Saving Alex: A Mother Finally Got Desperately Needed Help for Her Troubled Son — By Having Him Arrested

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.

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.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.