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What Do You Do With a Violent, Developmentally Disabled, Mentally Ill Kid?

Brian Turner's oldest son
Courtesy of Brian Turner

Brian Turner is pretty sure his son was planning to kill him. But he never meant for him to go to jail.

One night last fall, Turner and his wife, Terri, smelled sulfur and found their 16-year-old adopted son inhaling fumes from a spray can in his bedroom, a steak knife at his feet. When confronted, he got violent — ultimately resisting Brian's efforts to restrain him, punching holes through walls, ripping through dry wall, and running out of the house.

Later, they would learn that the boy had told his older sister the day before that he'd found a knife and wanted to hurt his parents, "said that he wishes that Dad died. I told him, Don't ever say that again," his sister described in a handwritten testimonial.

According to Brian Turner — confirmed by medical paperwork he's provided to New Times — his son is a very sick young man, the victim of physical and sexual abuse, as well as fetal alcohol syndrome. His IQ is 52, and his anger apparently is severe enough to warrant a shelf-full of strong drugs, from lithium on down.

When he called the cops that night, Turner figured his son would wind up back at the high-level mental-treatment facility in Texas where he'd been stabilized months before. Instead, the court sent him to jail — the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections.

Brian Turner was horrified.

Years ago, the adolescent unit at Arizona State Hospital was shuttered because of a lack of funds. The state's "kid jail" has been the place where violent, mentally ill kids get treated. Or not. For years, New Times catalogued abuses at ADJC, including terrible mental-health services. The good news, says the department's newest director, Charles Flanagan, is that fewer kids than ever are incarcerated in the state and they receive better care than ever.

In terms of quantity, Flanagan is right. There are only two locked juvenile facilities left in the state, housing just more than 300 kids at the moment. But when it comes to quality, we have to take the director's word for it, because all records are private. Brian Turner has to take his word for it, too. He is no longer in charge of his son's care — the boy is now a ward of the state.

In sporadic phone calls, the boy has reported to Turner that he doesn't take his medication when he doesn't feel like it. Staff has confirmed to Turner that his son doesn't always take his pills, and they say they've lowered the dosage of some of his drugs. Turner is convinced that the latest problems last fall started when the boy began "cheeking" his medicine. Turner believes strongly that his son must follow the treatment plan prescribed by the Texas facility.

ADJC personnel haven't been particularly receptive to Turner's concerns, he says.

Flanagan cannot legally talk about specific cases, he says. "The parent's role and responsibility is still important," he says, but adds, "Quite frankly, sometimes the parents are the enablers of the behavior."

He emphasizes that trained professionals are evaluating kids and prescribing care.

"The parent might not be right, and the parent may not give us the kind of respect that we should have," Flanagan says.

Only about a third of the parents of these incarcerated kids are involved at all in visiting them and attending (either in person or via phone) monthly "staffings," Flanagan says.

These days, the headlines are filled with stories about young men who surprise their families by turning violent. This boy's behavior surprised no one. He was violent from the day they brought him home.

Turns out, that doesn't make figuring out how to parent a kid like this any easier.

"I used to think that the transition from 18 to the adult system was bad, but I think these situations are even worse," says Clarke Romans, director of NAMI of Southern Arizona, a chapter of a national mental health advocacy group.

"This group of kids is [an] almost intractable problem, given the way the system works, the way the laws are, and given the nature of the disorders."


Brian Turner has lived all over the state and worked as both a band teacher and a school resource officer. For the past few years, his family has settled in Benson, in southern Arizona, where Turner's now an ordained minister. A heart defect has slowed him down. He's been too healthy for a heart transplant but not healthy enough to work much, he says on the phone between labored breaths. It was the heart defect that made him decide to adopt — he didn't want to pass it down to a child.

So, now, he and Terri have five kids — four from one family, and another son adopted later. In many ways, he says, it's been rewarding.

 

"These kids show up with garbage bags for their belongings. They don't know what a home is," he says.

"I'll never forget the kids' first Christmas. They had no idea what it was . . . We videotaped it, and the look on their faces. They didn't understand that was for them."

The oldest boy, he recalls, was always a Scooby-Doo fan.

And, Turner admits, he was trouble from the start. He came into the Turners' home when he was 3.

"His issues started presenting then. He was a head-banger; he would bang his head, pound his fists . . . We knew about the fetal alcohol [syndrome], we knew about the attachment issues," Turner says.

The boy already was on medication and getting therapy.

With all four kids, Turner says, "their symptoms were always there." And understandably, he adds, given what they'd grown up in: "They were just left to cry and crawl on the floor and eat what they could."

Soon, the older boy "realized he could become more argumentative. He became more violent. He would start throwing things, would start walking out."

He was suspended from school for fighting, cussed out teachers in junior high, and on a summer evening in 2009 — after being told to clean his room and take a shower — the boy left the house.

"Within 30 minutes, we had rocks flying through all of our windows." There was more than $8,000 in damage. Years later, Turner marvels that no one was hurt.

It got worse from there — the boy was in and out of the Turners' home, in and out of group homes.

"The older he got, the more daring he got," Turner says. He got into drugs, parties, and in and out of detention. And, finally, he was sent to the San Marcos Treatment Center in Texas.

Sixteen months later, despite his own bad health, Turner traveled to Texas for the discharge process. "He had been through so much," he says of the boy. "He had successfully completed their program."

And for 4 1/2 months, Turner recalls, he was "helpful, kind, considerate."

Then, school started, and the boy fell in with a bad crowd. Stopped going to football practice. Started hoarding food in his bedroom, as he'd done as a small child. Refused to do chores, talked back. And, then, the smell of sulfur.

He had towels shoved under the door, a steak knife at his feet, an aerosol can in his hand. "He was either torching or inhaling; we're not sure which," Turner recalls.

The situation "escalated from a two to a 10 in about 10 seconds . . . I was holding him down on the bed. I just put my faith in God and did what I could."

The police caught him outside the house 10 minutes later and took him to juvenile detention. The next day, authorities called and told Turner to pick him up. Thinking he had a chance to get the boy back in treatment — and afraid for his family's safety — he pleaded for help.

Instead of treatment, his son got incarceration.

Turner's been unhappy with ADJC since the beginning, saying staff has been slow to return phone calls, if they call back at all. He wanted his son placed in the mental-health unit; instead, they put him in a unit reserved for substance abusers.

Most of all, he's upset that the boy has resisted medication. He knows part of that is a show of defiance.

"He knows it gets me," Turner says. "He says, 'Because I can do bad when I'm not on my meds, I know I can do bad.'"

And the difference between being on and off the drugs, in Turner's opinion? "One hundred percent, night and day."

ADJC's Flanagan says the department hasn't had a kid forcibly medicated (that requires a court order) since 2009, something he obviously considers a point of pride. But some mental-health experts believe it's not such a bad thing. NAMI's Romans says there's a growing trend in the mental-health community toward it.

"They do better, the people around them do better, and it's not as important that the person taking the medication believes they actually need the medication," Romans says, adding that he's not sure how the law applies to kids.

"With young kids like this, I don't have any good information about the reality and the legality of forced medication, even though I'm sure the father's 100 percent right that he's better when he's on medication."

Chick Arnold, a longtime mental-health advocate and attorney in Phoenix, agrees that forced medication is the best option sometimes — particularly if it preserves community safety.

"I've been doing this long enough to recognize the importance of involuntary treatment," Arnold says.

 

If this was his case, Arnold says, he'd consider filing a petition with the court to get the boy moved out of ADJC and into a treatment setting. Another possible option: petition the court to order ADJC to medicate him.

"What can one parent do?" Turner asks. "I can't afford an attorney."

For now, he says, he intends to "make a stink on the computer with everyone I can find."


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