Should We Feel Empathy for a Mother Whose Neglect Killed Her Baby?
by Kristance Harlow
In August, 62-year-old Kathleen Steele was arrested for the death of her infant child, who was killed by the hands of Steele’s 6-year-old son. Steele left her three children in the car, aged 13 days, 3 years and 6 years. According to reports, Steele left her kids in a parked car with the windows up and the doors locked. While Steele was away, the baby girl began to cry. The 6-year-old told police that the crying made him mad. So he grabbed his sister from her car seat and proceeded to throw her around the vehicle, ultimately killing her.
This case has three victims: the children. The youngest lost her life when it had only just begun. The 3-year-old has had his family ripped apart. The 6-year-old faces an incredibly difficult road to overcome the grief, trauma and shame of what he did at such a young age. A psychiatrist told the Tampa Bay Times that his future will hinge on “how stable a support system the boy will receive in the future.”
On the surface, this tragedy appears to be a straightforward case of parental neglect. Anecdotes by neighbors paint a picture of a neglectful mother and a jealous son with aggression issues.
“By numerous witness accounts, Kathleen Steele was an inattentive parent and [the boys] were largely unsupervised and had very serious behavior issues,” Florida Sheriff Gualtieri said. Much of the conversation in the media has been about how she “left her children alone.” Commenters on social media have said things like, “The mother should be skinned alive for leaving those kids alone.”
The moral argument for never leaving children unattended is common. “It’s a different world” is a cliché echoed by proponents of increased parental oversight. Parents fear their children will be abducted, choke on something or maybe one of them will turn on the stove and burn the house down. How do we determine what actual danger a child is in versus the imagined danger? In Steele’s case, the danger was her own son. All of the neighbors reportedly blame the mother for being an absentee parent who provided no supervision. It was not a shock to them that Steele left her children alone.
Public outrage aimed at Steele feels natural. It is easy for most people to agree that she should never have left her children alone in that car. The harder question to ask ourselves is whether she deserves, or at least deserved, empathy. Did a lack of empathy for single mothers play a role in the death of her child?
A recent report by NPR found, “moral attitudes toward parenting have changed, such that leaving children unsupervised is now judged morally wrong. And because it’s judged morally wrong, people overestimate the risk.” The perceived morality of a parent also affects perceived risk. All of these moral judgments and misconceptions are making their way into criminal law, but it is unclear if it is actually protecting children or just casting moral judgments on parents.
Steele and her husband had their first child via in-vitro fertilization when she was 55 years old and he was in his 60s. Their journey was documented on an episode of the reality series I’m Pregnant and… The couple were, by multiple accounts, ecstatic to be having a child. They were financially well-off and aware of the taboo they were breaking by becoming older parents.
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It is unusual for a doctor to provide in-vitro fertilization for a woman over the age of 55, but it happens. The ethics of IVF are complicated and hotly debated. Most of the conversation in the medical community focuses on the physical health of the mother and child. While the Ethics Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine says a doctor can withhold IVF treatment if they have reason to believe the child cannot be cared for by the parent(s), there are no federal laws regarding IVF for older parents.
After the birth of their first child, Steele’s husband developed cancer and passed away in 2011. Steele became a widow and a single mother. Using the frozen sperm of her deceased husband, she had two more children. Steele, a former financial planner, filed for bankruptcy in 2014. Steele’s home suffered a small fire days before she gave birth to her daughter in 2016. Only three days after giving birth, the family was staying at a hotel because of the fire and a fire alarm went off there. Subsequently, the newborn fell down a flight of stairs while strapped in a car carrier as Steele tripped while ushering her children out of the building.
Sheriff Gualtieri told reporters that “Steele…want[ed] to have another baby boy. Something is seriously messed up with that.” Neighbors said the big brother was not happy with the new addition; he didn’t want another sibling. One parent told reporters that the 6-year-old was “the terror of the town.” Other parents said they wouldn’t allow their children to play with him because “he couldn’t control himself.” The more children she had, the more estranged she became from those around her.
Women who become widows during middle age have significantly more difficulty managing their mental health than women who were married or women who had been widowed for a longer period of time. The American Psychological Association explains that social support is vital for widows to learn how to cope. Steele was apparently at odds with her family, who reportedly did not agree with her decision to have more children.
Financially, there is some support for widows and widowers available through Social Security. Benefits are determined based on the deceased spouse’s past income. Benefits, for abled folks, can be doled out at a reduced amount beginning at age 60. Full benefits are available at the age of retirement. There are additional benefits available for every child living at home. Aside from limited financial support, there is little to no additional support during or after the loss of a spouse. However, research shows bereaved spouses often need psychological care and extra emotional support.
As the details emerge, it appears that Steele was more than just a careless mother with a “seriously messed up” life plan. When her life went off the rails, her children crashed with her. Why was Steele in a hotel, seemingly alone, caring for three young children only days after giving birth? There are so many questions we may never have the answers to, but when we isolate parents who we judge to have moral failings, children are the ones who suffer during times of hardship. It is hard to feel empathy for a woman whose actions may have directly caused the death of her two-week-old infant, but perhaps the hardest thing is exactly what needs to be done.
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