A recent post by a mother with a challenging child has created quite a stir on both sides of the most recent gun control debate. These events are horrifying, and after every one this debate reawakens and becomes an inferno. Interestingly, I watched people firmly plant their feet on opposite sides. Some saw her situation as an accurate commentary on the state of mental health in the US while others saw her as a tyrannical parent who clearly didn’t understand her child’s very understandable rage at being forced to do things he simply didn’t want to, like wear pants of a different color.
I read Ms. Long’s story with interest, and watched the ensuing debates, because I, too, have been in similar shoes.
C. was a very engaging, playful, endearing 9-year-old foster child when I first him. Over the next few months, we would have frequent visits as he prepared to move into my home. Like any other child he tested the boundaries regularly as he assessed things and adapted to his new surroundings.
After spending time with him, it was easy to get to know the warning signs of an impending explosion: His hazel eyes would go from green to dark brown, his body language would become more rigid, his voice would get a bit of an edge to it. If you responded with a redirection right away, you could avert an “incident.” It got to the point where I could feel the energy shift in the air and successfully interrupt a building process.
He was never a child that responded to “sweet talk.” When working with him he needed minimal choices (no more than 2), you had to stick to those options no matter what, and you had to speak firmly. You didn’t have to be mean, just firm. If you responded to a situation from a personal standpoint, that worked nicely: “I need you to . . . ,” “I feel bad when . . . ”
As much as you want to give a child free reign, it was just too much for C. He needed firm, clear, and narrow boundaries or else it felt too overwhelming for him. While he was never an “easy” child, as long as you knew how to work with him things weren’t too difficult.
Until he was 10.
Then, school became more of a challenge. The environment was a bit oppressive, however. I fought the school district hard. After he was suspended for holding a sharp object to a fellow student’s face and threatening to stab her in the eye, because she had said hello to the teacher when he was talking to her, I brought in a special education advocate. Things got to the point where I issued them a letter detailing every part of the IDEA they had violated and informed them I was prepared to take this to court as well as the media. Suddenly, I was invited to a private meeting with part of the upper echelon.
C was moved to a new school with a principal who understood children with behavior challenges. They were absolutely phenomenal, and things began to calm down. I breathed a sigh of relief, but at the same time I was noticing changes. The time from an “energy shift” to action was becoming increasingly smaller. Once his eyes changed color, it was over. You no longer had a few-second warning. He could go from laughing and having fun to throwing things in less than a second.
I felt like I was failing him. Obviously, I was doing something wrong as a parent. Somehow whatever I had been doing over the last year was no longer working. I consulted with experts. I went back into therapy for myself. A therapist came into the home to interact with us.
“It isn’t you, Talon,” she told me as she watched him move into a complete meltdown. When his behavior moved to property destruction, she told me to call 911. When the police arrived, they chatted with him, and everyone agreed he would be placed on a psychiatric hold and taken to the emergency room for an evaluation.
In the ER, he calmed down and returned to being playful, witty, and charming. I was told there was no problem. The therapist who had witnessed this all assured them they were quite wrong. She was ignored. I was to take him home and “just call 911 every time he does this.”
I was feeling myself get more and more taxed by his behaviors. I quit my job as a hospice chaplain so I could work from home. This allowed me time to decompress when he wasn’t home. I figured this would better equip me to do a better job at parenting.
His behaviors continued to deteriorate, though. Since the behavioral health organization, who controls the funding of his mental health care, refused to do anything else, I had a meeting with the Department of Children Services (since he had been a foster child when he was adopted) to tap into other resources. They had none. The only way I could get increased services through them was to give them temporary custody, which I was not willing to do. He may have been adopted, but he was my child.
Kitchen knives began disappearing from my home. After he started a small outdoor fire, I locked up anything that could start a fire. I increased my pleas for help. He broke into a neighbor’s home, stole their Airsoft BB gun, and shot a 5-year-old with it “accidentally.” When he showed absolutely no remorse, which wasn’t uncommon for him, I urged the victims to press charges hoping this would help. They wouldn’t.
I took him to the police station and let an officer speak with him about what could’ve happened. The officer explained that he was old enough to go to “child jail” and that he had committed a serious felony. My blood chilled when I saw my son shrug and ask “Well, what’s it like?” The tone in his voice was clear. This wasn’t an “Ohmigosh, how scary! What’s it like?” question. This was “I don’t give a shit.”
On the way home, I decided to ask him point blank: “Do you think what you did was wrong? I need you to answer honestly. There will be no consequences for how you answer.”
“He annoyed me. He deserved it,” he responded frankly.
A team of therapists were brought in to try to help us, especially focusing on my response to his behaviors because, as we all know, it had to be my parenting that was making things worse. They were stumped. “Talon, this isn’t you,” I was told again.
A few days later I discovered him chasing some of the neighbor children with a large butcher knife threatening to stab and kill them “because they made me mad.” I locked up all sharp objects.
I began spending almost 7 hours a day on the phone calling different resources, his mental health providers, the county, whatever agencies I could discover, etc. I wept over the phone as I was told repeatedly there was nothing more they would do. After saying: “This child is going to hurt someone, and when he does, I’m going to the media and naming names,” I was requested to bring him in for an emergency assessment.
The psychologist interviewed him for a while. “He needs to be admitted, but he knows the right answers to the right questions, and there’s no way I’ll be able to get it approved [for insurance payment].” He was right. The people holding the pursestrings said no, just call 911. The home therapist said “Next time, don’t even speak to him. Don’t engage him at all. Just call 911.”
Just call 911. Yeah, because that’s been so helpful.
It wouldn’t take much more time before the next call had to be made. After locking his little brother out on the balcony, he was given a timeout (something that usually was very effective for him). He exploded. His eyes changed color, his stance became extremely rigid, and the first object went flying.
As I had been instructed to do, I simply walked away. I went into my office and dialed 911. As I was talking to them, the door flew open and he attacked me, trying to swat the phone out of my hand. “My son is attacking me. I am going to place him into a gentle hold. I now have him prone on the floor and am applying my weight to his back to hold him down to protect myself. Please hurry!”
The 911 operator’s voice was tinged with emotion as she heard him screaming and swearing at me.
He said vile things to me, things he believed would hurt me. I understood that was his anger, and I ignored him. I followed instructions and did not engage him. Instead I called a friend, “I’m waiting for the police to get here. Please just talk to me. Yes, that’s C.”
“I just want to stab you in the back and chop you into little pieces!” C suddenly blurted. Luckily, my friend had heard it. I now had a witness. Now we would get help!
The police were extremely concerned and were shocked at his continued belligerence with them. Remembering how he calmed down last time in the ER once I arrived, I refused to be present. By the time he was evaluated, they agreed he needed admission.
While in the hospital, the company paying the bills informed us he was ready to go home. The hospital staff said absolutely not. They felt he could not go home unless they walked the line between sedation and chemical behavior management, neither of which are considered ethical except in the worst of circumstances. After the company’s denial, I won the appeal, and he was moved to a residential treatment facility.
I later would find the knives he had hidden around the house.
When he returned home, this time we had a full-time team of people. They were in my home for a minimum of 35 hours a week.
He didn’t last long before he was attacking people again. When he was in the hospital, he was caught sharpening a toothbrush into a shiv. He was returned to the residential treatment center. After he tried stabbing one of the staff with a pen, after pushing a peer down the stairs, and after assaulting another peer (and this time charges were filed), they announced he was ready to be discharged.
I responded with a loud “Hell no!”
Soon after I was informed that it was their opinion that there was nothing more they could do for him. I didn’t disagree with that but did disagree that meant we should happily endanger me, my other child, and the neighborhood. As the company paying the bills refused to pay for his stay any longer, or transfer to a less restrictive environment, he was going to be discharged whether I liked it or not. After he grabbed my throat while on a walk, I decided he could no longer come home.
For my sake, my other child’s sake, and, ultimately, for C’s sake, we couldn’t continue to live like this. In order to protect everyone, I connected with DCS and requested they step in.
For him to get additional services he obviously was in desperate need of, I had to give the county temporary custody. Except, it isn’t that simple. In that state, there is no voluntary situation. So I was charged with “dependency and neglect,” served papers by a sheriff’s deputy, and appeared before a magistrate to get my child the help he needed. I was “allowed” to request that it be changed to “beyond control of parent,” the only option that isn’t completely derogatory for the parent, and that was granted. “We are only here because there is no other option to get C services.”
Thereafter I was treated as the obvious villain. I had to obtain a court order to force his caseworker to return my emails and/or voicemails. After being given supervised visits, the assigned therapist asked “Why are we doing this?” because “Talon is the only one who can calm him down and work with him.”
The judge was so angry at the county that he reprimanded them from the bench. “We are not here because of Talon! The people who are responsible [his abusive biological parents] are not in this room.”
He was moved into a special community-integrated program. Soon they accepted it wasn’t me that was the problem (in spite of former attestations from licensed professionals, they never believed it couldn’t be my fault).
It didn’t take long before they decided there was nothing else they could do either. As he continued to display volatility, aggression, and regular escalations, I refused to allow him to come home.
“I caution you against that decision, Talon,” the caseworker said. “You know, we could push to terminate your rights. He is still adoptable.”
After having been repeatedly abused by the system that is supposed to be there to help people like my son, and the parents who are trying to bring healing into their lives, I had to make a tough decision. Do I continue to live our lives as a hostage? It was clear that as long as I was fighting for him, as long as I was part of the picture, he would not get the help he needed.
I then made an incredibly painful decision. After 2 years of constant fighting, advocating for him and my family, begging and pleading for help, I relinquished my parental rights. As the judge said, “This is the only way we can get this child the help he needs.”
What is wrong with a system that forces children to be arrested to get help, or that makes it so difficult to get a child services that the only way they can be adequately helped is for their parent to relinquish their rights?
I have held the future Adam Lanza in my arms while he cried. I have nurtured the future Jeffery Dahmer as I took my 12-year-old’s large body onto my lap, curled him lovingly into a big ball, and rocked him until he fell asleep. I have stood in a prison’s conference room and stared at evil incarnate as I urged officials, once again, to deny his biological father parole. And I have wept bitterly as I heard the sharp rap of the judge’s gavel after pronouncing the words officially severing my rights to the possible future James Holmes.
So don’t tell me we don’t need better mental healthcare access in the US. Stop blaming ALL of the parents. Yeah, some really are horrid, but most of us parenting a child with mental illness are doing our damnedest to love, heal, and keep our families, and everyone else, safe. Had C’s biological parents received the help they needed as children, there’s a good chance those 6 children wouldn’t be in the situations they currently find themselves.
And, honestly, don’t tell me how these tragic situations prove we need better gun control. If we don’t move past the emotional first response and focus instead on the crumbling foundation beneath our society, we are doomed. With or without guns.