A lifetime ago, a confused 12-year-old boy finally came unraveled.
The accidental offspring of a fling between a high school junior and her older band leader boyfriend, he had spent far too long overhearing his parents’ shouting matches. And he also could not fathom his mother’s use of what she called her “crazy clean” solution of Lysol and ammonia to clean everything, including him and his 8-year-old brother and baby sister. But the worst of it was the guilt he felt for “ruining” his father’s life by being born.
He didn’t want to live anymore, as his behaviors soon betrayed. Having his stomach pumped after swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills did not produce the desired outcome of showing his mommy and daddy the depth of his pain, nor did his repeated threats to “kill” himself if they didn’t stop fighting.
Life held no joy; it only seemed to get worse.
His father made good his threats to “move out.” Abandonment confirmed the boy’s sense of worthlessness and being unlovable. Now his existence was ruining everybody’s life. That’s when the seventh-grader finally came undone.
In an attempt to save her son, his unstable but loving mother contacted Lutheran Social Services and arranged to have him placed at the Tressler Lutheran Home. She knew the longer he remained in an unhealthy family environment, the more emotionally ill he would become.
Her selfless attempt to rescue her lost son backfired, though, when administrators at the Lutheran Home misconstrued his confusion and tears as signs he was not fit for their program.
Did they really expect him to accept his new status as “orphan” with open arms?
First his daddy, and then his mommy, had decided to be rid of him. Or at least that’s how his immature mind saw it. Now, even an orphanage didn’t want him.
After less than two weeks, the director of the home phoned the boy’s mother to inform her that her son was “anti-social” and there was nothing they could do for him.
This rejection by child welfare “experts” was a lost opportunity to insulate him from the source of his problems. Their patient understanding of a scared young boy’s tears of loss could have saved him from his eventual free-fall into hell. Instead, he was sent back to the milieu that was his undoing.
Consequently, he endured a string of failures and placements that fueled his growing sense of rejection and worthlessness, further compounding his emotional problems and complicating his recovery.
Eighth grade special education certainly did not prepare him for 9th grade college preparatory classes. Nor did his rebellious and aggressive behaviors in school and in the community escape the police. The court adjudicated him “a delinquent youth in need of the care of this court” just before he flunked his freshman year.
After running away early that summer, off-duty cops took him to the hospital for a “check up,” where he flipped out, ended up in the psych ward and, after three days of attacking anyone who entered his cell, the court sent him to the state hospital for diagnosis.
For 77 mind-boggling days, psychiatrists plumbed his fractured 15-year-old brain. They labeled him “schizoid,” “schizophrenic,” “neurotic” and “autistic,” stating further that he had a “guarded” prognosis and should remain at the state hospital “indefinitely.”
A poor decision by a child welfare decision-maker nearly condemned him to the mental health and criminal justice systems. It took the wisdom of a seasoned probation officer and the structure of a juvenile institution to reclaim him.
But all of this could have been avoided, had he remained at the home throughout his adolescence. Of this, he has no doubt.
Dr. Waln Brown is CEO of the William Gladden Foundation. His E-Book, A Foster Care Manifesto, is a call to action for the 12 million foster care alumni in America.