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For week ended October 24, 1999 Posted 31 Oct 1999

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An LDS Couple's struggle with their son's mental illness (A son out of control)

Summarized by Rosemary Pollock

An LDS Couple's struggle with their son's mental illness (A son out of control)
Portland OR Oregonian 24Oct99 P2
By Michelle Roberts: The Oregonian staff

In one final effort to help his troubled son, Christopher, Casey Hutchinson contacted The Oregonian to tell his story of how his family lost their son to mental illness that has tormented him since childhood and of a state system that had no place for him but jail.

It was December of 1998 that the family granted reporter, Michelle Roberts, hundreds of hours of interviews over 11 months and 500 pages of documents that including report cards, teacher and psychiatric reports. Hospital records from the Oregon Youth Authority, along with l4 court hearings, personal letters, diaries, home videos and photographs all supported the families claim of frustration and neglect.

Coos County Juvenile Department and Coos County School District willingly cooperated with the Hutchinson family in releasing Chris' records in an effort to expose the lack of treatment options for severely mentally ill children.

At seven Chris was a freckled boy with light cinnamon-brown hair that began first grade skittish, hyperactive and volatile. He would wake up shouting gibberish, his upper body jerking rigidly. His skin would turn ashen and sweaty and he would not respond to his name. He often picked fights with his sisters, something that would continue to get worse.

During the holiday season, while the family was shopping in an Idaho mall, Chris jerked loose from his father's grasp and darted out into a crowd of Christmas shoppers. Security found him one hour later, alone in the Santa shack devouring candy canes.

His first days of school found him hurling broken crayons at his teacher and screaming profanities. The teacher warned Casey, he must do a better job of disciplining Chris at home. Casey figured that home was where the problems started.

Chris' mother left the family when Chris was 2 with the accusation of physically and verbally abusing Chris and his two sisters. Casy's second wife left when Chris was seven because of the strain of trying to manage Chris. Casy was not without his own problems. He previously had a problem with drugs and alcohol, but gave it all up when his oldest daughter Melissa was born.

Casey had difficulty providing for his family as jobs repossessing rent-to-own furniture forced the family to move from Idaho, to Las Vegas, Reno, San Diego, and Oregon six times, all before Chris turned 11.

In an effort to put some order back into his life, Casey put a personal ad in the Reno Gazette-Journal. A tender-hearted woman with liquid brown eyes and a shy laugh responded and she and Casey were married. Chris immediately took to Mary. She was the single mother of two boys. The youngest had been diagnosed with cancer when he was 4. She spent months by his side, but was unable to support her sons and eventually gave up full custody.

Shortly after marrying, Mary began to discover Chris' problems were more serious than Casey wanted to admit. She discovered a fire that Chris started to set. When she asked him why he did it, he responded, "I wanted to see what you would do."

Problems began to multiply faster than they could face them. Chris could not be controlled at mealtime and would not accept any discipline. After he was spanked he would respond, "Thank you, sir. Can I have another?"

Second grade brought Chris make startlingly realistic animal noises. He'd mimic the sounds of an elephant, chatter like a chipmunk and always thought he was funny. He began to speak this way without any control. His grades in school were satisfactory, but he could not respect rules and play well with others. His classmates called him a "fruitcake" and a "freak."

When Chris was eight, he climbed a tree touching a power line that burned his hands so badly he lost two fingers. This only added to the name calling by his classmates. They jeered, "Alien," "Three-fingered freak." When unable to go on a field trip, Chris drew a picture of his pregnant teacher tied to a train track with bombs around her that resembled Mary. "We were both going to blow up because we wouldn't let him go," Mary said. Later, Chris told his parents, "I'm going to cut her open and take the baby out."

Mary urged Casey to seek outside professional help. Chris was now 10. Casey was promoted to manager of a furniture business, but the family ate Hamburger Helper and dropped their car insurance in an effort to afford the $35 weekly sessions. The sessions soon failed and the doctor wrote a prescription for Ritalin.

This mild stimulant seemed to help. Chris' nightmares stopped and he was relaxed enough to carry on a conversation. Then, without warning, Chris became worse. He hid steak knives and pulled them out to chase or point at Melissa and Susie. He chased them through the house at knifepoint. When they hid in their rooms, he stabbed at their feet while they leaned on the doors.

"It hurts to have to protect yourself from our own child," Mary said. "But we feared for our lives." Chris demanded the girls open their doors at night when they slid dressers in front of their doors before going to bed. "You're blocking the door because you're scared of me, aren't you?"

Chris and Mary moved back to Oregon, where Chris grew up. He hoped a small town influence would be good for Chris. His new job fell through shortly after arriving and he took a job selling used Buicks. He was only making $l500 for a family of five and applied for food stamps.

Chris' nightmares returned and his animal noises exploded. "It was a nose dive," Casey said. "He just went total weird. He'd be sitting there watching TV and 'Eeech! Eeech! He'd screech like a monkey. He didn't even know he was doing it."

When he was enrolled in Springfield Public Schools he was placed in a program for at-risks kids. His disruptions were so outlandish that his teacher removed him from the classroom. He began to chant, "Witches shoes! Witches shoes! I'm going to eat you!" He told his teachers that bugs crawled on him and he could see ghosts.

Casey began working l3-hour days in an effort to avoid going home to face the problems. The family was exhausted from Chris extracting every bit of energy, emotion and especially their sleep. In a desperate cry for help they called the Lane County Mental Health Services.

"We've got a time bomb," Casey said. "He's going to hurt someone if he doesn't get help." They told him he had to learn to live with Chris. Near a breakdown, Casey increased his discipline with Chris. One day, he went too far. He grabbed his 11-year-old son and slammed him hard against the wall, punching him in the stomach. Mary's screams stopped him in midair as he looked at the boy, splayed on the floor, choking and gasping for air. "You can't beat him into being better. This child is sick. He is sick," Mary sobbed.

Frustrated to the point of defeat, Casey called the Lane County branch of Services to Children and Families, or SCF. "He's pushed us," Casey said. "He's pushed us so far that I'm afraid I'm going to lose it. I'm afraid I'm going to kill him." Hearing that he was hit, the caseworker asked, "Does he have any bruises?" "No," Casey replied. With no evidence of abuse, the agency could not help.

Casey, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called a bishop, who unsuccessfully urged Lane County Mental Health Services and SCF to look at placing Chris in a psychiatric residential program. With crowded programs, they were told it could be six months before a bed opened up. "Just be patient. Hang in there. That's all they told us." "How can you when you're fiscally and mentally bankrupt?"

Several weeks later, Chris and another boy broke into a home of an elderly neighbor looking for cash, when Chris' eyes fell on a shotgun. He aimed it at the other boy but was unable to find shells for the gun. Chris later bragged about the gun and the break-in. "I want to know what it feels like to shoot someone," he told his parents. Frantic, they called the police and SCF. "Is it going to take someone dying before you help us?" Mary cried. "Does he have to kill somebody?"

Chris became a ward of the state and was sentenced to jail. His parents and corrections staff have told him about his story being told to the Portland Oregonian newspaper. He agreed it should be told. However, Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility will not allow inmates access to the series, fearing youths will harass Chris.

On March 22, Christopher Hutchinson was sentenced to spend the rest of his boyhood behind bars in one of Oregon's highest-security youth prisons. He is now l4 years old and mentally ill.

This struggle to balance community safety and the medical needs of mentally ill children plays out hundreds of times a year throughout Oregon. Sometimes neither side wins.

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 Kent Larsen · Privacy Information