Parkland Shooting: From the Mother of a Child With Conduct Disorder

February 20, 2018


Before I start talking about the Parkland shooting, I want to express the sorrow I feel for the families and friends of the victims, and for the loss of the victims themselves. I am sad and frustrated and this event will be on my mind for a long time. It is  a waste of so many beautiful, good people with such promise.  I suspect these are hollow words, as this is what everyone says after a school shooting, and none of  these matter to the parents, loved ones and friends of the dead, because their loved ones are dead. It's stupid and horrifying that so much goodness is now gone. I think about the victims often.



I have family members whose child attends Stoneman Douglas High School. He lost friends in the shooting. I have family members who work in law enforcement and were there that night, at the hotel where the parents were waiting to hear confirmation that their children were murdered. My husband, who volunteers with our local fire department doing auxiliary support for the firefighters in the field, also was there that afternoon, evening, and night. He relayed what he saw and it was horrifying. 


This one hit too close to home, but the often do for me.


My son attended Broward County Schools. Though I disagree with this opinion, I was told by one  psychologist, that I am the parent of a potential "future school shooter."  We put the doctor's two thousand-dollar fee on a credit card after the Broward County school system would not provide the proper psycho-educational evaluation my son needed to get him adequate school placement for his special needs. We left his office with a diagnosis of Conduct Disorder (CD), no promise of treatment, and no tip for how to help him at home, other than, "don't let him out of your sight." We were told that the psycho-educational evaluation he gave us would help us navigate the ESE Department of our school system, but it did not. Like that doctor, and the several others we consulted,  the Broward County School system had no real answers, my son's behaviors were seen as a nuisance, and so was I.


I am connected with several parents across the US whose children have similar issues.  What I would like people to know, from the prospective of a parent of a child labeled with Conduct Disorder, is this: we parents are pulling our hair out trying to get early intervention for our differently-brained children. We ask psychologists and neurologists and psychiatrists and developmental pediatricians. We ask social workers. We ask teachers and school systems. We ask churches. We spend hours on the phone with insurance companies trying to get them to pay for long-term residential care. We try doc after doc after doc. And largely, unless we take extreme measures, such as hiring a lawyer or refusing to pick up our children from treatment centers and giving up custody of our children so the state will pay for treatment, we receive little-to-no help. 


Instead we are judged for having "these kinds of kids." People, even family members, make assumptions about our home lives, our own psychological problems, and how we treat our children. They look for clues that would indicate we are doing something wrong. They look a little extra carefully at our other children, no matter how "normally" they function. The words we hear, over and over, are: There is nothing we can do. Just wait until he offends and the prison system will take care of him.


There are so many reasons why this phrase is unacceptable. I'll illustrate one with a bit of Trafalmadorian time logic:  Rewind life back thirty days before the shooting. Tell the loved ones of the future Parkland victims that there might be a shooting in the near future, and their loved ones might be victims. We have some fairly clear indications that it might be this one person, but there is nothing we can do. We simply have to wait until the person offends and the prison system will take care of him. 


That sounds ridiculous. In what world is that acceptable to any parent, or fair to any child?  I use this example, as impossible as it really is, because in the case of the alleged Parkland school shooter, we had many predictions that this could become a reality, and in each case, I'll bet my hat that the alleged shooter's mother heard, "There is nothing we can do. We have to wait until he offends and the prison system will take care of him."


I wrote an essay about my son, which was published in my book, Mothers of Sparta. I spoke about the essay recently on Megyn Kelly Today and have received some kind attention by compassionate viewers and a few professionals, but when people talk about what needs to be done with gun laws, and mental health programs, no one is talking about what REALLY needs to be done, which is to start with treatment when children first show signs of differences.


I was aware that something was wrong when my son was 1 or 2, and was convinced something profound was wrong by age 5. I have had a shamefully hard time getting proper help, and when you are working with kids with conduct disorder, prefrontal cortex issues, impulse control issues, differently-structured amygdalas and other structural and functional differences in the brain, you need to help them when their brains are young and plastic. Experts say preschool.


When parents of kids with Conduct Disorder compare notes, we see similarities, no matter what state we are reporting from. When we try to get help from schools, we are passed off, denied services, and end up changing schools very often. In Broward Country, my child's rights to a FAPE were violated, and my son was denied entrance to a school for students with emotional disabilities, even though after extensive testing, a Broward school psychologist recommended in writing that he be placed there. After an IEP meeting, one school official took me aside and told me, off the record, that they would deny him because it cost too much to send him there. Another thing we noticed is that schools tend to reply to our repeated email requests with phone calls only. They only respond by phone. I was told, off the record again, by a former Broward County special education employee, that this is so there is no paper trail if/when we attempt to sue. That's just plain dirty.


We also try to get help from doctors. Our children usually need long-term residential care, which insurance won't pay for. Sometimes parents have to give up parental rights to their child to get residential treatment, and often must do this to protect the other children in the home. The care, if a child should actually get placement, usually does not address the kind of behavior modification "future psychopaths" require. And many parents are afraid to seek out treatment. I know people whose other children, all neurotypical and well-cared-for, have been removed from the home by social workers, leaving the often out-of-control child with Conduct Disorder in the home. So, sometimes, our families can be punished for seeking help.


My son was born with a disability that significantly impacts his life. He is now 19, living alone in a rented room, unable to get vocational rehab training he deserves, because every time I disclose his mental health history, we get dropped like a hot potato and told to wait until he offends and the prison system will take care of him. We have worked very hard with him throughout his life, and although we worry about his future, he is currently a non-offender being treated as an offender before he even offends. He's a good person who happens to lack empathy, so he learns differently, makes decisions differently, and understands the world differently. He is a young man with a terrible label that people have felt free to slap on him without offering anything other than judgment. Not all people with psychopathic inclinations become offenders.


If government officials and news makers want to talk about this issue, they should read Mothers of Sparta to see what it is like  trying to get help in the US for a child who is a "ticking time bomb," another cruel phrase used by a doctor to describe my son. Then read some neuroscience research by guys like Robert D. HareJames Fallon, Kent Kiehl, and Adrian Raine, and see what they recommend for treatment of budding psychopaths. Then ask people in the Conduct Disorder community what needs to be done, based on our years of expertise unwittingly gained by parenting our children day after day, year after year.


Ask us what we need. We will tell you.


We talk about gun control, we talk about what to do with school shooters after an atrocity is committed, but no one is getting to the root of the problem. 


The root of the problem is that children with CD often have different brains. Brains that don't respond to traditional learning tools, such as punishments, deterrents, and natural consequences. Brains that need a childhood of extremely well-thought-out structure that may help them stay within the bumpers of what society requires they do so they will always remain on the right side of the law. We have had some success with tempering juveniles with psychopathic tendencies (see Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center ), and I believe, based on James Fallon's theories of what to do with these different brains, these "orchid children," that we may be able to help them if we get them very, very young. 


Robert D. Hare,  writes in his book, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, that, "If intervention is to have any chance at succeeding, it will have to occur early in childhood. By adolescence, the chances of changing the behavioral patterns of the budding psychopath are slim."


Finally, according to Kent Kiehl, spree killers, such as school shooters aren't usually psychopaths, "future psychopaths," or people diagnosed with CD. Sometimes they are psychotic, which is a different issue altogether, but does speak to the fact that the United States has dismal mental health care, whether someone has Conduct Disorder, psychosis, or depression or other issues. There doesn't ever seem to be proper help. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the third leading cause of death of children between the ages of 10  and 14, and the second leading cause of death of people between the ages of 15 and 34. In most cases, young people are so unhappy that they are killing themselves, not others. This is equally tragic.


Right now these facts don't matter. People who have kids with Conduct Disorder diagnoses receive so little help that we worry that our kids will become out of control. We worry that they will live up to the labels we have been given. We worry that our kids will become school shooters, even if the worry is irrational. There is no help for us, so we are left to think the worst, because that's what we've been told. We get a "good luck with that" and a kick in the butt as we walk out the door.


I don't know why people aren't asking parents of kids with CD to chime in with ideas for a solution, though I suspect we are so  ignored through social, governmental, psychiatric, insurance and educational avenues, that people forget we exist.


We parents know what it is like to raise our children. We know what we need and what is not yet available. We have ideas about what would work for our children, even though it is impossible to find.


I am available to talk about this. It has, almost against my will, become my life's work to keep one "future school shooter" from becoming what he has been labeled by faceless "professionals" who so clearly do not want, or do not know how, to deal with him.


Just ask us. We'll tell you.



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