myself included: “If this letter has been opened and is being read, it is because I have been seriously injured or killed by my son, Sky Walker. I love Sky with my whole heart and soul and do not believe he has intentionally injured me. I have tried my best to get help for him and to end the pattern of violence that has developed in this home. I believe my best has not been good enough… We have all failed Sky.”

Trudy’s story echoes that of another single mother who was killed by a son with mental illness. Like Trudy, like Kelli, like me, Nancy Lanza felt isolated and afraid. She left her 20-year-old son Adam alone while she took a three-day vacation just before her death, a decision that added to the piles of blame shoveled on her after the Sandy Hook shootings.

In fact, a 1994 Department of Justice Report found that 25 percent of all children who killed their parents had a history of untreated mental illness. I have not found anything more recent to contradict this finding.

As for Kelly Thomas, what of the “training” defense the officers who took his life invoked? In fact, law enforcement officers must deal with the very real threat of violence from people with mental illness every single day. D.J. Jaffe of MentalIllnessPolicy.org has tracked 115 cases of law enforcement officers who were killed by people with untreated serious mental illness. Former New York State Police Commissioner Michael Biasotti surveyed law enforcement officers across the nation and found that they reported spending nearly 75 percent of their time on calls related to mental illness. Most reported that this element of policing had either increased or substantially increased over their careers.

So who is to blame for Kelly Thomas’ death? Who is to blame for Issy Stapleton’s fate? With deeply personal, psychological and historical ambiguities on all sides of these two tragedies, it’s well past time to move beyond blaming the victims and to put our broken system on trial for failing everyone — police officers, people with serious mental illness, parents, children and society. In the words of Trudy Stuernagel, Sky’s mother, we have all failed Kelly. And we have all failed Kelli.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • flan59

    Thank you for redirecting the focus on to the “system” itself. The focus of the system we have, if it can be called one, is on the behaviors of people with serious mental illness, rather than the neurobiology behind the illnesses themselves The system also fails to incorporate better methods to work with individuals who lack insight into their illness.

    The current system requires that a person be a danger to oneself or others before outside intervention can be initiated. Someone who lacks insight and is in a state of psychosis, may not behave in a dangerous manner, but the psychosis is needs to be treated. It is the real danger. The NIMH has data on the prolonged effects of psychosis on the brain’s cognitive functioning. It isn’t good.

    Since about half of all people with symptoms of serious psychosis also lack insight, numbering in the millions, they do not seek treatment and are doomed to delayed or lack of treatment…or what I call “dys-treatment”…where someone with a serious and persistent mental illnesss is allowed to cycle in and out of the ER, homelessness, jail and/or prison, in an almost persistent state of psychosis, even if some treatment has been sporatically provided. All for the sake of waiting until they become “dangerous” and to protect their civil liberties.

    We need a system of earlier, and more appropriate diagnosis, better treatments, and almost as importantly, better transitions from hospitals, jails, group homes, assisted living facilities and adult homes. Cognitive functionality, insight, and ability to perform daily life tasks need to be better assessed and used to verify readiness to be stepped down from a more to a less restrictive environment, in keeping with the Olmstead decision.

  • mitziflyte

    Once again, Liza Long, you’ve brought sensitivity and intelligence to a difficult. Let’s hope The Powers that see that. Mitzi Reinbold

  • Thomas Offal

    Kelli Stapleton had all of the help and support known to mankind:
    – 6+ month break from Issy, who was in a residential treatment facility
    – Medicaid waiver to cover the cost of 1:1 support for Issy, for all her waking hours (Kelli had already trained on Issy’s behavior plan)
    – weekend activities for Issy, who was more likely to be violent if not kept busy

    While Kelli was upset that a special education teacher had scuttled her plans to have Issy attend the regular high school out of what she insisted was spite — she never bothered to appeal the ruling or to consider that a kid violent enough to give her mom multiple concussions AND who required restraint on a regular basis at RTF might not be a suitable candidate for a “regular” school, even with a 1:1 paid for by Medicaid.

    Despite ALL this, Kelli tried to kill her girl within 36 hrs of discharge from RTF. All the support in the universe wasn’t enough to stop Kelli from trying to kill her girl. She deserves to rot in hell!

  • Thomas Offal

    Nancy Lanza should shoulder a huge chunk of the blame for her son Adam’s actions — she provided him with the means to commit mass murder! By that I mean a car, money for gas and bullets and access to her arsenal of legally obtained weapons.

    Nancy knew her son was unstable, had spent years enabling his instability by failing to get him medical treatment and letting him drop out of school, play video games and do absolutely nothing with his life.

    Adam Lanza would not have been able to independently acquire the funds necessary to buy guns/ammo or the car he needed to drive himself to Sandy Hook. Without his mommy, he likely wouldn’t have massacred people!

    Kelli Stapleton? Deserves to rot in hell. She had all the help in the world and tried to jell her daughter anyways. By “everything” I mean:
    – six month reprieve from Issy while she was at the residential treatment facility
    – Medicaid waiver to pay for 1:1 for all Issy’s waking hours

    • thinkitover

      Yes in 14 years she had a 6 month break. I am NOT advocating murder nor suggesting that Issy was a disposable human being, there is no such thing. But I am saying that my heart breaks for a woman who after having been beaten into the hospital 2 times and just plain beaten many, many times found herself in a no win situation. For the first time in years she had woken up each day knowing she would not be harmed, the fear that must have welled in her as she contemplated Issy’s return I can’t I can’t bear to imagine. Then she is handed another blow, Issy will be spending all day, every day at home with her favorite target, Kelly. The school is not to blame they likely had reached the end of their resources and just couldn’t keep Issy, the staff and other students safe if she attended. But if an school with several staff to deal with Issy’s issues couldn’t help her what chance did Kelly stand? The fact that it was her daughter who was abusing her doesn’t change the fact that she (and her other daughter, lest we forget) were abuse victims with all the mental unwellness that comes with that. We can’t be too self righteous as a nation when we provide little to no resources for people in these situations. Given the resources her family would likely have chosen a longer treatment period for Issy as the staff of the center told them she needed it, but insurance wouldn’t cover that. Public resources for the mentally ill are so short as to be practically non-existent; friends of ours were told there would be a 3 year wait to find a placement for their 6 foot 2 son who had beaten both his father and his mother several times. Their choices were put him on the street or wait 3 years and hope they didn’t get beaten into the hospital or to death. They had insurance and were willing to sell their home to provide for him but there were simply no placement spots available. If they had not had the funds and had to rely on public care the wait could have been up to 10 years. I repeat I do not advocate the choices Kelly made but I can see where fear, depression and a lack of any options could combine to make someone do something that would otherwise seem unthinkable. I feel for that whole family.

  • Karen Elizabeth Shinn

    Today is August 22, 2014 and I just came across this opinion. I must state that the writer’s continual stating that autism is a mental illness is extremely inaccurate. Autism, Asperger’s, ASD’s (Autism Spectrum Disorders) have moved finally, and correctly into the the world of neurology. There are psychological aspects of depression, anxiety, ocd, & ptsd that can accompany the developmental problem. And it is a neurological development problem (in utero) with genetic ties. I strongly suggest that Liza Long delve more into the study of autism that is current. As to why it is still in the DSM V at all, well, it should not be. Science has done much to prove autism to be of biological, developmental terrain which has accompanying psychological issues arising from environmental pressures that react against the developmental issues. And yes, I have Asperger’s and your misinformed opinion on what Autism is is detrimental to all of us (ASD’s and NT’s/neurotypicals).

    • Liza Long

      Thanks for sharing your opinion. I would encourage you to check out some of the latest research that shows that autism spectrum disorders are likely linked to the same genes as those that cause bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. These old classifications belong to early psychiatry. Bipolar and schizophrenia are also increasingly understood by the scientific community as neurological and developmental disorders. See this article for one example (there are many more): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3714010/

    • thinkitover

      I agree that autistic kids and adults have much to contribute to our world and deserve to be loved and given a chance to succeed but I have to say I don’t agree that the rages that come from overstimulation are not to be feared. I have been bitten, kicked had my hair pulled (not a little but a hank pulled out) when working in an educational setting with moderate to severely autistic kids, Kelly had been hospitalized twice by beatings inflicted by Issy in a rage. No one is suggesting that Issy is responsible for her actions at those times but that doesn’t make it any less frightening to be beaten that way, if anything it is more frightening. As I am sure you are aware there is a spectrum of autistic behaviors and while you are clearly high functioning not everyone is. For those dealing with severe autism parsing the DSM is pointless, the reality of life for these families is that violence happens for reasons that often they can’t predict or understand and they are in danger from their own loved ones.

  • Chandra Lewis

    First of all, Autism is not a mental illness. I didn’t develop a sensitivity for silence and the inability to understand all the nuances of social …stuff. I was born that way. It’s a developmental disorder/difference. And lack of services in the US is only half the issue.

    In the end, nothing will truly change until the new eugenics movement dies down. Kelly may have been overwhelmed (which I doubt, seeing as Issy just returned from a six month residential AND she had aides), but nothing excuses her trying to murder her kid.

    • thinkitover

      If someone beat you daily for years to the point of sending you to the hospital more than once and then went away for a few months and then you were told they were coming back, what would you do? In this case all the usual avenues were cut off because Issy wasn’t just someone, she was Kelly’s 13 year old daughter. So, no restraining order would be granted, refusing to let her in the house would be illegal and would have sent her to jail, there was no where else to send her, so what to do? When the school told Kelly that Issy could not attend meaning she would be home all day every day Kelly’s fear got the better of her. I am NOT agreeing with her choice but I do think the lack of resources is the whole story. Given an opportunity to have Issy in care longer as the trained staff said she needed to be I am sure her parents would have chosen to do so. If good options existed I believe this never would have happened.

      • Autist Artist

        Yes the services shouldn’t be nearly as much of a fight as it is to get, but services or no, this lady has no excuse. Murder is not an option. That is what this was, not self defense. Especially since Issy only really freaked out around her -that suggests the lady didn’t understand something basic as meltdown triggering. The aides and even the institution workers all had said they never had the problems that she had with Issy.

        Perhaps some training for parents of autists would be a good move. I mean the medical establishment just sorta hands you some papers and says, “if you need help, try Social Services,” and fly away into the night. A service where it’s teaching people to bridge the communication gap between NTs and Autists is a service I can get behind.

    • Guest

      If Autism isn’t a mental disorder, why is it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders section 299.00?

      • Chandra Lewis

        At first all they could do to identify it was by analyzing symptoms, and as many of them affect brain processes, it seemed fitting. However it is generally accepted now that autism gives physical differences in neural makeup and has vast genetic components. Take a look at the history of identifying autism and it makes more sense on why they put it thete

        Homosexuality was in the DSMV too, doesn’t mean it belongs there.

  • Alexis

    I too am a mother of a dual diagnosis male with bi polar and cognitive delays. I cannot begin to tell you the stress mentally daily and I do not believe that anyone who has not lived in it has no idea of the private hell mothers go through. Just to let everyone know including my son that mothers are not the blame for everything and we are not miracle workers. We love our children immensely and I would like this blame of mothers to stop. My son verbally abuses me a lot and its extremely emotionally draining and I think in the back of a mothers mind you do wonder if your son blames you and the world too will I end up dead by my son’s hands. If he killed me I would not blame him either because I know that he is severely ill. The answer is not to blame its to help and support the mother’s and the children just like people do when someone has cancer. When people have a family member with severe mental illness they are treated like they have the plaque and our isolated. If anyone had a medical condition they are surrounded by loved ones cared for and loved. It is so different for people with mental illness its like they are punished not embraced and stigmatized. The problem is everyone and until we all step up and change the way we view people with mental illness these tragedies will continue. I do believe parents do have a responsibility to try and help their children and not keep guns in the house. But, there are so many times that my son has needed help having an episode and sent home from the crisis unit totally unstable putting us all at risks. The government has laws in place that do not protect people, families, or the victims of mental illness. Its about time we all stand up and help not just place blame after the fact!!!!