'You Can't Call 911 When You're Dead'

County officials tell a mother they can help her troubled kidbut only after he kills her

When she goes to sleep, Laurel Williams locks her bedroom door. So does her 18-year-old son Wesley. The locks are there because her 17-year-old son Adam has repeatedly threatened to kill them both—and unless he actually follows through on those threats, county officials say, he has to stay at home.

You can see Williams' dilemma.

She says a county therapist told her that if she's really worried about Adam, she should let him hit her. Then he'd be arrested and either hospitalized or sent to juvenile hall.

Williams: House arrest. Photo by Jonathan Ho
Williams: House arrest. Photo by Jonathan Ho

"I'm at my wit's end," Williams says. "I fear for my safety and my family's safety but no one cares. Instead of the county helping my family, I feel victimized by them. I love my son and want him to get the treatment he deserves. But I think the county is waiting until my son turns 18 in April so they can just drop his case."

Adam declined to be interviewed for this story. Because he's a minor, officials with the Orange County Department of Children and Youth Services say they're prohibited from discussing his case. Olive Crest, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit family counseling organization that is helping Williams, also refused to comment. The organization's executive director would say only that Olive Crest works bringing "together teachers, relatives and other resources to stabilize the family and the child."

But Williams says family counseling isn't going to make her sleep better at night. On Oct. 19, Adam threatened to stab her, so she called the police. After the cops hauled Adam away to a hospital in handcuffs, Williams discovered two hunting knives and a crowbar in his bedroom. He spent the night at Western Medical Center in Anaheim, and another week at College Hospital in Costa Mesa.

At a meeting with a social worker there, Williams said, Adam admitted he had knives and a crowbar in his bedroom. "He said, 'Yeah, I have them,'" she recalls. "And the social worker asked why, and he says, 'So I can unlock her bedroom door.'" After his discharge from the hospital, Adam spent two weeks at a Huntington Beach youth shelter. "I was told I'd be charged with child abandonment if I didn't pick him up. He's threatened to kill me, and his siblings are afraid of him. Supposedly there are 13 people working on his case, but they can't find one bed in the whole county for him? What are they doing?"

Williams, who also has two older daughters, one from a previous marriage, divorced Adam's father in 1989, the year he was born. She says she first realized Adam was "different" from her other children when he was in preschool. "There were complaints that he was aggressive with other children," she said. "If he saw his picture on the wall, he would tear it down. When he was about seven years old, we were in the car driving back from a Fourth of July celebration. He started crying uncontrollably. I asked what was wrong and he said he missed my mother, who he's never met. She died in the 1970s."

In kindergarten, Adam became increasingly sullen, unable to bond with other kids or form any friendships. Doctors diagnosed him with Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder, a reading disorder and expressive language disorder. They prescribed an array of medications: Ritalin, Wellbutrin, Seroquel, Geodon, Remeron, Effeoxor, and Lithium. He had to be taken off Risperdol, an anti-psychotic drug, because of the side effects, which caused him to develop breasts. In sixth grade, reports show, he threw a chair at a teacher and threatened to blow up Clara Barton Elementary School.

Adam then spent 30 days at UCI Medical Center in Orange. On April 30, 2001, he entered a full-time mental health treatment program at Morning Sky School near Idyllwild. His initiation paperwork from the school documents a history of "poor anger management, violent behavior triggered if someone wrongs him, paranoid delusions—others are watching him, auditory hallucinations—heard footsteps when no one was there, poor impulse control, sexual harassment towards others at school, physical aggression, and compulsion—washing." The document also notes, "Adam has constant sibling conflict[;] that is a great stressor. In the past, while under stress, Adam has threatened violence toward his mother and threatens to destroy his home."

A progress report two months later stated that he had been involved in 20 incidents serious enough to be written up. "Mainly, he has been noncompliant to staff directions and extremely verbally abusive, using profanity and name-calling, especially towards female staff. Sometimes Adam does a 'drive by' in which he curses a female staff as she walks past, without regard to any specific action she has done." The report concluded that "with individual, group and especially family therapy . . . it is believed that he can make significant social and behavioral improvements here."

While at the school, Adam continued to threaten staff and was hospitalized for mania. But after three and a half years in the program, Williams says the school told her Adam was ready to come home. "At first he didn't blame me for sending him there," she said. "He blamed his therapist. But when he came home, he unleashed all this anger toward me. He said that I ruined his life for putting him there. And that rage has stayed with him."

Back in Anaheim, Adam attended both special education and regular classes at Magnolia High School, and continued to meet with county social workers. With their help, he was enrolled in a program run by Kathy Morris, a clinical psychologist for the Anaheim Union High School District. A February 2006 letter from Morris to Williams shows Morris' concern that Orange County Mental Health officials weren't taking his mental health situation seriously.

"Since he has been under treatment with Orange County Mental Health, there have been many observations that Adam exhibits behaviors that are consistent with Asperger's Disorder," Morris wrote. "He has not been formally diagnosed with Asperger's Disorder even though his behaviors have been consistently reported and have been ongoing since his earliest school records." Those behaviors included "very limited eye contact, very limited use of gestures in social interaction, little change in body posture or facial expression while interacting or when observed alone."

Dr. Mark Lopez, a lawyer and founding director of SchoolWatch/SENTRY, a group that works to ensure children in public schools get adequate mental health treatment, has worked with Anaheim school officials on Adam's case for more than a decade. He praised Morris and other school officials for their efforts to help Adam, but claimed that Orange County Mental Health and Olive Crest are a "waste of time."

"This kid is out there in school and could be a danger on campus," Lopez said. "He needs to be watched and have housing. In a restricted environment, kids like him can flower and lead good lives, but in the open they will have problems. What is it going to take to make this happen—for him to hurt his mom? They told her that her safety net is to call 911. Well, you can't make that call if you're dead."

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