Kids have been dying at these things for decades.
Why didnt she bother to spend 5 minutes looking into their qualifiacations?
By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
She was their "Halloween baby," and every year, Michael and Cynthia would carve Erica a pumpkin and throw her a big birthday party. Cynthia remembers slumber parties from the time Erica was 6.
"We always wanted to make a big deal out of them, because it's special," Michael says of the girls' birthdays. "We always need more things to celebrate."
He remembers that for Erica's 13th birthday, they splurged and rented a limousine to take her guests to a haunted house. Michael doesn't recall exactly how the limo idea came about, but he has fond memories of another detail.
Part 1 told the story of Alex Varlotta, a boy who has struggled with mental illness. When he was 12, his mother called the police as a last-ditch attempt to get him help and keep her family safe. It worked — but at a price. Because their insurance wouldn’t pay for care, the Varlottas had to give up custody of their son to Child Protective Services. Now the state pays about a quarter-million dollars a year for Alex’s care. Today, the Varlottas play a tiny role in the caregiving process.
Part 2 explores another family’s struggle — and the tragic outcome. In both the Varlotta and this case, it’s painfully apparent that adequate services for mentally ill teenagers are tough to come by in our community.
"What I know is that she was particularly tickled about was that it was an all-girl birthday party," he says of Erica, "and she told me that if I wanted to come I'd have to dress up like a girl. So I did."
The party was a lot of fun. The next year was different.
Looking back, Cynthia can peg the changes in her older daughter to a single event: her 14th birthday party.
At the beginning of eighth grade, Erica was still competing on the diving team and playing clarinet in the school band, but she was clearly changing. Maturing physically, that's for sure. All her friends were. So when Cynthia and Michael planned Erica's 14th birthday party, they took care to establish some rules.
It was a big party, held at their house. Erica had a lot of friends; Cynthia capped the guest list at 50. No one was to leave once they'd arrived. It was karaoke and soft drinks, nothing more.
Michael recalls it being a tough night.
"The kids were more adult, and they also were more out of control," he says. "And I remember how difficult it was trying to be present there for her birthday as well as trying to be the parent who had to watch out for everybody."
On top of that, Erica just wasn't herself.
"She didn't seem like she enjoyed the party," Cynthia recalls. "She seemed really stressed. And, of course, we were really stressed."
Just a week or two after that, a couple of Erica's friends told the school counselor that Erica had been cutting herself. The counselor called Cynthia, who did some investigating at home and found a note a friend had written to Erica that said, "I wish you wouldn't hurt yourself that way."
Cynthia freaked out. Erica came home that day, and they talked; she showed Cynthia where she'd been cutting her forearms. She didn't have much of an explanation for why she was doing it, though she'd later tell a hospital nurse she did it because she was a bad person.
Cynthia and Michael were at a loss. They didn't know anyone who'd been in therapy or had issues like this with their kids. Michael called his company's behavioral healthcare insurance number, and the next day they were in a therapist's office.
From the beginning, it was a challenge. "Erica felt that she was at least as smart as the therapist," Cynthia recalls.
Then her grades started to drop. She got in trouble at school. By spring, she had a serious boyfriend and, as Cynthia puts it, "things were just a lot shakier." And moving at "turbo-speed."
Some of Erica's friends began backing away from her. She told a therapist she'd been depressed since she was 10, which surprised Cynthia because, to her, 10 had been such a wonderful year for Erica.
But Erica apparently recalled that year differently. She told two or three different therapists about an incident she remembered hearing about when she was 10. A little boy about her age was sexually assaulted in the bathroom at a mall near the Harveys' house. The boy was a stranger, but it made her "sad and scared," she told a therapist.
A psychiatrist prescribed Prozac at the end of eighth grade. The cutting still hadn't stopped. Cynthia wondered whether Erica had been sexually abused herself; Erica insisted she hadn't.
That summer, there was a lot of drama — friends spending the night, trouble with the boyfriend and other boys. She decided she wanted to go to an arts charter school instead of the International Baccalaureate program she'd been accepted to.
She resisted going back to the therapist, but when she finally did, she admitted she was still depressed. So that doctor increased her Prozac dosage. And then things got even worse.
School began, and then came 9/11, and it was hard to tell just what was causing Erica's increasing despair.
By the end of September, Cynthia was frantic. She had to wake up Erica two hours before it was time to leave for school; she moved that slowly.
"You'd hear her wailing in the night. Wailing. Sometimes I went in to her. Sometimes I didn't. I was helpless. I didn't know what to do."
Cynthia would drop Erica off at school, and she'd call almost immediately to say, come get me. She felt physically ill.
Throughout it all, Cynthia says, "We still always talked." She would rub Erica's feet at night, to help her sleep, and read to her. They read Harry Potter and John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany and a lot of fantasy. They were in the middle of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle when the family left for Nevada.