Families struggle with juvenile mental health

Published 10:26 pm Saturday, December 14, 2013

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories on the crisis of mental health treatment for juveniles in Western Tidewater.

Blood on the walls. Bruises on her body. Dents in the front door.

These are just some of the wounds Lauren Samuels and her home have suffered at the hands of her 14-year-old son, Brian. She feels she has nowhere to turn because, she says, the system has given her no options.

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Brian was a wanted child, the 46-year-old Samuels (not their real names) said, though she and his father were never married and parted ways before her son — her only child — had celebrated his second birthday.

Her graying hair and the folders filled to bursting with papers about her son’s case give clues to how long the family has been dealing with Brian’s troubles.

The problems started when he was in preschool. He has visited therapists and specialists and has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, anxiety disorder and obstinate defiant disorder — “a nice way of saying he’s out of control,” Samuels said. Since his first days in Suffolk Public Schools, he has been suspended in school, out of school or from the bus 38 times.

But he’s not in preschool anymore. Samuels’ little boy is 6 feet 4 inches tall and 270 pounds. “If he really knew how to use his muscle, I’d be in trouble,” she said.

Her son has broken down her bedroom door to get to her and knocked her into a wall, leaving it stained with her blood. One attack triggered an asthma episode that kept her in the hospital for 10 days. When she locked him out of the house to protect herself, he left 16 dents in the front door.

The attacks can be triggered merely by asking him to clean his room or by trying to take his guitar and fishing pole as punishment, Samuels said.

She believes the system — from police to Child Protective Services — has worked against her efforts to raise her son to be a productive man.

The stakes can be very high, as evidenced by the Nov. 19 attack on Sen. Creigh Deeds by his adult son, Austin, who repeatedly stabbed his father and then shot and killed himself.

According to news reports, Austin Deeds had received a mental health evaluation at Bath County Hospital — and was released — the day before his attack.

After about 10 years of dealing with Brian’s issues in the Samuels household, there’s almost a routine. When he starts to go wild, his mother calls 911. But, she said, she has called so often that she sometimes has to call multiple times to get a response. When the police do show up, her son runs outside and plays the victim, she said.

“He has learned quite well how to manipulate the system.”

Samuels has been charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor for locking her son out of the house to protect herself, she said. She also bit him once when he was attacking her — and she got charged with assault and battery. After another incident, she was charged with abuse and neglect.

“I was desperate,” she said. “Most of the (police) weren’t here five minutes to say, ‘Oh, it’s domestic, see ya,’ but if I dare to defend myself, they want to charge me with assault.”

The charges all have been dismissed or not prosecuted, but one judge went so far as to say it was “despicable” for her to have bitten her son, which, Samuels said, “undermined me in front of my kid.”

When she tried to get an emergency committal order for her son after that episode, the magistrate told her she didn’t have enough evidence.

Brian has been committed to psychiatric wards three times, and each time nothing happened except updates to his medications.

“There’s protection for children for child abuse,” she said. “At the same time, there’s nothing for parents.”

Samuels believes her son’s problems have been exacerbated by the system that is supposed to help him.

Following his release from the hospital after being attacked by his son, Sen. Deeds shared similar thoughts about the system and its failure to protect him or his son.

“I cry a lot. I can’t focus now and talk to anyone. I have very strong opinions about the (Community Services Board) and feel like they are responsible. My life’s work now is to make sure that other families don’t have to go through what we are living,” Deeds told The Recorder, a weekly newspaper based in Monterey.

Samuels places part of the blame on the legal system as well as the mental treatment system. The police and courts have enabled Brian by not making him pay for his actions, she said.

“If you did to me what my son did to me, you’d be in jail,” she said. “The only difference is DNA.”

Even worse, the criminal justice system is not helping her son, and Samuels worries about the life that appears to be in store for him.

“They are creating my kid to be a future criminal,” she said.

The state’s psychiatric treatment system also has been unhelpful, she said. She believes Child Protective Services assumes she is guilty of child abuse, and she feels her options have run out.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘stuck,’ but that’s what it is,” she said. “The system says we can’t do anything. He will always be my child, but the system has tied my hands to be his parent. I have no help from the system.”

The problems are more widespread than one might think. In the wake of the Deeds attack, a Virginia Beach woman who works in Suffolk recently described similar problems with her son at home.

Although Dustin Richards has been charged with crimes he’s committed, his mother, Emily Richards (again, not their real names), has struggled to obtain mental treatment for him.

“The system has just been, ‘Let’s fix him and send him back to Mom,’” Richards said.

Dustin is the younger of two boys and was a gifted child who had always done well in school. However, his father’s side of the family has a history of mental health problems, and Richards suspects he was using marijuana and alcohol as early as middle school.

Even so, Dustin’s mental health issues did not start until this past spring, when he was 17. He started refusing to get up for school, and one day a suicide threat led to his first stay in a psychiatric ward.

He was there less than a week, and did well for about a month or two afterward, she said. But then he started skipping school, which led to a conference with the teacher.

During the conference, he became so agitated he took off his socks and began chewing on them, she said.

“They released him right back to me,” she said of the psychiatric evaluation that followed. “Even though he was displaying that kind of behavior, they didn’t have enough evidence to admit him.”

A person must be considered at risk of harming himself or others before being admitted, she explained.

Richards distrusted her son so much that she kept his medication and her money, jewelry and other valuables in a lockbox that she carted to work with her each day and kept in her bedroom at night. She also installed a new lock on her bedroom door.

Even so, one night Dustin broke into her room as she slept, stole the box and disappeared for five days. The police found him passed out in someone’s yard.

“He was in the back of the police car ranting and raving like a lunatic,” she said. She watched her son bite a chunk of upholstery out of the backseat of the police car and swallow it.

“He was violent, he was crazy, and they were just going to release him to me,” she said.

She finally convinced authorities he was a danger to himself — citing the fact he had been living in a tent in the woods — and he was again admitted.

The situation came to a head at the beginning of October, when Dustin got caught huffing compressed air in a park and tried to steal from a store. When the manager locked him in, he burst through the glass storefront and later bit a chunk out of his own hand and threatened suicide.

At the hospital a couple of days later, he became so agitated when his mother visited that he punched a door and broke his hand in two places. After receiving no medical treatment for his hand, he was again discharged.

Less than a week later, Dustin took a load of pain pills and, when police responded to the scene, he started cutting himself in front of the police — an act he had been doing in private for some time, his mother said.

The police put him under an emergency committal order and tried to find a mental treatment bed, finally locating one at a Petersburg facility. He stayed there more than a month before being moved to detention in Virginia Beach.

Dustin turned 18 last week, and his mother said she thought the system was simply trying to drag its feet until then.

“No one has diagnosed him or fully evaluated his situation,” she said.

Just before his birthday, a Family Assessment and Planning Team recommended approving funding for his treatment. In a meeting the day after his birthday, Dustin was initially denied for funding but then officials decided he could be approved because of the decision before his birthday. Whether he will receive treatment as a juvenile or an adult, and where it will be, is still up in the air.

Richards said her son’s situation is the ultimate Catch-22.

“He’s an adult legally, but mentally he’s still the same age he was two days ago,” she said.


Tuesday: Law enforcement officers encounter their own difficulties when trying to deal with juvenile mental patients.