Niki Varlotta loves her son Alex so much, she called the cops on him.

On a Wednesday evening not long ago, Niki sits in a booth in the back of a chain restaurant at a big mall in north Phoenix, telling her family's story from the beginning. A plate of penne with walnut pesto sauce cools in front of her, untouched for two hours, as she describes her older son's behavior — angry since birth, aggressive almost that long — and lists his hospitalizations, his diagnoses, and the medications (all in the double digits) he's been given.

But Niki's eyes don't well up 'til she gets to the part where she sent her blond, sweet-faced 12-year-old to jail.

Niki and Alex Varlotta
Jamie Peachey
Niki and Alex Varlotta
Niki and baby Alex
Niki and baby Alex
Greg with baby Alex
Greg with baby Alex
The Varlotta family, during a rare reunion: Greg, Andy, Niki, and Alex.
Jamie Peachey
The Varlotta family, during a rare reunion: Greg, Andy, Niki, and Alex.


The Lost Kids:
Part 1 of an Ongoing Series

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For Niki and Greg Varlotta and their sons, Alex and Andy, the real trouble began in 2006, when they moved to Arizona from Southern California to be closer to family — and realized there were few resources and little empathy for a violent, seriously mentally ill kid whose parents aren't independently wealthy.

When Alex barricaded himself in his room, the school resource officer (the policewoman assigned to work at the school Alex refused to attend) came to the house. She had some unpalatable advice.

By that point, Niki had quit her job as a pediatric oncology nurse — both because she couldn't leave Alex alone and because she hoped the family would qualify for AHCCCS (Arizona's version of Medicaid), since her insurance wouldn't cover the residential treatment many felt he needed. That didn't happen; the family still earned too much from Greg's work as a musician. The school system could have placed Alex in residential treatment but declined. Alex has been diagnosed with a mild form of autism, but that wasn't enough to qualify him for services for the developmentally disabled.

By May 2007, Alex was growing increasingly violent. Mostly, he hit his mom. His medications weren't right; he was having small, epileptic-like fits and walking and talking strangely. He had a well-documented history of suicidal and homicidal thoughts and hallucinations, and he was getting bigger and stronger. His little brother had already learned a neat trick: If you keep Alex laughing, he won't get angry and hit.

But Niki feared that would work for only so long. So she listened carefully to the school resource officer.

"She said, 'Niki, here's what you're going to have to do to get help. Next time he hits you, you're going to have to press charges. You're going to have to call the police.'"

The police will come and get Alex, the officer explained, and a few hours later, they will call to tell you to pick him up. When they call, she told Niki, tell them, "It's not safe to get my son."

The juvenile court will schedule an emergency hearing for the next day, she added.

"Get yourself before the judge and beg for help."

It happened a couple of days later. Greg was out of town, on tour. Alex missed the school bus. Niki coaxed him into the car. On the drive to school, Alex began hitting her — just as he had done, she adds, when she asked him to eat dinner or brush his teeth. Closed fists flying. "Like a little kid hitting, but bigger," is how she describes it.

She grabbed her cell phone, called the school, and asked for the resource officer. The police were waiting when she got there.

Through tears, Niki recalls, "I had to tell Alex, 'Honey, you can't hit Mom. And we need to get you help. And the only way we can get help is to send you to jail.'"

A few hours later, as promised, the call came.

"They said, 'You can come and get him.' And I had to say no."

The next day, Niki drove across town to Maricopa County Superior Court's juvenile division in Mesa. There was her son, in handcuffs and leg irons. They let Alex sit by her; she put her arm around him. What she really wanted to do, she says now through tears, was fall to the floor and wail. But when the judge started asking questions, she had answers — about Alex's problems, about the solutions she'd been unable to find.

"Right then and there he says, 'Make an order for custody.'"

And here comes the dirty little secret of the so-called juvenile justice system. If you have a seriously mentally ill kid, and you can't afford treatment, you can have your kid hauled before a judge. And if the judge is particularly empathetic, he or she has the power to get services for your kid.

As long as you're willing to give up custody of your child to the state of Arizona.

It's no exaggeration to say that Alex Varlotta's case is not a matter of public record. As a child in the justice system and, now, as a ward of Child Protective Services, his privacy is protected — which also means that very few people know what really happens to kids like Alex.

As a result, you aren't likely to hear about the kids who never get treatment or those who end up in the correctional system, where it's estimated that at least half the population is seriously mentally ill. In particular, the juvenile corrections system — intended by law as rehabilitation, not prison — is packed with sick kids.

And you don't hear the success stories, either. You are not supposed to know that for the past 21/2 years, the state of Arizona has paid close to (if not more than) a quarter-million dollars a year for Alex Varlotta's treatment in two different residential facilities in Texas. And that doesn't count the plane tickets the judge ordered CPS to pay for, so Alex and his family can be reunited on occasion, or the four lawyers hired to represent Alex, Niki, Greg, and the county.

So far, that money is doing its job. Alex may never live independently, but he's not headed for a correctional facility. Not now, anyway. For now, Alex's medications keep his behavior stable, and he and his family are safe. He's even made a few short trips home.

It sounds odd to say it, but in many ways, the Varlottas lucked out. They landed a sympathetic judge and a kind CPS caseworker. Niki and Greg can't technically make decisions regarding Alex's care and treatment, but they've been invited into the process because the court has deemed that's in the best interest of the child. (With a few exceptions, it's worked out well.)

For their part, the Varlottas have invited New Times to observe their progress — or, at times, the lack thereof. Niki Varlotta first contacted me in spring 2007, a couple of months before she finally gave up and had Alex arrested. She and Greg agreed to let the paper follow their family as they searched for help for their son. I was not able to visit Alex in detention, and the judge wouldn't grant permission to cover court hearings. But I did see Alex during one of his hospital stays; traveled with Niki, Alex, and Alex's CPS caseworker to Texas for his initial placement; spent time at the Varlottas' home; and spent hours with Niki, as she told and retold the story of Alex. She shared thousands of pages of documents, including medical, school, police, and court records — as well as family photographs and Alex's artwork.

It's a grim picture, and an incomplete one when you consider it's impossible to get at just how many kids are in a similar (and possibly much worse) situation. Greg Taylor, spokesman for Magellan, the for-profit agency that contracts with the state of Arizona to provide mental-health care in Maricopa County, volunteers that Magellan currently serves about 22,000 kids, including seven who are treated out of state. (That's just 0.0003 percent, he adds quickly — clearly worried about public reaction.) But his agency won't provide figures — or even an estimate — of how many of those kids had to be relinquished by their parents to qualify for care.

Even the federal Government Accounting Office hasn't been able to quantify it. In 2003, the GAO published a study identifying the voluntary-custody issue as a national problem, and calling on agencies, including the departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, and Education, to work together to provide "wrap-around services" to mentally ill kids. But the report didn't have much oomph because the numbers were so unreliable; the GAO estimated more than 12,000 children were in the child welfare system in 2001, solely to get mental-health services, but many states — including Arizona — claimed they couldn't provide data.

In 2005, the federal government passed legislation designed to give parents of seriously mentally ill kids access to state Medicaid programs, but it was left up to the states to implement it. Laurel Stine, director of federal relations for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C., says just a few states have taken action; Arizona isn't one of them.

Chick Arnold is the godfather of Arizona's mental-health system — his ongoing lawsuit, Arnold vs. Sarn, has been a largely failed but well-meaning attempt to get adults adequate mental-health services. For decades, he's represented adults and children in Maricopa County's justice system, trying to get them help.

For 15 years, he says, he's persuaded judges to put seriously mentally ill kids in CPS custody. Arnold finds it effective, he says, to call CPS directly (the Varlottas tried that — twice — with no success) and avoid having to have the kid arrested. In any case, Arnold says, "the fact is, you've got to use the court as an advocate to help negotiate these systems."

And of Niki Varlotta, Arnold sighs, "Think of the kids who don't have parents as great as she is."

The truth is, there are a lot of great parents out there having trouble getting care for their seriously mentally ill kids — particularly in Arizona.

"The models are already out there. It's not like we need to reinvent the wheel," says Sherri Walton, a local mental-health advocate and board member of the Arizona affiliate of Mental Health America. She's right; Vermont, Rhode Island, and New Jersey have streamlined services in the wake of the GAO report on custody issues. It wasn't a problem for the Varlottas when they lived in California — there, they were able to get state assistance even though they weren't destitute.

What happened to the Varlottas when they moved here should never happen to any family, Walton says.

"They should never get to the point where they have to call the police, because they should be able to access treatment, diagnosis, support — whatever they need," she says, admitting that "unfortunately, that is the way a lot of parents get their kids into the system. And once you get into the system that way, the parents pretty much lose all control."

Walton, who has three daughters who have suffered from mental illness, says her family was lucky enough to have the resources to pay for help. She says Alex never should have had to be arrested; his family never should have had to give up custody.

"At least," she adds, "he ought to be in the same city as the family."

Niki Varlotta is just happy her son is safe. She says, "I look at Alex and think, 'How much more can my heart break?'"

For as long as she can remember, Niki wanted to be a mom. She and Greg met through a neighbor when she was 24 and he was 29. For 21 years, Greg played in the Disneyland band Sidestreet Strutters, after a jazz band he was in at Arizona State won a contest that catapulted them to relative fame. Greg plays the trumpet and tap-dances. After they married, Niki went to school and became a nurse. They were thrilled when she got pregnant.

Alexander Gregory Varlotta was born on March 27, 1995, three weeks late and with a broken arm. (His arm was wrapped around his head, pointing up.)

He arrived screaming and pretty much didn't stop, Niki recalls. He nursed every 90 minutes for 15 months. She tried different diets; he was diagnosed with colic and digestive issues. For a while, Niki drove the baby 80 miles round-trip for treatment by famous pediatric guru Dr. William Sears.

Nothing helped. When Andy arrived just about two years after Alex, Niki was surprised by the difference in her boys' dispositions. Andy was so mellow. Alex kept getting worse.

The first time Niki nursed Andy in front of Alex, the older boy slapped the baby's head and bit his toe.

By 31/2, Alex was so aggressive the Varlottas had him see a psychiatrist. When he was 4, he threw a fork across an IHOP. He bit, hit, pushed, and spit at Niki. It was no longer a phase.

The psychiatrist diagnosed Alex with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and prescribed Ritalin. That worked for a couple of hours at a time. Then the psychiatrist added an antipsychotic medication, and for the first time in his life, Alex showed some empathy.

Still, they'd show up at family functions, say hello, and leave. One day, Niki kissed Alex gently on the back of his head, and he threw his head backward with such force it fractured her eye socket.

"This eye?" she asks, pointing to the right side of her face. "See, it kind of droops."

At 6, Alex was diagnosed with a mild form of autism, pervasive developmental disorder. He was getting more aggressive and reported hearing voices. When he was 8, Alex tried to jump out of a moving car. He thought he could fly.

He was hospitalized at UCLA — for three weeks at a time, because insurance wouldn't cover a longer stay — then he was sent home. Then back to the hospital. UCLA's diagnosis: bipolar disorder.

When he was 9, the psychologist at Alex's school pushed for — and got — a placement for him in a residential-treatment facility about 60 miles from the Varlottas' home. The school district paid $6,900 a month for the treatment; there, Alex was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He lived at the facility for two years; his family was able to visit once a week.

The notes from that school are heartbreaking. Alex was put on large doses of antipsychotics. He wet himself frequently and drooled, Niki recalls. The school notes show that Alex slept most of the time.

And even at that, he was getting more aggressive. That school threatened that Alex's days there were numbered. It was around that time that the Varlottas decided to move to Phoenix, to be closer to Greg's family.

Even before they left California, Niki found a facility in Arizona that she thought would work for Alex — Devereux. When they arrived, she put Alex in the school's day program with the hope of getting him into the residential-treatment facility and quickly realized it wasn't the place for him. He was miserable and clearly not getting help; a teacher even pointed that out and advised the Varlottas to enroll him elsewhere, Niki says.

She then enrolled him in public school, but as had happened in California, it was obvious that he needed a more structured setting. The school district wasn't willing to pay. During one hospital visit, Alex drew a picture of the fireball in his head. "Sick cookie," a caseworker told Niki.

And then came the visit from the school resource officer.

Alex had no criminal record before Niki called the police, but he racked up more charges once he was in detention. True, the judge immediately ordered that Alex receive services — but with services inevitably comes a wait, and for several weeks, Alex was shuttled back and forth among the county's detention facilities, the behavioral health program at St. Luke's Hospital, and various group homes.

At one group facility, he scratched a staff member and threw a river rock through a window. (No one ever explained how a seriously mentally ill kid got hold of a large rock. In any case, all charges were eventually dropped, after a psychiatric evaluation.) Back to detention. Then to another group home, where Niki's worst fear was realized: Her kid needed her and she couldn't help him.

One night, Alex called Niki in a panic. He claimed a staff member had hit him with a ruler. No evidence of the attack was found, but the staff member did admit in a police report that she got physical with Alex. When Niki called CPS to report this, she recalls, the operator told her, "Look, ma'am, you gave up your kid. What do you care?"

Then came the news that a bed had opened up. Alex was going to Austin, Texas, to a hospital-level facility called Texas Neuro Rehab. Niki and Alex's new guardian made arrangements to fly round-trip in a day to get him settled.

As Niki, Alex, and the caseworker (I agreed not to use her name or quote her directly) emerge from security, you can practically feel the stress coming off Niki. Not Alex. She's given him extra medication to keep him calm for the flight. He's got a new haircut, and he's wearing sweat pants, T-shirt, and black slip-on sneakers. His eyes are droopy behind wire frames.

It's barely breakfast time, and Sky Harbor Airport is buzzing with families going on vacation, kids leaving for college. Alex is anxious to sit next to his mom on the plane; the caseworker sits across the aisle. "It will look a lot different when we get to Texas," Niki tells Alex, as the plane taxis.

A few minutes later, he's passed out on her shoulder. Niki has some rare time to reflect.

Kids with cancer, they get to "make a wish," she says. Kids like Alex? "They warehouse them."

"The funding isn't there, and also, these kids aren't cute," Niki continues. "Reporters love the little bald kids with the circles under their eyes. A crazy kid? Unh-uh."

She takes a sip of Alex's hot chocolate and sighs.

"When I get the chance to stop and think about how I had my son arrested and put in shackles," she says, rather calmly, "I'm going to fall the hell apart."

The caseworker is asleep across the aisle — head tipped to one side, hands folded. Niki's eyes are wide open. In a couple of weeks, she starts a new job as a school nurse. It's not the high-powered career she left a few months ago, but it's something. And flexible. She needs to be flexible.

The plane touches down hard. Niki's upbeat. "Look at the trees!" she tells Alex, then tries telling him about the video she watched about the place where he'll soon be living.

"These people specialize in brains," she says.

Alex is not impressed. In the cab, the driver is listening to Rush Limbaugh, and Alex says in a monotone voice, "I wish I were back in Arizona."

Niki swoops in. "Are you feeling nervous? Do you want to hold my hand?"

He pushes her hand away.

"Please?" No reaction.

"We can't give up, sweetheart. I won't give up."

His head lists, and Niki hands him his video game.

The facility is nice, not as sterile as you might expect, with some Texas touches, like horns on the chandelier, which catch Alex's attention. There's a cowhide bench. Niki's packed a small maroon bag for Alex with just enough clothes for seven days, per instructions.

Niki, the caseworker, and Alex disappear to fill out paperwork and hear the orientation spiel; then we all tour the facility (Niki gets teary when she sees the state-of-the-art sensory room, designed for autistic kids), ending up at the nurse's office, where Niki hands over a big plastic bag filled with pill bottles and answers dozens of questions.

Does Alex have delusions?

Yes. He imagines an ATM machine with infinite money.

Homicidal ideation?

Not now. "He has voices in his head that tell him to hurt people, but he tells the voices no," Niki tells the nurse.

Is he suicidal?

Not at the moment, but he's had suicidal tendencies since age 9. The man in his heard tells Alex to kill himself, Niki explains, but "he tells the man no!"

Alex has never been stable, Niki adds. "We could handle just about everything, except that with the aggression it's just not safe."

During one of the periods when they're waiting to see the next staff member, Alex climbs on Niki's lap and asks her to scratch his back.

"Mom, maybe on weekends can you come visit me on the airplane?"

Yes, she tells him; she'll come visit when she can. She'll come for her birthday, next month. She tells Alex that this is like when rich kids go to boarding school in Switzerland.

She asks him, "What do you think you might dream tonight?"

"Going home."

Last year, she spent her 40th birthday getting Alex admitted to the hospital, Niki recalls, after another violent exchange. Alex takes off his glasses and puts his head on her shoulder, and they both close their eyes.

Later, on the plane, Niki strikes up a conversation with the truck driver sitting next to her. He shows her pictures of his girlfriend; she pulls out snapshots of her boys. He complains about his ex-wife.

Finally, she closes her eyes, then opens them and pulls out a tissue, looking apologetic.

"I'm just feeling far away from him." The plane is high in the air now.

"I hate — hate — that she had more papers to fill out than I did," she says, pointing across the aisle to the again-slumbering caseworker.

And, she says, she hated to leave the smell of his hair.

The Varlottas rent a tiny yellow house in a new development in Surprise, on the west edge of metropolitan Phoenix. There's not much north of here 'til you get to Lake Pleasant, and Niki dreams that someday, someone will buy a few acres of land and build her dream residential-treatment facility.

In the Varlotta house, no one fantasizes much about Alex coming home to stay. But they do wish for a place nearby. Late last year, Niki began e-mailing family and friends about her dream; she's named it "Remarkable Ranch." She and Alex have made a hobby of the fantasy, during phone calls and visits.

Alex was home for a few days at Christmas last year, and this summer he was allowed three days for the Fourth of July. Someone has to fly with him to and from Texas, which gets expensive. The Varlottas pick up the tab. But it's worth it to see the family gathered in the kitchen, the boys playing (what else?) video games. Alex is eager to show off an app on Niki's iPhone that lets you swish in a koi pond.

And speaking of koi, he'd like a real pond at Remarkable Ranch. Other requirements: doors that lock; sand instead of wood chips in the play area; a "line in" to plug in your iPod, MP3, and CD player; a go-kart track; one room of cats and another of dogs. And "free lemonade every time you go outside."

"Right, Mom?" he asks. She smiles.

"Well, Alex, there are some things that are just wonderful dreams. And there are other things that are more possible."

Niki's priority: residents of all ages, and a single-wide mobile home for families to stay in when they visit.

Alex wants to start another ranch, too. He saw a show on the Discovery Channel about how someone found live tissue in dinosaur bones. He'd like to put the DNA in ostrich eggs, and start a velociraptor ranch. A moment later, he's off to find the recipe for the white cake and cream cheese frosting they're planning to make this weekend.

Niki comments dryly, "Remarkable Ranch will not be by the velociraptor ranch."

The boys race up and down the stairs, playing, with Greg at their heels. There's a constant concern that things will get out of hand. Eventually, Alex returns to the kitchen table, focused on the guest. Would I like spaghetti? A brownie? Watermelon? He settles down after a piece of gum is accepted.

Alex looks a little puffier than he did the last time. The lithium makes him hungry, Niki says. She pulls out the enormous pile of medications Alex takes: two different blood-pressure medications for aggression; the anti-depressant Zoloft; lithium; an anti-seizure/mood stabilizer; an antipsychotic; Claritin; Nasonex; and Gummy Vites. The gummies look sad next to all that grownup-looking medicine.

It's a tough cocktail to regulate, obviously. Last year, Alex ended up in the emergency room — manic and twitching — after his doctor in Texas changed some of his dosages. The school called the CPS caseworker, who'd signed off on the changes, not realizing that no one had first asked Niki — who says she never would have approved.

Of course, there's no requirement for anyone to call Niki or Greg.

After four months at Texas Neuro Rehab, Alex was transferred to another facility called Texas Country Hill. He still has issues with aggression, but he hasn't hit anyone while he's been there, Niki reports with pride. Soon he'll start high school — well, one computer class — with the one-on-one aide she's begged for.

Niki has had to ask for more than that. Technically, Alex's new school does not qualify as a residential-treatment facility. CPS wanted him moved to Devereux — a school the Varlottas had already tried. The judge sided with Niki, who is allowed to speak out in court even though she's not Alex's guardian. Alex stayed in Texas. (His placement is reviewed every six months.)

A while back, the judge asked Alex during a teleconference whether there was anything he'd like. Can my brother visit? he asked. The judge thought that was a good idea and told CPS to pay for six additional plane tickets a year.

The last time we met, Niki and Andy had just returned from a visit to Texas. The three ate chocolate chip pancakes at IHOP and saw the movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which Niki highly recommends.

Over the now-cold pesto penne, she describes what the feeling of coming back from seeing Alex is like: a bad hangover. On top of that, she feels guilty because she's got a new job she loves, as a radiology oncology nurse. Andy is doing really well — he's gone from Cs to the principal's list. Greg's work is picking up. He visits Alex when he can; they talk on the phone. But like Niki, Greg is sad.

"Greg grieves," says Niki. "Alex looks so much like his daddy."

And yet, they all cope. Last week, Alex called at dinnertime, so they put him on speakerphone and had dinner together.

Life is pretty good, and that makes Niki feel bad. There's one last question for her. What does the future hold? It's the only question she's refused to answer in 21/2 years.

"Don't ask me about the future," she says, eyes flashing. "I don't go there."

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Kim Jantzen Schmidt
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In response to Vanessa, Jennifer is right on the money. Until you walk in some of our shoes, maybe you should just mind your business. The guilt is horrific concerning many things when you have a child with special needs, the last thing parents in this situation need is an ignorant person like you making insensitive comments.


this story is so sad. and it also maddens me that she would give up her son for custody because of his problem. Having an interest in holistic health and an organic lifestyle if baffles me this kid was taken all these drugs that all and all might make things worse. I see a naturopathic doctor and never would take prescription meds. I dont understand why parents or people would want to research on a natural way to heal using homeopathic and natural cures that rids what someones feeling. Seeing a naturopathic doctor has given me so much insight on health and how meds not only makes things worse it does not fix the problem. which is why taking the meds at times causes him to end up in the E.R or made him more aggressive.. so saddening. do some research about natural health and homeopathy and maybe you wouldnt be in the situation you are


This just breaks my heart. My son showed similar signs of aggression at a very young age and by age 6 was talking to his teachers about wanting to kill himself. The teachers and counselors felt that he had ADHD but his pediatrician refused to diagnose him due to his age and felt it was just a phase. When I finally took the step to seek out a psychiatrist and get him officially diagnosed, I was pregnant and feared that my son might hurt the baby if we don't get help. The psychiatrist said he was a cut and dried case, prescribed medication, and we now have a well-behaved and happy child. I was so hesitant to do the medication because I thought it might turn him into a zombie, but I now have no regrets. You have to be persisitent and don't stop when doctors turn you away.


Skepticallady39 thinks the illegal aliens who work hard long hours at the fast food restaurant that she orders her Big Macs from are apparently having it better than this kid whose family got the State of Arizona to shoulder the $250,000 expenses of plane tickets, residential and psychiatric treatment, etc. in just the past 2.5 years.


I find it appalling in this country in this day and time, that a hard working family like this has to go to such extremes to get their child help, especially when welfare whores and illegals get it for free. I am saddened and ashamed by this. The government and insurance companies better do something about austism coverage because 1 in 110 children have this, that is scary.


It is obvious that this boy will never be able to live in society without being a danger to himself or others. There are many, many people just like him out there on the streets now. Why are they on the streets? Because eventually their families cannot control them and they either wander off, are thrown out or because they are over 18 cannot be controlled by the courts or their families. Large state run institutions meant for long-term care were in the past were sometimes poorly run. That was mostly because the knowledge of mental disorders was so poor and our society did not have much understanding. That being said, the biggest mistake we have made is closing *all* of them. Let's get real and admit that there are some people that are (for now) beyond our capacity to help medically or therapeutically. They need to be safe, their families need to be safe and we need to be safe from them. I suspect this mother would not mind his being institutionalized nearly as much if her son was at least in the state of Arizona so that she could visit more freely. Especially if she knew that he was safe and (within the limits of his illness) happy.


How absolutely horrible that she has to give up her rights to her son in order to get him the help he needs. Thank God that she has a decent network of judge/caseworker that allows her to participate in decisions and plans. @ Lilypie in the article Niki stated that they made too much money to qualify for medicaid. @Marmitist, the only "retard" on this page is you, ignorant opinions like yours harm society more than Alex ever could. He is getting proper help and treatment, and has a family who cares about his well being..... why am I even bothering responding to you, you're an ass. Kudos to Niki for doing whatever it takes to get the best for your son, even the hardest road most parents could imagine.


What government insurance (AHCCCS (Arizona's version of Medicaid) wouldn't cover him?


I remember when Niki and Greg lived in California (I went to nursing school with Niki) and Alex was still a little boy. He was aggressive already but luckily he was still a little boy. Niki and Greg often feared for Andy's safety since he was the little brother. As a mom myself, I can't imagine the anguish Niki felt having to give up her rights as a mother to protect her child...from himself. Niki, you have always been my hero...I thank God that you had to strength to do what Alex needed in order to save him from himself....or worse, to save someone else from him later in life if he hadn't gotten the help he needed. Many sons and daughters in the jail system now could've used a great mom like you!


What a waste of money. This little retard is going to grow up, get out of the loony bin, and hurt someone. Then they're just going to throw him right back in.

Lock him in a rubber room and throw away the key. He can have all the autistic freakouts he wants then.


I can't believe you are condemning this family to do all in their power to get their child help. As far as the taxpayers paying for it, how many of the children NOW are on some sort of Medical insurance paid by the state? The guidelines are wide and can include many working parents who cannot afford $700 premium each month just for insurance...let alone the medications this child needed. It was an extreme decision but I feel it was the right step in getting this child some help. I could sympathize with this mother's feelings to watch her son sit there in handcuffs! But to know that in the end this child was going to get the help they no longer could give him..that is satisfaction. Please do not judge this family for this decision because many of us have never been in that situation (and i hope we don't have to). I feel that if this child was allowed to continue on this destructive path, that he would end up in the justice system as a criminal..and NEVER receive the needed help. Many of the felons that are in our prison systems are just that...mentally handicapped individuals that have slipped through the cracks and ended up as violent offenders. Thank you Niki Varlotta for sharing your story with us. God Bless you and your family. My thoughts and prayers go out to your son. I hope the best outcome for him!


I truly feel for the family of this mentally ill child, HOWEVER, I agree with Dave on the $ issue. I find it ridiculous and almost robbed that we (taxpayers) have spent over $250,000 on ONE child for only 2 years worth of 'therapy'!! They (family) have already done so much for this child, BUT its a crapshoot that this child will ever develop into a 'functioning adult that gives back to society'. I have liberal tendencies but there has to be a limit on how much we spend on cases like this! The ONLY reason I have a little empathy with regards to the $ spent is the fact that this is a child. If we were discussing an adult, I would be appalled and furious that they spent that amount of $ on a 'broken' human being!!


I have spent the last 7 years and all of my savings trying to get my youngest child help. He is violent, and has been suicidal since he could speak. I have other (non-violent, "normal", happy children). Like Alex, it was apparent from day 1 that he was not happy, and he had no way of calming himself down. It got worse as he got older. He's been evaluated and re-evaluated and everyone he's seen has had a different diagnosis. His pediatrician seriously delayed us getting any help at all by failing to recognize the problem. Our private insurance (which I've been paying into for the last 15 years) has decided to stop covering all of my son's treatment, because according to them his case is "chronic". Most mental illnesses are. I can't get state medical assistance unless both my husband & I lose our jobs (which would leave us, and other children homeless). As it is, I've had to change jobs so I can work from home, so I can "be there" for my son. No babysitter in the world could handle him. So for now, we pay for what we can out of pocket, and treatment is slow, since we can't pay for much.


I feel for this family, but I have to say I don't know why being "closer to Greg's family" is a good enough reason to move from where you are getting great services through your insurance and the school district, to a state that puts you on the tax payer's shoulders because you chose to "give you your kid to the state". I would like to know why you didn't just move back to California, where the services were available?


right, and this works in iowa too, only don't expect to get your child back. mine was hiding butcher knives in her bedroom, threatening to kill her little sister, acting out at school, becoming violent with teachers, and when i took her to the ER in the midst of an outbreak, i was told she'd be admitted. i went home to get her some things for her stay, and when i got back about an hour later, i was informed i wasn't allowed to see her. the next day, her psychiatrist called me and said I could pick her up, she was fine. i told him i thought he was wrong, and i wasn't convinced she wouldn't try to kill her little sister. they placed her in a shelter (?) and the next day i went to pick her up from school once i learned this was a SHELTER placement done by DHS-when i got to the school, her teacher and the principal informed me "they" came and got her. i was livid they let someone take my child! i found out they had CHINA'ed her. (child in need of assistance.) she was placed in foster care, my rights were terminated, and she was adopted by her foster family. of course there's so much more to this story than space will allow here...but don't trust ANYONE to do what's right for your kids. YOU have to do it. follow behind everyone. trust NO ONE. to this day, she doesn't talk to me and is as unhealthy as she was 15 years ago. a complete failure of "the system."

Jennifer Johnson
Jennifer Johnson

The poster "Charlie" sounds like someone that would pick up and beat up a kid he didn't know. Worse is that special needs kids are referred to as "anchor babies", describing them as burdens? My son is a special needs kid, he is no burden. When you lump people as burdens, then you make way for hate propaganda. Hmm, does this sound like the holocaust to anyone else?

Jennifer Johnson
Jennifer Johnson

What I find most appalling about this story is not that this family had to make such a difficult decision by giving up their child, but all of the judgmental comments I read on this page. It's really easy to point fingers and badmouth people when you have no experience in their situation. Autism is NOT something that most insurance companies will pay for services for. I am a mom who happens to be mildly autistic (was diagnosed as a child) and my 7 yr old son has it as well. My son is very affectionate and social, almost to a fault. These people must be going through pain that most people couldn't even begin to fathom. Those of you who would insult this family would probably also insult those who have to put their loved ones in a nursing home because their family member(s) require more care than can be given to them at home. How about it? Would they also be labeled as uncaring, or worse yet, selfish?


Well, at least the mother didn't call the MCSO to have her son arrested. The kid would have probably died in the custody of Arpaio's goons!


Your right TommyC I am sick, In a world where personal responisbitily is more horrible then having sex with a corpse I'm on of the sickest guys out there

And I'm still waiting on your fainacial statements, or are you no longer willing to address my concerns


John from Queen Creek.

You are sick.

You need to move to a third world country where folks like you might just go around killing others you deem not worthy of yourselves.

john c.
john c.

I have been dealiig with Bi Polar since I was 21. I am now 34. Mental illness is a heartbreaking experiance. Your options are limited in Az. If you have not delt with someone with a mental Illness, then you have no business commenting on ones parenting skills. There are no right answers. Alex parents have done as much as they can. I never asked for this disiese to ruin my life, destroy my friendships,or cause my parents grief and heartache. My illness does not make me week minded. I am a survivor of this disease, and I hope it does not take my life.


First off TommyC, suck it, suck it long and suck it hard

Second lets recap shall we?

SHe wrote in the comments they had great insurance, yet the article implied it wasnt good enough. And if the insurance was so great why'd you all give it up?

Second, if california was shipping your son out of state what made you think AZ was going to be any different?

And why was he program he in the right one when CA officls sent him, but wrong once you got here?

Thrid phsyciatric proplems dont appear overnight, my guess is the signs were there and you failed to notice them.

Fourth what does society do with childrem like him. If I were incharge sterilization would be my first priority the last thing we need is the people so disturbed that they have to be wards of the state having kids of their own.

Quite frankly I think its a brilliant idea that children in this condition must be wards of the state, if they werent we'd have million of dollars in law suits evertime one of them hit another. But if they are all wards of the state you wont have that problem.

Fifth, you could have home shooled him a few hours a day around your work schedual, but something tells me that home schooling doesnt proved government paid for phsyciatric care.

Sixth the article says and i quote "Greg was out of town on tour" So how does he tour with and how much does it pay a year?

AS you feel you have a right to my money to pay for your sons care, I feel I have a right to know how much money you make

One last thing the article says the boy is 12, that would mean he was born in 97, did you have an pre natal genetic work done to see if he had and gentic markers that could have been warnig flags?


"Honor thy father and thy mother. Eye for an Eye, tooth for a tooth. Survival of the fitest left to take the land....Comment by Charlie Sutter from Phoenix on Oct 13th, 2009, 18:56 pm"

Charlie: Let's say you have a child who is in a classroom with a severely disturbed classmate. Say this classmate who has regular hallucinations perceives that your child has given him the "evil eye" and decides "an eye for an eye" and then attacks and disables your own child.

Would you then describe the disturbed child as the "fitest" (your spelling, not mine) because he was "fitter" to physically disable your child, or worse? Everything you've posted here describes physical domination in regards to children.

Please re-read this article and especially read what Nikki has posted. If after that you still cannot understand the difference between 'unruly' kids and mentally ill kids, you aren't really reading or understanding what is going on here.

If you were to have a diabetic child would you beat the crap out of him or her to cure the diabetes or to 'wake them up' from a coma because they were 'ignoring' you? After all, diabetics certainly aren't the 'fitest' of people in this world but we still provide medical treatment to allow them to grow and live productive lives.


Ok, John from Queen Creek.

It appears you made incorrect assumptions and you were wrong. You had the 'courage' to lambaste these folks based on your wrong assumptions.

Now, John, do you have the courage to apologize?

I honestly doubt it.

Charlie Sutter
Charlie Sutter

Honor thy father and thy mother. Eye for an Eye, tooth for a tooth. Survival of the fitest left to take the land....


To Nikki: Thank you for coming on to this thread and further explaining your family situation.

As you can see from some of the comments, many people here have absolutely no experience with dealing with a child with severe psychiatric problems. The poster "Charlie" thinks you should beat the crap out of your child to 'cure' him. Others are complaining about the societal cost of truly taking care of a mentally ill or handicapped child once they are born and breathing. Others prefer to compare him with 'anchor babies' to excuse their anger at the reality of what many legitimate American families face everyday when caring for a child born imperfect.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: For many people, children aren't a valuable political commodity once they are born. If this article was about you learning, before he was born, that Alex would be facing these severe problems, probably many of these same people would be screaming holy hell at you if you were considering abortion.

Once born, they prefer to scream holy hell about the money it costs, the 'irresponsibility' of the parents, and on and on and on.

They can't have it both ways. If children are born to mental illness and mental and/or physical handicaps then they should be as quick to support the child in every way possible so that the life they insisted should be brought into the world will be taken care of, no matter what it takes, to the enth degree.

I hope that Alex continues to improve and flourish. With the right care he has a fighting chance to do so.


Perhaps if Fathers were still allowed to physically discipline their children they would never even think of hitting their mothers. Oh, but then some screaming bleeding heart liberal would have dad arrested for child abuse. All of these "programs" could be replaced by a good old fashioned ass beating and everyone knows it. If that does not work, throw these little punks in jail and let them rot. I have seen enough of making these children think they are special by having "issues" that must be corrected with my tax dollars in programs that do not work anyway. Drugs do not work. Drugs ware off. In Europe or Asia, children like this would be corrected with canes or floggings in a public square. I can't wait to see what this child becomes as a man. But then again, men do not hit their mothers with closed fists so this boy will never become a man. If he does become a man, sooner or later a real man will squelch this "child with issues" in about 5 seconds.

Maurice Friedman
Maurice Friedman

Violence against other people is the greatest crime and insanity. What is more important to be protected against? SO lets just take 10% of the National Defense Budget and divert it to programs to treat anyone that unjustifiedly hurts another. You say that would be too much money for the problem? Then use the surplus to help past victims of abuse and to train more therapists and all teachers in working with them pro actively. Then go after the people in our government that authorized torture and treat them. When they get out. As a victorious victim of abuse I feel I have a right to suggest all this.

Niki Varlotta
Niki Varlotta

Thank you for your words of support and encouragement. And to those of you who are angry with us, I wonder if my comments can help you to understand the situation better or if my words will be wasted?

When Greg and I had Alex we had owned a home for four years and were 28 and 34 years old. Far from a slacker, Greg, an ASU college graduate, had worked full-time and then some as a musician for Disney. Greg's job provided awesome insurance coverage. When Alex was 18 months old and long before any professional deemed him other than "terrible twos" is when we conceived our second son.

By the time Alex was 9 he'd been hospitalized 7 times for psychosis. This little boy thought he could fly, or heard voices telling him to kill himself or saw people crawling in the window. To see your child terrified and you can do little to help is something I hope you never experience.

In California, Alex was in residential treatment which was paid for by the county mental health department and the school district. Greg and I took care of his medical coverage. We saw Alex twice a week and brought him home once a month. Alex went to school and made progress. Unfortunately he was misdiagnosed and overmedicated by the psychiatrist at the facility. This was the reason for his increased agitation and the main reason we moved to Arizona.

If I can be faulted it is for not considering the incredible differences in care and services available to children from state to state. We moved to AZ because one of the facilities that CA was considering for Alex was a facility in Scottsdale. We thought we could move closer to the facility and have a more "normal" life. We came because our son was severely overmedicated and we were hoping to get him help - and be closer to Greg's relatives who all live in the Phoenix area. I never once thought Arizona would deny us the same services we'd received in California.

I was hired as a pediatric registered nurse at a local hospital, full-time. Greg continued to work at Disney for a while before transitioning to other work here. We even brought one of Alex's California caregivers to live with us to help - although we had every expectation that Alex would be in a great facility learning and learning to cope with his illness.

Turns out that the facility was not appropriate for Alex. The school district refused to offer residential placement. The only way Maricopa County would pay for ANY services was if our family was on AHCCCS. Really. NOTHING. I continued to work and Alex went to school at a great special education school in Phoenix. Until he didn't go.

What do you do when your child refuses to go to school because he can't stand the noise or the expectation that he'll sit still, or hears things that aren't there? Even this great school was ill equipped to handle such an ill child. I was notified that I'd have to go before the truancy board if Alex didn't go to school. Because I had to pick Alex up from school so many times and then he flat out refused to get on the bus is why I was forced to quit my job. I didn't set out to qualify for AHCCCS but it looked like we were on our way. We did not ever go on AHCCCS, however.

We never set out to have a disabled child. Alex is loving, smart and is growing up. He is well-liked by his friends and staff at his Texas facility. He hasn't hit anyone or tried to hurt himself in 2 years - because he's getting the right help. He hopes one day to care for animals and I can see him working in an animal shelter or at a veterinarian's office. His school counselors believe he may go on to college, I just want him to feel calm.

Alex's care is too expensive. Arizona should have a residential facility for children with neurological and behavioral problems. There are a handful of facilities here but none providing what Alex and many other children need. In the past 7 years at least 5 Arizona facilities for mentally ill children have closed because of lack of funding.

And guess what? Even if there were a terrific facility in Phoenix that cost a fraction of the Texas facility, we still couldn't get Alex into it. You see, we are not on AHCCCS. Arizona does not provide ANY residential services to ANY child that is not on AHCCCS. So if you have a severely mentally ill child and are not on AHCCCS or cannot afford 10K a month for residential treatment, the ONLY way to get services is to have your child made a ward of the state. There is no middle ground in AZ.

Greg and I get to see Alex six times per year (alternating months). We spend thousands dollars per year in motels, rental cars and food in Texas. We are doing the very best we can. And Alex is slowly improving. (And we can't move to Texas because Alex is a ward of Arizona...)

What does society do with a child like Alex? Is he worthless? It would be so easy to make that judgement were I not in this position. This is my child. He has hopes and dreams. He is generous, funny and really needs a lot of help to "keep it together". I thank God that he's getting the help he needs. For now.

The reason I agreed to the article is to give voice to the other families with desperately ill children who need help. I believe that voters are willing to spend at least the same amount of money on mentally ill children that they're willing to spend on incarcerating them, given the opportunity.

Someone out there is in a position to help. I want my son close to me. He should receive cost-effective help right here. As should so many other Arizona children.

Please know that we very much want our son at home. Residential was never a first choice. Alex has been hospitalized a total of 11 times now. Alex currently needs intensive behavioral feed-back and medication management. We were not offered in-home services, nor would they likely have been appropriate due to his level of impairment.

We are real people. I am a nurse manager for an oncology clinic. My husband is a successful professional musician. We love our children. We pay taxes and indeed we vote.

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to your concerns.

Jennifer Waite
Jennifer Waite

My son is autistic. We use holistic and other alternative treatments and an anti-psychotic medication that he desperately needs to keep from being a danger to himself or others. Perhaps you should investigate ways to stop being such a busy-body.


Homeopathy is nonsense.... pure nonsense. It is a placebo. It is bullshit for a price. Whether you like it or not, some people HAVE to have pharmaceutical medicines. It's true that our society is over-medicated, but that goes the same for antibiotics as it does anti-depressents. However, you shouldn't go promoting "remedies and treatments' that clinically have NO VALUE. Homeopathy has been shown EVERY TIME in clinical studies to have no more of an affect than a placebo, or what would be expected of chance. Do you know what they call Alternative Medicine that works? They call it medicine.


You must be an illegal as well to make a comment like that. Our school districts (yes, any school district in this country) are not equipped to educate children with severe disabilities and/or emotional disturbances. So much money is wasted in this country; I do not begrudge anyone who needs it to get the treatment that their child needs even if it costs me, the taxpayer, because ALL children are the future of this country and they all need to be educated. Just because it costs more to educate the disabled is not a reason to not provide the education (and yes, this is ultimately about education. Residential treatment centers provide education as well as treatment). So go sip your latte and cash your government check while you complain that others should receive no empathy or help from you...selfish ass. (Oh, and, while you're at it, why don't you sit and think about how you would feel if you had to give up your rights to your child and make your child a ward of the court just to get him the treatment you know he act far more selfless than you are obviously capable of).


Many of the comments here are brutal and ignorant. I think the sterilization and killing of people who have mental/developmental problems was tried in the dark ages and during Nazi times. If you want to go back to the dark ages i would move to another country. Even Arizona tries to be civilized and has learned that the things tried in the dark ages were a mistake. People with autism have various levels of being affected, a "spectrum". With care and help i grew up to pay taxes myself as an autistic person [mild]. So, those who have kids w real problems please do not feel like you have to give in to the lowest common denominator comments or people. Arizona can overcome the new vocal confidence of those stuck in the dark ages after the elections. The Republicans just want to be re-elected and are desperate for ANY vote.


You do realize there ARE cures for autism, right?


Jesus, what the fuck is wrong with you?

You're ruining your other childrens' lives by indulging the youngest one in his nonsense. If a car part goes bad, you don't adjust every other part of the car trying to make the bad part work, you get rid of it!

I suggest that you tell him that if he acts violently again, you're giving him away. And then FOLLOW THROUGH ON IT!


@Niki Varlotta How could you move somewhere without researching the care that is available? I am disabled and want to move to Key West but the closest medical care for my condition is Miami, a few hours away. You just picked up and moved without investigating the resources that are available to your kid? For someone with an education you sure don't have any common sense. You should have checked it out before you moved rather than put your kid through all that and cost a whole new set of people (taxpayers) a shit ton of $$. Not impressed.


I almost forgot, Niki, do you want to see what your son's future is going to be if he manages to keep his temper in check and stay out of prison?

Your son will end up a pants-shitting, 30 year old virgin who fucks love dolls on camera and drinks his own semen.

This is what happens when you don't get autistics the care that they need as soon as it becomes apparent that they have a serious problem. By ignoring the fact that your kid was retarded for so long, you most likely have put him on a path that will not end well.


"What does society do with a child like Alex?

Well, apparently we warehouse him at taxpayer expense. Thanks, by the way.

"Is he worthless?"

In a word, yes. He will never grow up to be a normal person. Autistics should be euthanized, and you and your husband should be sterilized in order to ensure that you don't bring any more retards into the world.


Vanessa and Jennifer, you are fuckwits, you are killing your kids with this bullshit. I hope you get AIDs.

Rabid Anti-Marmitist
Rabid Anti-Marmitist

My thoughts are, at the very least he will not end up a socially maladjusted sociopath with a false sense of bravado brought on by internet anonymity. Congratulations, you have successfully demonstrated why we should be thankful that Alex so clearly deviates from the "norm". He was able to get help, it is clearly MUCH too late to get you help. Please do the world a favor and limit your contact with the outside world. Thank You.