Sometimes in life, you hear a story that just sticks to you. For me, the Danieal Kelly story is such a story. This story hasn’t garnered much national attention. I could go on one of my lefty-liberal rants and say that this story didn’t get attention because Danieal was not a white, blue-eyed-blonde child from a middle class family. Danieal was black, poor and had cerebral palsy. She was one of nine children from the same mother and to multiple fathers. Even without cerebral palsy, this child had slim chances of success. But with her deck stacked as it was, she was doomed.
Another reason I know this story sticks with me is that poor little Danieal died in August, 2006. That is the month that my first son was born. So I was at that moment in time that most moms experience-everything is new and wondrous and you’re just so full of love for your new child. And when you’re going through all of those strong positive emotions, it is very difficult to grapple with a story that has gone completely in the other direction.
For those of you not in Philly, Danieal Kelly was moved around to different households quite a bit. From mom to dad and back to mom with grandparents again and so on. In August 2006, she was found dead in her home. She had been starved to death. She had bedsores and maggots that went to the bone. Her own mother literally allowed her to starve to death and she was a rotting corpse before she was even dead. At her death she was 14 years old and 42 pounds-that’s what my 4 year old weighs right now. Her mother plead guilty to 3rd degree murder a few years ago. Just this week, three other individuals–father and two social workers, we also convicted on charges related to her death. The social service agency that was supposed to be checking in on her falsified reports, stating that they had visited the home when in fact they hadn’t been there. Had they done their jobs properly and visited the home, one would assume interventions would have taken place. Anyway, since the trial for those folks ended this week, it’s in the news again and fresh on my mind.
I have a child with special needs. I am a good mom. I know lots of other good moms too. Being a good mom is a skill, it’s not inherent (ask Casey Anthony…but I digress). Some women are born without maternal instincts. Or those maternal instincts are masked by things like mental illness and addiction. In nature, not every species has the instinct to protect all of their young, and to even more-protect those with special needs. In fact, in nature, some species allow the sick and the weak on their own, to die. It’s a survivalist technique-they are too much of a burden.
I’m not by any means excusing her mother’s behavior, really I’m not. I’ve read the grand jury report on this case and I couldn’t sleep for days afterwards. But on it’s most primal level, her behavior was a survivalist technique. Danieal was too much of a burden and in her mind this seemed like a viable option. Let’s be honest–what kind of support was she getting from the social service agencies, right? They weren’t helping. For years they had been neglecting her household and falsifying reports that they had been there. The city of Philadelphia and our state failed her too–they contracted out to an agency that had a history of kids dying under their supervision. Undereducated and overwhelmed, this was the option she chose.
My (non) religious beliefs aside, I really dislike when I hear comments like “your son is a gift from god” or “god doesn’t give you more than you can handle” or “K got you as a mom because god knew you’d be a great mom at this” and so on. (My favorite retort by the way, comes from this dad, who says “if my severely handicapped son is a gift, then god needs to read Emily Post.”)
So what does this mean then, that god really disliked Danieal Kelly? Or the Yates children? No, what it means is that sometimes people are given more than they can handle. Lots of times. And that just because one set of parents is really able to do this well, it doesn’t mean that all parents can, nor can all parents be expected to. Just this week, I visited an APS as a possible placement for my son. I was very surprised to learn that 2/3 of their population of students is residential. For one brief moment, I thought “oh dear, I just couldn’t live without my little K at home.” Then I realized–those parents want their kids at home too. More than anything. But they can’t handle it. And thankfully for those children, they are in a residential center. If Danieal was in a residential facility, my guess is that she would be alive today. We’ve tried to swing sooooo far away from the 1950s mentality of “institutionalizing” children with special needs, that we forget that sometimes it is appropriate. Some parents just can’t do it and don’t have the support system in place and residential care is the child’s best option. As I’ve been told by my instructor–always stay child focused, and the correct answers will appear.
Some of the lessons and takeaways we need to learn from this–we say it all the time, but don’t judge. We don’t know what is going on behind people’s closed doors and we don’t know what people can handle. If they’ve asked for help, we need to help without judging. We need to stop being afraid of tattling or whistleblowing. This case could have been prevented 100 different ways, so many different agencies failed her. But no one wanted to blow the whistle on anyone else, so they just kept their heads down and just kept pushing papers. And children died.
And we all need to take a moment of introspection, and ask ourselves-Can I handle this? Have I been given more than I can handle? Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, and in the special needs community there are sytems in place to help us. Take advantage of them. Toss away the stigmas of ‘medicaid’ and ‘behavior health assistance’ and get the help you are entitled to. Stop worrying about adding labels to your child with some diagnoses, especially if it will open more doors to them for services.
With all of our decisions, we need to stay child focused–and then the answers often become crystal clear.