My son has been in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for more than a month, but he can’t stay there forever. We are faced with a couple of choices, neither of them good. He can go to jail for the charges pending against him (two assaults, three stolen cars, destruction of property) or he can go to a locked IRTP, an intensive residential treatment program. For six months he wore an electronic ankle bracelet which was supposed to keep him out of trouble. But he repeatedly “forgot” to charge it, kept pushing its geographic limits, then finally managed to pull it off and fling it somewhere in the park, never to be found again. Now the District Attorney says that to keep society safe, he has to be locked away.
“He’s not a bad person,” I tell our attorney, as though he needs convincing. He stole three cars in a three week period. Why? Because he met a boy at a dance who lived an hour away and he needed to see him. He assaulted program staff when they set limits which he didn’t think were fair. Or he imagined they set those limits, it wasn’t clear.
And all of it, deep down, stems from trauma. When he likes someone, even if he’s met them only once, he becomes obsessed, he must impress, make sure they like him back. He won’t give them a chance to reject him (diagnosis: borderline traits.) And if a staff sets an unfair limit, it feels like a horrible breach, the end of their relationship. He loses it, attacks (bipolar I; impulse control disorder.) All so he doesn’t have to feel that initial pain again (PTSD.)
He was sixteen, the first time staff pressed charges for assault. Instead of adult court, there was an administrative hearing. We sat in comfortable chairs around a gleaming oak table: the lawyer I’d hired, my son, the staff member of his residential program whom he’d assaulted. The staff passed around photos of his injuries: a hugely swollen eye, purplish bruises, ghoulish; a bump on the back of his head where my son had “grazed him“ with the fire extinguisher. “He could have been killed!” the magistrate boomed at my fidgety son, who was looking alternately scared and bored. I averted my eyes from the staff, though his face was healed.
It feels more shameful to have a child who hurts others than to have one who is “just” mentally ill. My son’s probation officer promised to “get him,” claiming he wasn’t disturbed at all. I worry that people think I am trying to keep him from jail because I condone his behavior. I know the staff thought I over-indulged him. But there is a ninety-three percent recidivism rate for teenagers who are sent to prison. I feel as if I am trying to save his life.
So we wait. I need to fax psychological reports, past hospital discharges, proof that he has “major mental illness” to DMH central office. As I collect the best documents–meaning those which make him look the sickest–I feel like I am trying to gain admittance to the country club or get him into college (I wish!) It’s a scary race. Will he get into the IRTP before St. Elizabeth discharges him?
Postscript: I found out this morning that he got into Center Point, the IRTP. Now we begin a new chapter.
Our guest blogger, Randi Schalet, is a psychologist and an adoptive mother of her twenty-two year old daughter and eighteen year old son . She credits her ability to carry on with parenting her challenging son to the support of friends, family and, especially, other parents.