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

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.

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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