A Family's Breakdown

The kindest explanation was that somebody snapped. The emotional burden of caring for a severely disabled child became too great, and after years of struggling with their son's handicaps, Dawn and Richard Kelso were suddenly unable to cope. But whatever their story may be, the Kelsos last week made what police say was a sadly inept attempt to abandon their son, Steven, 10.

The Kelsos drove the boy to the Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Dela., authorities say. There, Dawn Kelso took Steven into the lobby. She told a staffer her son should be admitted and, when the aide went to find a doctor, Kelso and her husband allegedly disappeared. Police said she left food, clothing, some of Steven's toys--and a note stating that "she could no longer care for her child."

What turned the story into front-page news was the fact that the Kelsos were well-off--and advocates for disabled children. Richard Kelso, 62, is CEO of PQ Corp., a chemical manufacturer in Valley Forge, Pa. Dawn Kelso, 45, is a member of the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council, which advises the state government on services for the disabled. The Kelsos live in Exton, Pa., an upscale suburb of Philadelphia, and in addition to the van they used to transport Steven and his wheelchair, they own a pair of BMWs. "It's clearly not a matter of money," said a police spokesman.

Delaware authorities took a conspicuously hard line when the Kelsos surrendered voluntarily the next day. They were charged with abandoning a child and conspiracy, both misdemeanors, and jailed overnight. Both pleaded not guilty and were freed on bond; if convicted, they could get up to two years in prison and $4,600 in fines. Steven, who has cerebral palsy and is subject to seizures, remained at the hospital pending a custody hearing.

Instantly transformed into symbols of parental neglect, the Kelsos went into seclusion last week. But those who knew the couple said they bore little or no resemblance to the tabloid image, and that until now they had seemed devoted to Steven's welfare. A neighbor, Pat Mastricola, said Steven had round-the-clock nursing care and that the Kelsos "didn't seem to do anything besides taking care of him." Susanmarie Trout of Philadelphia, who knows Dawn Kelso, said the couple "really loved that child, and they have been through so much. Before we judge them, it's important to know what happened."

Glover Crouch, Dawn Kelso's uncle, said the arrangements for Steven's nursing care had broken down over the Christmas holidays, and that his parents had been sleeping in shifts to tend him. "Cerebral palsy" is a term for a wide spectrum of prenatal or neonatal brain injuries, and its consequences can range from relatively mild impairment to very serious physical and mental disabilities. Steven Kelso is reportedly unable to walk, speak or feed himself. He wears diapers, needs a ventilator to breathe and can have dozens of seizures a day. Crouch suggested the family was under stress. "Nobody does anything like that when they're rational," he told The Washington Post.

What happens now will be decided by the courts. "This is a very sad situation, and I feel very badly for the little boy," said Lilliam Rangel-Diaz of Miami, a member of the National Council on Disability. "You cannot give up on your child." With time to reflect, Steven's parents may choose not to give up after all.