Parents of children with mental illness look at shooters and wonder, Could that be my child?

Lisa Belkin
Chief National Correspondent

Every time Ruth K. hears of another act of violence — when teens are accused of murdering parents; when El Paso and Dayton are stunned by back-to-back shootings; when Denver’s schools are closed during a police hunt for a would-be Columbine copycat — she is afraid for her 16-year-old daughter.

Her concern is not just that the girl could become a victim of a shooting, although she does worry about that, in the now familiar way every parent does. But Ruth lives with another level of fear — that her child could become the perpetrator. Such is the constant weight carried by parents of children who have the kinds of mental illnesses that make them violent to themselves and to others.

Top, from left: Patrick Crusius, Dylan Klebold, Sol Pais; bottom, from left: Eric Harris and Dylann Roof. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, background; El Paso Police Department via Getty Images, Columbine High School/ZUMAPRESS.com, Jefferson County Sheriff's Office via AP, Columbine High School via Reuters, Charleston County Sheriff's Office via Wikipedia)

Yahoo News spoke with nearly two dozen such parents about the complexity of their added parenting burden. On the one hand there is the stigma and finger pointing (“mentally ill monsters,” Donald Trump said after the Dayton shooting), which creates an inaccurate and counterproductive picture of what mental illness really is.

But even as they make the obvious point that a vanishingly small fraction of the nearly 50 million Americans afflicted with mental illness will ever pick up an assault rifle with intent to commit mass murder, there is the other hand. Could their child do this? And if society believes so, why isn’t more help available in what has become a daily battle to find and fund treatment?

“I want to punch him for ‘monsters,’” one father said of Trump’s description. “Mental illness in no way equals de facto violence. But there’s a part of me that thinks, OK, fine, call my kid the problem. Then come help me do something to fix it. I can’t do it by myself.”

Nearly every parent interviewed for this article has seen the TED talk by Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold, who was 17 years old when he and his friend Eric Harris killed 13 people and wounded 24 others at Columbine High School in April 1999. It was among the first of the current wave of school shootings, and watching it 20 years later, it seems like a throwback to a simpler time.

“If anyone could have known what was happening” in Dylan’s mind, “it should have been me,” she says. “But I didn’t know.”

Back then shooters were diagnosed and their illness dissected retrospectively. The earliest massacres came as a surprise to parents who had no reason to fear what was then unimaginable. Parents today can no longer lay claim to such innocence.

Marcia (who, like many other parents quoted here, asked that only her first name be used to protect the identity of her child, who is a minor) pictured it all through her son’s turbulent childhood, marked by violent, chair-throwing tantrums. He went through a series of therapists while his parents fruitlessly tried various discipline strategies. After he brought a pocketknife to school and handed his teacher a note saying he was going to kill himself, he was handcuffed in the back seat of a police cruiser and brought to a psychiatric hospital for the first time.

“I was afraid he would hurt himself and in doing so hurt other people,” Marcia says of the boy, who is now 16 and has been diagnosed with autism and major depressive disorder.

B. Halcomb and his wife, M. Halcomb (the couple asked to be identified that way because their son, Evan, goes by a different surname), imagined it most clearly a few weeks after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting last year when they found graphic police-scene photos of Columbine on his Instagram account, and when police arrived to search the house after reports that he’d bragged he could sell guns to classmates.

Said his mother of the 16-year-old who has been diagnosed with depression and suicidal ideation: “I was afraid my kid would turn into the next school shooter. Who knows what he was capable of by then.”

And Ruth, too, imagined it, in April, when she read about the would-be-Columbine-copycat, specifically about her journals filled with drawings of shotguns and bloody knives.

“This could be my daughter,” Ruth told the case worker for Aetna, with whom she had been in constant contact over care for the girl, who has been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder. “She writes about death/killing/suicide regularly.”

“What do you suggest we do here?” Ruth continued in an email exchange with the company, warning that if payment was not approved for continued residential treatment, the family would face the choice to “either go bankrupt or have my daughter come back and live with us, leading to unsafe, likely deadly consequences.”

To underline her point she sent a photo of her daughter’s writing, heartbreaking for its misspellings, which she also shared with Yahoo News. “Run for your life ’cause I don’t know when I am going to hate you and kill you,” the girl had written in pencil in a composition book. “I wish I was different not the ill child that is full of piosione and deadly battle with good.”

With each highly publicized shooting, parents of potentially violent children scour the news stories, often between the lines, looking for a parent who tried, and failed, to get help.

After 22 were killed and dozens more were injured in an El Paso Walmart, Shelley, whose 16-year-old son was so violent that police had to restrain him from attacking his parents just before he was sent to a treatment program, was brought to tears. It was the magnitude of the massacre that first overwhelmed her, but also the fact that the shooter’s mother had called police in her hometown of Allen, Texas, weeks before that shooting to tell them that her son, who left rambling white-supremacist manifestos online, owned an AK-47.

“What a brave mom — she reported on her kid,” Shelley said, soon after refinancing her home to pay for residential care for her son, whose doctors said he was not ready to return home after a wilderness experience program, but whose insurer disagreed. “Can you imagine her agony, what it took to make that call?” she mused. “And then the police didn’t do anything.”

“My heart breaks for the families in my hometown of El Paso and also Dayton, and Parkland, and Sandy Hook, and and and and...,” wrote Penny, whose 16-year-old daughter has been hospitalized repeatedly over the years for suicide attempts, in an email to Yahoo News. “My heart also breaks for the parents of the kids responsible who didn't have the information, the resources, and/or the time due to work and family pressures. ... OR who suffer from mental health issues of their own and can't advocate for their kids.”

Gloria Garces kneels in front of crosses at a makeshift memorial near the scene of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. (Photo: John Locher/AP)

Marcia, too, looks for previous cries for help. “I wonder about the shooters’ families, the ones who are teens and young adults,” she said. “Did they ever think, ‘I know [my child needs] help but I don’t have the money,’ or ‘I’m working so many jobs that I just can’t?’ Were they trying to advocate for health in school but never got it? Were they hoping for some sort of treatment program but can’t afford it?”

They wonder these things because they know that parenting a violent child is a full-time job, one that starts with psychiatric and educational evaluations, then advances inexorably through educational accommodation plans, the need to hide knives, cash, jewelry, medications, alcohol and cleaning products and installing security cameras at home. There are the trips to emergency rooms and the visits from the police, the search for a residential treatment facility or wilderness program — businesses that have boomed since Columbine — and hiring a “transportation team” to surprise a child in the middle of the night, before they can run away. The marital stress and collapse. The neglect of other children, who become collateral damage in the struggle.

It is also a financial hurricane. Insurance pays for only some of the above, and nearly every payment has to be fought for. Each family has a tally — some in their heads, some on spreadsheets, some ballpark, others exact — of what it has cost to care for their child.

“If you had to pick between a huge amount of debt vs. having a dead kid, what would you do?” asked Angie, the mother of a 13-year-old daughter who began planning to commit suicide at age 11 and who has been at a residential treatment program for the past nine weeks, the $30,000 cost paid with a loan from relatives.

A parent, who asked to be called Bob, shared his Google Doc of expenses for his son, now 11 years old. It includes $1,250 a day for a residential treatment program in Utah, several $1,500 payments to the educational consultant who helped find that program, $10,347 (plus gasoline, at 20 cents a mile) to the company that transported the boy 500-plus miles to get there, the airfare, car rental and motel costs to visit him for family therapy sessions. The total of the spreadsheet is $180,770, offset by early withdrawals from retirement funds, with penalties ($110,000), the sale of his wife’s wedding band ($581), a tax refund or two and gifts from friends and family because the treatment program fees had to be paid in advance. In the end they received $112,027 from the insurance company, leaving them more than $70,000 out of pocket.

With each story — of lost retirement or college savings, maxed-out credit cards, of GoFundMe campaigns, homes sold for less than they were worth because time was of the essence and, also, the walls were punched through — there is a moment when the teller pauses and recognizes the absurd, perverse luck of being able to literally mortgage their future for their child’s treatment. Less fortunate or affluent parents lose their children to the child welfare and the prison systems instead.

“Evan is fortunate that he has parents who can spend hours out of our days to advocate,” said M. Halcomb of her near daily conversation with Tricare, the insurer for active-duty military. That company does cover residential treatment, but only in a limited list of possible places, and the Halcombs are now fighting for more payment, saying that Evan received inadequate care at his first placement and therefore his time there should not count toward his 150-day limit. “I feel bad for the kids who don’t have parents that are engaged like we are,” his mother said, “who don’t have the resources that we do.”

Marcia, whose son successfully completed a wilderness program and who is now negotiating with her school district to pay for a follow-up residential treatment facility, agreed: “When the police pulled up with him in the back of that cruiser, I realized how much worse it might have gone if he had been African-American or Latino. He has two white educated parents who know how to advocate for him. Even with all that, it’s a grueling fight.”

They understand something else as well — that once their own reserves run out, or their child turns 18 and refuses care, or at 26 may be dropped from their insurance — they could be in the same situation as families that never had the same resources.

“The longer term is what I am concerned about,” Ruth wrote in a private Facebook group about her daughter, whose appeal to Aetna for continued residential treatment was rejected, and who now attends a much less expensive facility in St. Lucia, for which her mother is taking on $40,000 in debt. “If this is left to go untreated [the] future is bleak. She is most certainly headed for the streets.”

So when the president of the United States blames “mentally ill monsters” for the shootings, these parents’ reactions are complex: a mix of anger at the perpetuation of a stigma and hope that calling attention to the problem might lead to more help from the government — combined with a familiar tingling of dread.

“You try not to go there, but you wonder, Could my kid become one of those kids?” said Emma. Her son, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and autism spectrum disorder, created a fake email account in the name of a student with whom he had a falling out and used it to email the principal with a threat to “shoot up the school” the next day.

Ruth wonders too. “I honestly can’t see that my daughter would mindfully go hurt somebody,” she said. “But I have experienced her rage and that moment of blackout that she gets.”

Speaking about Sue Klebold and the hundreds of parents who have stood in similar shoes since then, Ruth added: “Then again, I know none of them thought their children could hurt anyone either.”

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