Kids have been dying at these things for decades.
Why didnt she bother to spend 5 minutes looking into their qualifiacations?
By Monica Alonzo
By Ray Stern
By New Times Staff
By Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Robrt L. Pela
She was a little better, but by that point, Erica was "on an incredibly short leash." Her cell phone had been taken away. She was allowed an overnight just once every two weeks, and Cynthia stayed in touch with her friends' parents — or so she thought, she realized later.
Erica was still testing positive for drugs, still seeing a psychiatrist. Now she was talking about dropping out of school. Both the psychiatrist and a counselor suggested a drug-treatment program.
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.
It didn't seem to be a bad idea. At that point, Erica had "such a small, small life," Cynthia says sadly. "We were looking for something that would be partly an adventure, like a watershed. And, quite frankly, for some time to regroup."
Cynthia started looking.
First, she called two Outward Bound programs. Neither would take a kid on prescription medication. Nor would Anasazi, an Arizona drug-treatment program.
Then she found Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Expeditions in Nevada.
"'Therapy' is in the title of the program!" Cynthia recalls, more than a little ruefully. This wasn't a boot camp. They were fine with Erica's medication; they heard all about her drug use. They wanted to help.
The family flew to Nevada, the kids thinking it was a family trip. Cynthia was surprised that Erica never figured out what was waiting for her. The family woke up early on Sunday morning, and Cynthia and Michael announced to the girls that the day's activities would be a surprise, telling them only, "It's something none of us have ever done before," Cynthia recalls, adding, "We didn't like lying to our kids."
The orientation was in an office in an industrial park surrounded by tall, pretty trees and cool breezes — two hours away, as it turns out, from the hot wilderness Erica would be hiking in the following day.
"I was incredibly hopeful . . . Michael was much less convinced that this was a good thing," Cynthia says. (Michael confirms this.)
And then Erica wouldn't get out of the car. First Briana and Cynthia went in, leaving Michael and Erica outside. Then, a staff member asked Michael to come in.
"I don't know how they got her into the building, to tell you the truth," says Cynthia, who'd never been to a 12-step meeting; that's what the orientation was like.
"What a lot of pain was in that room. What a lot of sorrow," she says, recalling that she felt "sad and defeated, I'd say. I think we all felt pretty defeated at that point."
Sitting there, she realized Erica was perhaps the only kid who hadn't cut some sort of deal to get out of criminal charges. There were kids who'd forged checks, stolen cars. Erica was upset because she couldn't have her art supplies.
Cynthia tried to say goodbye.
They were the last ones to leave, staying even after the kids had been taken away. Cynthia and Michael kept asking questions. Finally, they drove away with Briana and found some hot springs. They tried to relax. The next day, the three of them took a paddleboat out on Lake Tahoe. Cynthia asked Briana if she wanted to get one of the souvenir photos someone was hawking.
"Briana said, 'No, because it's just the three of us.'"
They flew out late that afternoon and arrived home in Phoenix to a message to call the camp. Michael heard the message; Cynthia had gone to check on the sugar glider.
There'd been an accident, they were told. Someone was doing CPR; they were waiting for search-and-rescue.
Cynthia thought Erica had fallen off a cliff — or jumped off one. Cynthia was in the front of the house when Briana came to find her, saying, "Dad was on the phone with someone, and then he fell down in the backyard and I came to get you."
Much of what happened next is fuzzy in Cynthia's mind. They flew to Reno the next morning and met with camp staff in a room at the airport. Erica's body had already been sent for an autopsy. The staff tried to explain. Erica had been okay, they said. She was out in front of the group. They were taking a water break, she seemed fine, and then she wasn't.
Erica went down at 5 p.m. When she died five hours later, her body temperature was still close to 102 degrees. It's true she was on medication that increased her sensitivity to heat. And there was meth in her blood, too, when she died. But the Harveys had warned the camp of this. (Amazingly, the camp didn't drug-test Erica before she left on that first hike.)
The program's response, through a spokeswoman, was that Erica had hiked only a couple of miles that day. They said she'd had 1.5 liters of water; Cynthia observes that the police reports and civil case depositions never established how much water she'd had, and adds that she was hiking at 8,000 feet after living in Phoenix at 1,000 feet.
The program also argues that the anti-psychotic medications Erica was taking were not established at the time as a threat vis a vis increased body temperature in children.
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