Warrior Dad: A Father's Journey Into Arizona's Flawed Juvenile Justice System

Warrior Dad: A Father's Journey Into Arizona's Flawed Juvenile Justice System
Brian Stauffer

click to enlarge BRIAN STAUFFER
Brian Stauffer

CHAPTER ONE: The Son He Wanted So Badly

On the last Tuesday in April, Steve Renner made the hourlong drive north to Adobe Mountain School for what he hoped was the final time.

They call it a school, but really, Adobe is prison for kids — the last remaining locked-down facility run by the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections — located, ironically, off the Happy Valley Road exit on Interstate 17 on the way out of Phoenix.

Renner was nervous, wondering if there would be lots of questions, if this would be one more in a string of disappointments ending with his son, Stephen, being led from the hearing room back to his cell.

Instead, the whole thing was over in minutes. Renner handed his kid a T-shirt he’d ordered online that says, “Straight Outta Adobe Mountain” and drove him to New Times’ offices in downtown Phoenix so we could meet.

Stephen is 16. He’s handsome and sturdy, with short dark hair and thick-rimmed glasses. He plunks down in an old lounge chair and starts in on a box of doughnuts, choosing plain glazed over chocolate. He roots around in a plastic bag I’ve handed him, pulling out a bottle of lemonade. He taps the side.

“Glass,” he says, almost whispering the word with reverence. “I haven’t had this in two years.”

The kids don’t drink from glass at Adobe.

Stephen pauses and politely offers the bottle to his father, who shakes his head. The boy opens it and takes a sip. He sits quietly.

It’s hard to imagine that this is the kid who could barely go a day for much of his life without getting in trouble, ultimately locked up because he couldn’t stop acting out. As we talk, he says all the right things, like that he missed “freedom and being able to give my dad hugs.”

Stephen earned his GED at Adobe, and rattles off the books he read while he was locked up — the “Twilight” series, and The Hunger Games. He also read guides about how to write a resume. He wants to find a job in food service, or maybe go to community college.

click to enlarge Steve Renner fought to get his son out of Adobe Mountain. - TOM CARLSON
Steve Renner fought to get his son out of Adobe Mountain.
Tom Carlson
I look over at Renner, expecting him to beam with pride. He is expressionless, quiet. He is listening. He is uncertain. Stephen’s dad is short and muscular with close-cropped brown hair and the hint of a beard. Renner looks like he could take down just about anyone in an alley at night, but I know from our emails and conversations over the last few months that he is afraid. Afraid that the system has failed his child, and maybe even a little afraid of him, too. Afraid of the son he’d wanted more than anything.

Steve Renner had wanted a son so badly, he had four daughters. Finally, his namesake was born on November 30, 2000.

But it didn’t go the way Renner had hoped. By the time young Stephen was 5, he’d been kicked out of kindergarten for bad behavior. He threatened his stepmother, threw chairs at school, hit, and spit.

Renner had dreamed of taking his son hiking and on long road trips, the kind of trips he’d gone on with his own father. He wanted to take Stephen to Disneyland.

He couldn’t even take him to a restaurant, or a movie.

A state caseworker offered to place Stephen with a foster family. The Renners said no. They didn’t want to abandon their son, they said; they wanted to get him help. They took him to doctors, tried medication, had him hospitalized.

As Stephen got older, his behavior escalated, and he started getting caught — fighting, shoplifting, taking another kid’s bike. He was sentenced to community service, which he refused to do. That landed him in county detention.

Then things got really bad. Stephen cussed at staff, refused to sit still in class, picked fights with the other kids — all repeatedly punished with solitary confinement.

Then things got worse. A psychologist strongly suggested that Stephen needed in-patient treatment for behavior issues. The court disagreed.

Instead, Stephen was sent to Adobe Mountain.

At first, Steve Renner was okay with it. He believed his son would be there for a short time to get help; he hoped someone would keep trying till they found the right medication for Stephen. He was growing increasingly concerned about his son, plugging symptoms into Google. It was hard to accept what he found.

But although he was given some counseling, Stephen was never placed in Adobe’s mental-health unit. No new behavior-related medications were prescribed. In fact, there were some periods of time where Stephen did not even receive his Vyvanse, a drug used to treat ADHD that he’d already been taking.

click to enlarge Stephen Renner, on the day he got out of Adobe Mountain. - TOM CARLSON
Stephen Renner, on the day he got out of Adobe Mountain.
Tom Carlson
Instead, the boy continued to rack up offenses. He punched a wall. On a dare, he swallowed batteries. He wrote a letter to Donald Trump with such graphic threats it earned both him and his parents visits from the Secret Service and a promise that the authorities would watch Stephen for the rest of his life, according to Renner. He exposed himself to a guard and hit another one; two felonies were added to his record.

A third meant he’d be sent to the adult correctional system.

Instead, after persistent lobbying from his father, he got out.

Stephen wrote a poem while he was at Adobe. He read it during the ceremony where he got his GED. The poem is long and thoughtful, and ends with:

A man lives in reality.

A boy will try to cross a river without a bridge,

A man will build a bridge to cross that river.

A boy will cower from his fears.

A man will take his fears to trial.

A boy will make mistakes, however, the first step to becoming a man is learning from a boy’s mistakes.

I was the boy, and a part of me still is a boy, but I am learning how to be a man. I want to be a man. I want to live my life. Please, give me the chance.

Steve Renner has stopped at nothing to try to give his son that chance. The man is no expert on juvenile justice. He’s an auto mechanic from Ahwatukee who loves his son and was terrified of what might have happened to Stephen if he landed in adult prison.

Now that Stephen’s finally back home, his dad worries about what might happen under his own roof.

click to enlarge New Times has covered ADJC going back to 2001. - NEW TIMES
New Times has covered ADJC going back to 2001.
New Times
CHAPTER TWO: Rehabilitation or Punishment?

Despite its name, the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections never was meant to be penal. Instead, the agency’s mission is to help and treat kids who run afoul of the law.

But it’s ADJC that too often has found itself in trouble.

Twice now, the state agency has fallen under intense scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Justice, amid federal orders to improve services and ensure safety.

A 1987 lawsuit ultimately led to federally mandated changes at the agency, which had famously kept one boy in solitary confinement for several weeks.

Conditions for kids behind bars in Arizona got better — for a while.

And then in 2001, the Department of Justice began making inquiries into conditions at ADJC, after a series of stories in Phoenix New Times revealed concerns about the safety of both staff and kids, as well as potential civil rights violations. Between 2002 and 2003, three boys in ADJC custody committed suicide. The DOJ ultimately investigated under CRIPA, the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, confirming much of what New Times had originally reported.

Again, things improved, though internal critics wondered just how much. The Department of Justice was satisfied, however, and closed its case in 2007.

In 2009, the Arizona Auditor General released a report on suicide prevention at ADJC. The results were largely glowing, leading the Arizona Republic, the state’s newspaper of record, to hand out high-fives in a story headlined, “Arizona’s Juvenile Jails Free of Suicides Since ’03.”

That fall, New Times reported on a series of suicide attempts at state facilities — including some very close calls — and questioned the efficacy of ADJC’s mental-health services.

In 2012, the state Auditor General reported that its recommendations in that 2009 suicide report had been implemented. That watchdog agency hasn’t issued a report regarding ADJC in the five years since.

Since then, except for some complaints over wrongful termination, ADJC has been pretty quiet — almost silent when it comes to the kids. There has been turnover at both the top (three directors in recent times) and below (according to the state Department of Administration, the turnover rate for youth corrections officers is 75 percent, the highest of any job in Arizona state government).

From time to time, an ADJC employee — usually a former employee, often one who has been terminated — writes to New Times to complain about conditions at Adobe Mountain. But those employees are rarely willing to go on the record or share specifics. It’s even harder to find a parent willing to talk openly about a child.

Then came Stephen’s father.

There’s a lot of talk these days about tiger moms. Steve Renner is a warrior dad. His name is recognized in many corners of the local juvenile justice system; some know him as a nag, others think he’s over the top.

No one can deny that he loves his kid and wants the best for him — but Renner, like pretty much everyone else who’s encountered Stephen — doesn’t quite seem to know what that is, even though he’s done a lot to educate himself about the system. He’s got an associate’s degree in auto technology — and a Ph.D in fighting for his kid.

Much of what he’s learned is how little he knows. Renner’s not afraid to admit that. He doesn’t know what to do to help his son. If he did, he says, he would have done it long ago.

But he’s continually surprised that no one else seems to know what to do, either.

Renner’s outspoken about his gripes with ADJC, and he has shared a lot of documents with New Times that give a rare, behind-the-scenes look at one kid’s story: hundreds of pages of medical records from Stephen’s stay at St. Luke’s Behavioral Health when he was 8; psychologist reports when he was charged with misdemeanors as a teen; giant stacks of incident reports from Maricopa County detention, and health records; as well as hundreds of pages of incident reports from Stephen’s two years at Adobe Mountain.

Even with all the documents Renner provided, it’s hard to know what the other side is thinking — and what they were doing. Dozens of incident reports document Stephen’s behavior while in custody. He cursed at guards, exposed himself to staff and other kids, reported hearing voices, cut himself, acted out in class, acted violently.

Almost always, an incident resulted in separation (the kid is placed in an empty, locked room) or exclusion (the kid is placed in his cell, which is locked). But while guards were careful in the reports to document how long Stephen remained in restraints (like handcuffs, usually only a few minutes) the records don’t mention how long Stephen was left alone in each instance.

One incident report details a day in which, according to staff recollections, Stephen had threatened suicide. He was left in his cell but his clothing was taken away and he was given a “suicide blanket,” which he put in his toilet in an attempt to flood the room. Guards removed the blanket, as well as Stephen’s mattress. He repeatedly screamed at the staff that he would get them fired, made sexual comments, and was ultimately placed in restraints.

Again, he was never placed in Adobe’s mental-health unit.

ADJC administrators aren’t talking.

They cannot speak about individual kids, which is understandable given the legal constraints that protect juveniles as well as any individual’s medical status. But requests to ADJC and the governor’s office for an interview with senior staff regarding general questions about mental health treatment at Adobe Mountain were denied and then ignored, as was a request for a tour of the facility, even though New Times has toured it in years past.

ADJC’s current interim director, Jeff Hood, is still listed as deputy director on the Arizona Department of Corrections web site. Insiders insist he wants to help kids and rehabilitate rather than punish.

But it’s the department’s relatively new director for government and public affairs, Chris Hegstrom, whose name raises eyebrows. Hegstrom served most recently as spokesman for Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Now, he’s got that job for the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections.

It’s an interesting hire, considering Arpaio’s track record on human rights and his office’s commitment to punishment, not rehabilitation.

In response to a request for a sit-down interview about mental-health treatment and other issues at ADJC, Hegstrom sent me an email that felt like it was cut and pasted from a promotional brochure. It offered the most basic information about the agency and concluded:

“Thank you again for taking time to learn more about the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, an agency that focuses on being a place for young offenders to receive help and treatment in order to return to their community and be productive members of society.”

CHAPTER THREE: Trouble and More Trouble

Stephen Renner’s parents divorced when he was very young. He came to live with his father and stepmother and siblings when he was 4.

“Right away, we started noticing odd behaviors,” Steve Renner says. “He didn’t want to pay attention to stuff, he tried to hit his sisters. ... We put him in kindergarten and they asked us to remove him.”

Renner took Stephen to a psychiatrist, who told him his son had “behavior issues” but was too young for a diagnosis.

The same thing happened when Stephen was 7. He wasn’t given a formal diagnosis, but the boy did get an IEP (individualized education plan) at school.

“Most of his time at school, he got in trouble,” Renner recalls. “He had to eat lunch with the principal, couldn’t go to recess.”

In school after school, the outcome was the same. Stephen was placed in self-contained special education classrooms with kids with learning delays. He found this very frustrating. (Tests have shown that he has at least an average IQ.)

His behavior got worse.

click to enlarge Steve Renner, left, has stood by his son, Stephen, through years of difficulties. - TOM CARLSON
Steve Renner, left, has stood by his son, Stephen, through years of difficulties.
Tom Carlson
“It was twice a week at least, it was something bad,” his dad says. “Throwing chairs, spitting on people, threatening.”

But at other times, Renner says, Stephen was very quiet, played video games, and watched SpongeBob SquarePants. He loves to eat.

“He’d eat anything,” Renner says. “If there’s one thing about this kid he likes, it’s food.”

He didn’t have a lot of friends; Renner worried it was because of a lazy eye, and thought Stephen might get bullied. They tried to get the boy to patch it, per a doctor’s instructions. Stephen refused.

When he was 8, Stephen said he was going to stab his stepmom. Renner brought him to St. Luke’s Behavior Health Center in Phoenix.

Doctors diagnosed Stephen with both a mood disorder and psychotic disorder.

“He has been aggressive at home, at school he choked a peer and hit and slapped another peer the day prior to admission, and was expelled due to these ongoing behavior problems. The parents report the patient has been a danger to himself and others,” according to St. Luke’s file.

When Stephen was admitted, “he was extremely aggressive and agitated.” The report described his mood as “both sad and angry.”

Stephen reported that voices were telling him to kill himself.

During his stay, he received group and individual therapy as well as medication for “aggressive behavior including banging his head on a table, kicking and assaulting staff, biting himself, putting his hands around his throat. ... He had conflicts with peers. He exhibited low frustration tolerance. He had incident of trying to strangle himself with a pillowcase. He stated that he has no self-control when he is aggressive. He was unpredictable.”

At the end of a month, according to the reports, “the patient was more calm. He was pleasant.” There was no more aggression, and Stephen denied suicidal or homicidal thoughts. He was sent home.

“After that whole month, he was actually worse,” Renner says.

The search for a solution continued.

“Most of these psychiatrists who would see him, they’d listen to us for five minutes then say, ‘Okay, try this,’” Renner recalls. “So we’d give it to him, but … every day we’re getting calls that he’s throwing rocks, fighting with kids.”

Stephen battled truancy charges; he said he just wasn’t learning anything in the self-contained classrooms. Then he was charged with shoplifting $24 in merchandise — vodka, chips, and soda — from a Safeway.

It wasn’t his first brush with the law. He’d also had a fight with a kid (he says he was trying to protect his younger stepbrother), and there was a charge for stealing a bike. The misdemeanors — and subsequent probation violation — landed him at Maricopa County’s juvenile detention facility in Mesa.

There are hundreds of pages of incident reports from Mesa, some detailing self-harm and aggression. Most document Stephen yelling obscenities at staff and being punished by being placed in isolation.

A pretty typical report dated March 11, 2015, details a day in which Stephen yelled at another kid while brushing his teeth and “antagonized” other kids while waiting for breakfast. He yelled at staff and had privileges taken away. When he was told he was being punished for being verbally abusive, he responded, “fuck you I don’t give a fuck you fucking fucker.”

He was placed in isolation for seven hours.

Renner flips through the pages and stops. He says it’s hard for him to read over what happened. He wishes he could go back and hug his son.

The search for the right medication had continued over the years, Renner says, and at this point Stephen, was on Vyvanse, which seemed to be working. Stephen was at the Mesa facility off and on for six months and Renner says he never received his medication while he was there. Renner believes this made things worse.

The boy “does have ongoing treatment needs, and ultimately he may require placement in a residential treatment program,” the psychologist appointed by the court to evaluate Stephen wrote after the boy’s first three months in custody.

“At this point, I would recommend the court consider a disposition plan that includes assignment to probation and drug testing, referral to an intensive outpatient treatment program, and a psychiatric consultation for purpose of reviewing his present medication regimen.”

Stephen was put on a waiting list for outpatient treatment and sent home. It was believed that he needed drug treatment because he told the psychologist that he smoked marijuana and tried many other substances. He has never been charged with a drug crime and has never tested positive for drugs, says his father, who believes the drug stories are greatly exaggerated, if true at all.

Stephen violated probation almost immediately and wound up back in detention, where he continued to rack up incident reports.

The second evaluation — conducted several months later by the same psychologist — noted that Stephen’s behavior had grown worse, and suggested a different route, either a residential treatment program or commitment to the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections.

The psychologist urged the court to send Stephen to a treatment program:

“Steve is still just 14 years of age, and his juvenile profile contains just two referrals. I am aware that he has been basically uncontrollable in the detention environment; still, I do not believe at this point that commitment is indicated.”

A hearing officer disagreed, and wrote:

“… placing a youth like Stephen into a mental-health milieu will only contaminate the milieu given he has consistently demonstrated a pattern of opposition and resistance to all efforts of adult authority figures to manage and/or control him. This would only disrupt the progress of all of the other clients in the treatment milieu.

“… Stephen may only be amenable to supervision and treatment services if his liberty depends on it.”

The court sent Stephen to Adobe Mountain.

click to enlarge Adobe Mountain School. - ARIZONA DEPARTMENT OF JUVENILE CORRECTIONS
Adobe Mountain School.
Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections
CHAPTER FOUR: Does Adobe Mountain Really Help?

It’s hard to get a complete picture of just what happens to a kid like Stephen Renner or any kid at Adobe Mountain, or, for that matter, anywhere in the juvenile justice system. Records are kept private to protect kids. (For the most part, juvenile records are expunged when a child turns 18.)

But that means these facilities operate in secret. Kids are put into ADJC’s custody by judges who don’t have oversight for what happens after that.

As Beth Rosenberg, director of child welfare and juvenile justice for the Arizona-based Children’s Action Alliance, explains, ADJC is part of the executive branch, not the court system.

“There is a concern that there is no outside review. The department is not accountable to anyone outside the department,” she says.

“Kids don’t get attorneys,” Rosenberg adds. They do have advocates, “but they’re department staff. … There’s no mandated independent person advocating for these kids.”

There is no outside review of cases, no outside counsel unless a family hires a lawyer.

And that’s important because of the way you get out of ADJC custody. It’s super-subjective — all about earning points for good behavior and advancing through levels designed to rehabilitate. If you don’t behave, you don’t advance. If you really misbehave — and start racking up felony charges — you risk being transferred to the adult system.

Here are the tough questions, and you could ask them of other kids, as well: Is Stephen Renner simply an incorrigible kid, a bad egg? Or, as his father insists, is he ill and in need of serious mental-health treatment?
And was Adobe Mountain the right placement for Stephen?

“It’s not a behavioral-health facility,” Beth Rosenberg says.

Elissa Hyne, a senior policy analyst at Children’s Rights, a national watchdog nonprofit based in New York, says it’s dangerous to lock up a kid with behavior problems like Stephen’s.

“The point of a juvenile justice facility is not as a mental-health facility. They are two different things,” she says.
Not in Arizona.

The good news is that the number of kids in this kind of custody in the state has shrunk considerably over the years, following a national trend and the fact that it’s very expensive to keep a kid at a facility like Adobe Mountain.

A January 2016 report from the Children’s Action Alliance and the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University reported that the number of kids in custody at Adobe Mountain is lower than ever.

At one point, there were ADJC-run facilities all over the state, and Adobe had a sister site, Black Canyon, which housed girls. Now, all the kids in ADJC custody are at Adobe Mountain.

But the report’s author cautioned that the department’s inclination to use Adobe Mountain as a center for mental-health treatment was dangerous.

According to the study, “Locking up youthful offenders, research indicates, not only does not decrease future criminal behavior but may increase it.”

The study goes on to explain that research shows that incarceration may encourage delinquency; that kids’ brains are still developing — and thus they might not be able to focus, might fall prey to impulsive behavior, and might suffer from mental illness or trauma.

“When you can’t adequately treat … you address the behaviors, usually by punishing the behaviors,” says Children’s Rights’ Elissa Hyne. “That just harms the youth even more.”

The use of isolation — at Adobe Mountain it’s called “separation” — is particularly of concern.

“For any child, solitary confinement is incredibly damaging,” Hyne says, adding that this can affect the development of the frontal lobe and result in “long-term social and cognitive consequences.”

Kids should be interacting with families and the rest of their community, she adds.

“Without all that, you can’t develop your adult skills.”

CHAPTER FIVE: Warrior Dad Does His Homework

This is a partial list of the places that Steve Renner contacted, looking for help in getting Stephen out of Adobe Mountain:

Governor Doug Ducey; the state ombudsman; the state Department of Children’s Services; Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema; U.S. senators John McCain and Jeff Flake; the U.S. Department of Justice, the Arizona Center for Disability Law; the American Civil Liberties Union; the state medical board; Middle Ground (a prison reform nonprofit); and the state attorney general’s office.

He also started a petition on change.org. It got 147 signatures.

Renner emailed New Times in February of this year.

“To whom it may concern,” he wrote, “I’m hoping you can help my 16-year-old son.”

The letter detailed Stephen’s current situation — that he was in custody at Adobe Mountain and had been for 19 months and counting, with no set release date.

click to enlarge Stephen Renner earned his GED at Adobe but he also wrote a threatening letter to Donald Trump while staying there. - COURTESY OF THE RENNER FAMILY
Stephen Renner earned his GED at Adobe but he also wrote a threatening letter to Donald Trump while staying there.
Courtesy of the Renner family
Renner explained that he did not believe that Stephen was getting proper care.

“They said since he doesn’t hear voices or see things, he didn’t belong in the mental-health unit.”

That didn’t — and still doesn’t — make sense to Renner. He’s continued to look for clues. He does know of some things that transpired. The one that bothers his wife, Karen, the most is the letter Stephen wrote to Donald Trump.

It’s dated July 31, 2016, and like the poem Stephen read at his GED ceremony, it shows off his writing skills. But the tone and content are much different.

As Stephen explains when I ask him why he wrote it, a guard made him mad by teasing him about how great Trump was. Angry, Stephen asked for paper and a pencil and wrote the letter, which he says he threw in the garbage but another guard dug up and used to get him in trouble.

Dear Mr. Donald Trump, please do yourself a favor and kill yourself before I find you. Because, if I find you, you will wish that you had put a .45 down your throat and pulled the trigger. I will tie you up, and beat the shit out of you. Only a little bit though. After I beat the shit out of you, I will rip off every fingernail and toenail. I will use bolt cutters to take off both of your toes and fingers. I will yank out your teeth with pliers. I will then slice your tongue in two like a snake.

The description continues — body part by body part — and concludes:

Once I’ve removed your head, I will chop up your body into bits and shove the pieces into a cardboard box and mail you to your wife. On that box will be a note that says “you’re next bitch.”

The Secret Service agents told Stephen they will watch him for the rest of his life.

The Renners think the agents who said that aren’t really serious about it — but they’re not sure. Karen says that letter scared her more than anything that’s happened in all the time she’s been with Steve. They’ve been married for nine years, and have a blended family of eight kids.

“It was disturbing,” she says.

Karen says she loves her stepson. “Sometimes, he’s the most lovable kid ever,” she says. But he’s manipulative, too. He can be charming, like the day he visited my office.

“He could sell green Popsicles to a lady wearing white gloves,” Karen adds.

Her husband nods. He is convinced his son struggles with figuring out right from wrong. He has no fear, no remorse, Renner says. And yet, he can be loving. There were reports that as a child, Stephen would step in to help classmates in trouble.

As a little boy, at night, “he would always come in and give me a hug and tell me he loved me,” Renner says, musing that Stephen was the only one of his children who did. Even when Stephen was mad, he’d come in for a hug.

He’s not always coming in for hugs since he got home from Adobe, Renner says. He supposes Stephen’s grown out of it. Renner looks at the ground.

“That’s what makes me the most mad about it,” he says. “I lost those years. … Once they become teenagers, they don’t want to be around you.”

If he had it to do all over again, would he do anything differently? Renner pauses for a long time, looks at his wife.

“I guess probably it would be not give into him as much. I figured if I gave into him, he wouldn’t act out and he’d behave, and then we wouldn’t have to deal with all the cussing and throwing stuff.”

The Renners took out the trash themselves; they didn’t make Stephen clean his room.

Otherwise, no. Steve doesn’t regret trying to get his son help. And he intends to keep trying.

No matter what happens, he says, he won’t ever forgive the state for what Stephen and his family went through at the hands of the staff of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections. He still has complaints outstanding with the governor and the state ombudsman. The state medical board is investigating some of his concerns.

There is a pattern when it comes to Stephen’s medical care at Adobe: He didn’t get much. ADJC refused to get Stephen surgery for his lazy eye, although a doctor suggested it was needed. Adobe officials first used a metal detector to confirm the possibility that Stephen had swallowed batteries, and never sent him to the hospital; instead, he was left in isolation until he passed the batteries. Then, Renner says, the boy was forced to pick them out of his feces himself. And no one ever tried any medications to control Stephen’s behavior.

Could that be because health care costs for a kid at ADJC are incurred by the department, rather than the state insurance system or the child’s family?

Renner doesn’t know. He just knows that his complaints have not been answered to his satisfaction.
“It’s been a crazy two years,” he says. “I expected something like that if I bought a used car, that kind of treatment, but the way they treated us was just horrible.

“They treated us like we were just dumb or something. And all we were asking was would you please try to help him, get him some medication or something, and they treated us like we were nothing, man,” Renner adds.
“Adobe could have found the right cocktail, but they never tried.”

Renner loves his son. He says he teared up when he heard him read his poem aloud at the GED graduation. But he believes Stephen tells people what he thinks they want to hear. He’s excited to have him home, but concerned the bad behavior is already picking up again.

In the last few weeks, Stephen hasn’t been doing much, his father says. He has a couple of friends, but mostly he keeps to himself. He’s been lobbying for a puppy. His sister got him a job at a restaurant, Renner says, but Stephen was fired the first day for stealing a $20 tip off a table. Stephen told his dad he found the money on the floor.

Stephen missed his first appointment with the parole officer and tried to blame his father, Renner says. The parole officer agreed to reschedule the meeting to the next day; Stephen showed up for that.

“He’s still manipulative. He hasn’t changed much,” Renner says. “He’s already trying to not accept responsibility for himself, and I think as time goes by, it’s going to get worse and worse and worse unless we get medication or a better diagnosis or something.”

After several weeks, Renner got Stephen in to see a psychologist in late May. The doctor renewed the boy’s prescription for Vyvanse and also prescribed Lexapro, a drug used to treat depression and anxiety.

“She did not understand why the psychiatrist at Adobe did not try an antidepressant or a mood stabilizer,” Renner wrote in an email.

Stephen’s got an appointment with a different psychiatrist this summer, one who specializes in behavior issues. Renner’s insurance will only pay for six visits, so he hopes this doctor is the right one — and that he works quickly.

After all his online research, Renner already thinks he knows what’s wrong with Stephen. The doctors call it conduct disorder when a kid is under 18.

“I’ve been saying it for a while,” Renner says. “Kids do bad things but after a while they straighten up. ... I don’t think you can just put that under control by itself. That kind of violence.”

After a child turns 18, the diagnosis is sociopath.

“I hope I’m wrong,” he says.

click to enlarge Stephen’s graduation poem. - COURTESY OF STEVE RENNER
Stephen’s graduation poem.
Courtesy of Steve Renner

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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.