Mother Murders Autistic Daughter By Drowning Her in a River

Mother Murders Autistic Daughter By Drowning Her in a River August 3, 2018


Today I stumbled on a news story that hit very close to home. The Tampa Bay Times reported that Shakayla Denson drowned her 4-year-old daughter in a river. Several reports have suggested the little girl,  Je’Hyrah Daniels had autism. Authorities located a GoFundMe set up by the mother last fall. On the GoFundMe page, the mother requested money to help pay for therapy and equipment following her daughter’s diagnosis of autism. Too often I read of stories of children with autism eloping and drowning. However, a story of a parent forcefully drowning a child in public is rare.

According to the witnesses, they saw the Shakayla forcefully remove the little girl from the car. The little girl was screaming and crying. Witnesses then watched the mother drag her daughter to the river. Shakayla picked up her daughter and walked into the river. At this point, the witnesses say Shakayla began to scream. She walked out into the river until it reached her shoulders, and she let go of her daughter.

Witnesses watched the mother turn around and walk out of the water. They said they saw the little girls head and hands rise above the water and then disappear. Police detained the mother about a 1/2 mile from where she parked her car.

After Shakayla was detained, investigators learned she had stolen the Nissan Altima found at the scene earlier that afternoon. A witness watched Shakayla push her daughter into the back seat of the car. The witness attempted to stop her from stealing the call. However, the mother struck the witness with the car and drove off. Thankfully, the witness did not get injured.

Authorities charged Shakayla with First Degree Murder, aggravated child abuse, and grand theft auto. Authorities were unable to provide any details about the mental health of the mother.

Investigators did share that CPS previously opened a case on the mother for failure to supervise her child adequately. However, the case had been closed July 31, 2018, with no finding of maltreatment.

What shocks me the most about this story is the callousness of the mother. She took a screaming, scared little girl by the arm into a river. I cannot imagine how terrified the little girl must have been. If Je’Hyrah did have autism, the entire sensory experience could have been more than she could handle.

My thoughts are running wild trying to imagine under what circumstance a mother could do this to a child.  Parenting a child with a disability poses challenges and increased stress. These stresses can impact the overall well-being and mental health of the caregiver. Once the caregiver reaches burn-out, there is an increased likelihood of violence.

The descriptions given by witnesses highlight a mother in distress.  We don’t know the full details of the motive behind the killing. Hopefully, authorities will uncover why the mother did this to her child. She’s facing a lengthy prison term if found guilty. Florida is a death penalty state, but there has been no word if prosecutors will seek the death penalty.

If you are a caregiver of a child with a disability and are feeling burnt out, please seek professional help. The Centers for Disease control recommends caregivers:


  • Be realistic about what your child can and cannot do.
  • If you are frustrated, give yourself a time-out to calm down and refocus!
  • Ask people who you trust to help you.
  • Focus on the positive.
  • Make time for yourself.
  • Talk to a healthcare professional like your doctor or a therapist if you don’t know how to handle your child’s behavior.

If you have concerns that a child is being abused or neglected, please make sure to call the Childhelp National Abuse Helpline at (800) 4-A-Child.

As I learn more details about the story, I will post updates.

Stay Tuned.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Raging Bee

    Lots of witnesses saw every step of what happened, but none of them tried to stop it?

  • I know!

  • Anonyme

    That’s what I was thinking!!!!

  • raven

    My thought as well.
    Why didn’t someone else go wade out into the river and rescue the little girl?

  • Jim Jones

    Robert Latimer – Wikipedia

    Robert William “Bob” Latimer (born March 13, 1953) is a Canadian canola and wheat farmer who was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of his daughter Tracy.

  • Occam

    They watched?

  • Lucy

    It’s sad how, when autistic kids get murdered by parents, the murder is blamed entirely on the parents’ stress and in to many cases, the parents get a light sentence and we hear about how the autistic kid was such a burden they had to murder the kid, which is never the case in any of the situations these kids are in. Because yes, parenting a kid with severe disabilities is stressful, but generally most parents who love their kid would not dream of murdering them. And when we as autistic people hear how parents of neurotypical kids get in trouble for murdering them but they don’t get in trouble for murdering autistic kids, we hear that basically our lives don’t have value. And this is not helped by researchers (not just parents) emphasizing what a burden we are and how we are better off dead than autistic (said in multiple ways, including by some of the main means of “helping” autistics being to change them so they appear normal – everything down to harmless mannerisms), nor by antivaxxers who fear to vaccinate their kid against deadly diseases because “oh no, what if the kid is autistic?”. So while yes, parents do need support and should seek it when they are upset, they also should not receive condonement (or even only wishy-washy condemnation) for murdering their kid, because no matter how stressed you are, flat-out murdering your kid in cold blood is not okay. And it’s not as if these parents can plead “apocalyptic situation” either – I don’t see any apocalypses anywhere on the horizon. And furthermore, a lot of the sorts of parents who do murder their autistic kids turn out to be self-absorbed or utterly abusive in other ways, like in this case ( ) where parents planned to murder their kid and his autism “miraculously” disappeared shortly after and they blamed it on a “cerebral milk allergy”. Except, that isn’t a real ailment, and if the kid was capable of hiding his autism (which in all likelihood he did) surely he overheard his parents talking as if he wasn’t there about how if his autism didn’t go away they just might have to kill him, and then he hid his autism because his very life depended on it, which is a terrifying way to have to live your life. And, there are also child-murdering parents who don’t seek out what little services are available before murdering the kid. So those parents can’t exactly honestly claim “no services” as a reason not to murder their kid.

    So what I’m saying is, yes, I understand you feeling sympathy for the parents, seeing as how you are one, but please, please be careful not to take a seemingly moderate stance on child murder, because people can use that to effectively condone murdering more autistic kids. And too many disabled kids already have been murdered – so many, in fact that there is a Disability Day of Mourning to commemorate the disabled lives that had been lost at the hands of parents. And as far as parental stress causing violence, please consider that perhaps the reason this sort of stress is associated so much with that sort of cold-blooded violence, is partly because the researchers who study this sort of phenomenon are themselves prejudiced against disabled people and essentially regard disabled people as being on a level with lab animals, and so they would overlook factors like those parents being abusive in other ways that are not themselves caused by parental stress, factors which would suggest that no, parental stress and burnout alone does not cause parents to have homicidal thoughts about their kid or act on them, but if it is a factor, it might be a combination of parental stress and pre-existing abusive behavior that leads parents to murder their kids. In other words, if that is the case, it’s a case of abuse becoming worse because the parents are stressed by other things, not non-abusive parents suddenly turning abusive and homicidal towards their kids.

  • I’m not at all condoning this!!! All I shared was that stress increases violence. This mother should get the harsher penalty possible. Under no circumstance am I giving her sympathy at all!

  • Yes. The witness accounts given to the media are horrifying. The thought that they watched and did nothing is appalling to me.

  • The only witness that intervened was when the mother stole the car. After that – those at the river only watched.

  • Occam

    Appalling falls well short of how I feel about these people.

  • Lucy

    Don’t worry about it. I can tell you don’t actually condone this. I just wanted to clarify what else is bad about this, because in some circles people really do talk up the stress in a similar way to your article – then go on to say something like “I don’t condone the killing of kids, but please, think of how stressed the parent must be! They simply had to kill their kid!!”. Which is really just condoning murder with an exit clause attached. And I’m glad to see you didn’t do that.

    And I also thought I’d add the bit about how the murders might be because the parent is abusive, because abusers who are under greater stress are in fact more likely to escalate their abuse – we see this all the time in cases of abuse where it turns out the abuser had other issues, whether it was something like poverty, mental illness, or simply an increased desperation to uphold a squeaky-clean image. But, that doesn’t mean non-abusive people will turn to murdering their kids, and if said non-abusive people do take something too far as a result of parental stress (as my own parents have), they can and will take responsibility for it later, and won’t double down on the abusive behavior or plan their child’s demise. Whereas abusive people will do stuff like that. And you don’t sound to me like one of those people, you sound like a mom who is in fact trying their best. And I can see from your reply to me that you are not in the camp of people who condone this sort of thing. I just thought it was important that that be made clear because there’s a lot of toxicity within support communities of which a major part is this supporting of murder, and I don’t want others who see this to think you agree with that.

    That said, I think it’s good that you are out there providing a non-toxic parental voice for this sort of thing – the more people out there, be they the disabled kids themselves or the parents of those kids, who come out against this toxicity, the better. And there really aren’t a lot of parental voices like that out there (or else the ones that are are on obscure little websites so not always easy to find, or else positioned in a way that seems radical because treating autistic and other disabled people like human beings is all too often considered radical), and those are needed because parents don’t always see eye-to-eye with the kids and are sometimes discouraged from listening to autistic people, or else they run up mostly against autistic people who are justifiably angry about their toxic and abusive upbringings and are likely to snap, as many abuse survivors do, and then they run towards the toxic communities, which are one great big circlejerk and create only more toxicity. And if enough non-toxic parents come out, then it will be that much harder for the toxic Autism Parents and other such people to dominate that conversation and create hell and greater marginalization for autistic people and bad influences on other parents (or professionals, though that’s a whole nother battle). So please, keep up the good work, keep listening to our perspectives, and keep on being a non-abusive parent towards your son. And I hope you find more support from other non-toxic parents, too.

  • Thank you! I will always LISTEN to you and all people with autism. I am also Neuro-diverse – so it would be terrible of me not to consider the views of adult autistics. My ADHD was treated terribly as a child – I heard awful things from all kinds of people about my behavior. I agree that non-violent people will not turn violent under stress. I’ve been under crazy stress for years – the last year the worst. My son had 3 brain surgeries and he has open heart surgery in 3 weeks. At no point in that time did I ever lay a finger on him. Instead, he’s been loved, hugged, and cuddled like crazy. We remind him every day that he’s smart, capable and good.

    I wrote a piece this week about the toxicity of Special Needs Proms and I was the DEVIL in SN circles. But I don’t care. I told all the parents until they realize their attitude is part of the problem – nothing will change.

    I was brought on at Patheos because they had only a few parenting voices and NONE that represented the disability community. My editor encouraged me to branch out but to stay true to myself. So I now write about advocacy topics vs my journey. I try to litter in ways to help mothers as well. But I will no longer have any content on here that is demeaning to any child with a disability.

    You are my ally and we are on the same team!

  • Raging Bee

    The descriptions given by witnesses highlight a mother in distress.

    And the lack of any action by any of those witnesses highlights a COMMUNITY in distress.

  • Agreed!

  • Catherine Peterson

    A portion parents of autistic children are undiagnosed high-functioning autism. My son’s father was. He loves his son but sensory-wise, he could not cope with all the screaming our autistic son does, it was impossible for him to effectively parent We divorced and they get along great on Skype where either one can hangup the call if a meltdown starts.

  • Catherine Peterson

    I doubt anyone was within arm’s length or could have imagined what quickly unfolded.

  • Absolutely. I have ADHD and struggle with many sensory issues. Coping is so important so you don’t lash out. Same with having proper medication and cognitive therapy to learn coping strategies

  • Catherine Peterson

    Not all families of special needs kids have support systems outfitted to cope with the multifaceted strains on parents, especially a single parent. It’s not just the behavior and safety challenges. There is a significant cumulative impact on opportunities, finances, work and even housing. The social isolation is cumulative because many people must decline invitations (or aren’t invited). And of course, while their are services for the diagnosed autistic child, an underinsured parent might not have access to adequate mental health care. Assuming they are even aware they are suffering burnout .

    Abusers are abusers but the public health statistics (outside of the high-stress special needs parenting world) show there are risk zones. These bear out the fact that increased caregiver stress financially, socially, etc, increase the incidence of child abuse.

  • Right. I understand all of that as a parent of a child with autism – and that is medically fragile. The isolation can be brutal. I’d never hurt my child though. ever

  • Catherine Peterson

    My point is that we can’t make false equivalencies. I have very little information about the case in this news story. Perhaps the mother is a monster, perhaps she had psychosis, perhaps she is an addict, perhaps she couldn’t afford her psych meds. Maybe she had wonderful supportive family, a great partner and excellent health care. Maybe not.
    I think about the 2001 case of Andrea Yates who drowned her 5 healthy children while affected by postpartum psychosis. She isnt eligible for parole until 2041. I suppose she is a danger to herself and others, but that skirts the mental health questions. In this particular case if the action were truly premeditated, it certainly wouldn’t need to be so dramatic and public.

    My point had to with a public health viewpoint. False equivalencies where educated parents, supportive families with access to quality mental health services are held up as comparable to situations where that is not the case.
    “I would never..” is an interesting term because never is a mighty long time . Pretty sure on the morning of 9/11, the traders who jumped from the World Trade Center rather than be caught in the inferno imagined the would never do that .
    You, yourself mentioned those qualifiers to your “I would never..” On a policy level, as a prevention in the community at large those qualifiers matter.
    As a mother with a child with a few medical conditions, one life-threatening, the autism is almost a side issue. Except during a meltdown, then it’s center stage. Most of the time I find it laughable the number of parents of healthy children who think they can draw a false equivalency from their situation to my own. Nevertheless many of those type of people are encouraged by an attorney general who find that special education students in public schools are irritating. Addressing questions like these without confirmation bias might be challenging. But I challenge myself to do so, for my son and other children like him .

  • I’m not comparing her – I highlighted my own experience. My primary question and concern – is what IF she would have had more support and better services. Perhaps the little girl would not be dead.

  • Lucy

    I know you wouldn’t. Not intentionally. And I know that you would not murder your kid. And I also would like to add that if a parent does do something serious to their kid out of stress, without meaning to? That parent does not make excuses, nor do they go through with murdering a child in a slow, drawn-out way, as too many of these parents who murder their children do (and believe me, some of these methods are really really torturous, with one of the worst displays being a mom who tried to kill her kid with a bow saw at least twice and didn’t even get arrested, at least the first time). No. Parents who hurt their kids out of stress alone tend to feel remorse, and they tend to back off the moment it hits them what they did. That happened to my dad once. He did hurt me, in a way that I will not detail here out of respect for his privacy, because he feared for me while I was having a meltdown (at a time when I was having meltdowns over an hour long practically daily for days on end as a result of stress from teacher abuse I hadn’t told him about), and that way was serious enough that apparently I told him I didn’t think I could live with him anymore (and I believe it even though I’d blocked out the memory). And you know what his long-term response was? He never forgave himself for that. And even if a parent who did do something like that did at least forgive themselves, they still wouldn’t chalk it up to stress, and they would still acknowledge that what they did was wrong, still take responsibility for hurting their kid, still would not go so far as to carry it all the way to the final end for a kid that takes minutes to reach, and they would not, as too many of these toxic parents do, actually murder their kid, let alone chalk up the murder to lack of services (so even if you did find that you hurt your kid out of stress, your response to it would be less like these parents who go through with flat-out murdering their kids and more like my dad, who realized what he did was wrong). And if a parent like that did kill their kid by accident, the kid in question would likely be very young or otherwise vulnerable in a way that makes it easy to kill a child within seconds, before the parent has time to realize what they did. And in exactly none of the cases I’ve heard of have the parents done anything that could kill a child before they had a chance to realize what was happening and stop it before it ended in death – they used methods that could only imply a desire to hurt the kid much of the time (like the aforementioned bow saw, driving off a cliff, or even gassing a kid) or else they used a method that would not necessarily be deadly and would give them a way to back out and time to realize what they did – and they didn’t back out, didn’t recoil in shock, didn’t cease whatever they were doing to hurt the kid while the kid was still alive. They chose to continue the hurt until the child was dead. And that is why what they did was murder, and should be treated accordingly, same as if they murdered any other kid, because parents, even ones who end up hurting their kid for whatever reason, should realize they are hurting the kid eventually and back off well before the child is dead (which, again, is doable in all the cases of autistic child murder I’ve heard of). And they should not justify what they did, even if it is stress. Because in cases where a parent’s stress does lead a parent to hurt a kid before they realize what they’re doing, they should still take responsibility for the damage they did and not continue into murder. And they should never hurt the child on purpose, ever. Any more than a parent should leave a kid in a car on purpose, which is a thing that is done by accident, and can be a devastating thing for a parent to realize they did, but on purpose – not okay. Not one bit. Because doing that on purpose, as in planning for it (even if the plan occurs within the span of minutes, since that still allows one to back out) is a sign that the problem isn’t just stress, it’s someone exhibiting active animosity towards their child. Because even if parents who aren’t abusive might hurt their kid out of stress, they would still stand well clear of knowingly torturing or murdering their kid – one who murders or knowingly* tortures their child is well over the line into abusive behavior.

    *knowingly meaning the caregiver is well aware the method they use causes extreme pain and does it anyway, as a rule with methods that would hurt anyone, as opposed to a caregiver subjecting a person to a sensory stimulus that causes extreme pain to the person when they don’t know the person is being caused that pain, which has the same impact on the person as torture but is very easy to do without realizing, and for which the best solution is to treat it like an allergy and try to remove that stimulus altogether and replace it with substitutes when necessary.

  • There is speculation she was experiencing psychosis. What would your thoughts be on that?

  • Lucy

    My thoughts would be that the system should ensure she gets treatment, and that she should not have custody of the kids because she isn’t competent to care for them. Which is pretty much what people usually decide when one’s mental health leads them to kill kids, regardless of whether or not they have special needs. And I wouldn’t condemn someone who does this as a result of a delusion the way I would someone who didn’t have one, because in that case it isn’t just stress, it’s that they are not all there and have clearly shown they cannot care for the child because their mind will not allow it. Which is why you take any remaining kids out of the custody of such a parent and get them into treatment. And yes, the treatment for mental health is broken in many places, but that’s a whole other battle, which should be fought but cannot be fought and won in time to keep children safe from a parent whose delusions make them unable to care for the kid. The important thing is to get the kids away from the mom so she cannot endanger them again, and don’t force the to visit or reconcile with her, either, and if that means getting the parent into treatment ASAP, so be it. Because in this case there isn’t time to wait for society to be more accepting of people with mental illness – the kids need to be safe more than the parent needs to be allowed to act on their delusions around the kid, and that’s happening right now.

    And in the larger picture, if people who have various conditions were more widely accepted from childhood as people, we’d have a climate in which mental illness is less likely to cause people to do stuff like this, because the sorts of cultural influences that shape delusions into a certain form show up in childhood. And if neurodivergent people of all types were accepted as human beings rather than objects of pity or prejudice from the get-go, in a society in which they can find support, it would help both the children and the parents greatly – the kids would have more self-esteem and self-respect, and the parents would have better resources to help their kids with, ones that are helpful rather than hurtful to the child, and once the child grows up, they would not cease to be seen by the system and would still find acceptance and basic dignity as people, conditions and all. Which hopefully will end up happening in the long run.
    But of course that means not doing what we do now, giving little support overall but with the parents still getting the lion’s share of what little support there is while the non-parents of neurdivergent groups are left with mostly their own communities and basically no official respect and where any self-reported consequences of their conditions are basically nonexistent in official research. Rather, we as a society should be giving more support to everyone, parents and neurodivergent people who are not parents alike, with each type of voice being treated as of equal importance and not dismissed for not following a script. And scientific institutions should be willing to take the perspectives of people with those conditions seriously, not, as all but a few researchers do now, just the perspectives of the parents and professionals, since scientific support of those things would make it easier to get support for them and help, help that takes the perspective of those with the condition into account.

  • Sarah Bailiff

    Eloping means running off TO get married, not just running off, just fyi. unless youre saying you hear lots of stories about autistic people running off to get married and then drowning, it doesnt make sense.