Losing Christopher – a son out of control

From The Oregonian, October 24, 1999 – by Michelle Roberts

READ – Why Treatment Is Critical for Youth With Mental Illness, by Michelle Roberts – a look back at “Losing Christopher”.

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 14 years old and mentally ill.

Editor's Note

On Dec. 21, 1998, Casey Hutchinson faxed a letter to The Oregonian begging for help with his troubled son, Christopher. The father said he had exhausted all avenues trying to get his son placed in a psychiatric treatment facility, and it was tearing his family apart.

The family granted reporter Michelle Roberts hundreds of hours of interviews over 11 months, detailing Chris' life and their struggle to save him. The family understood that in telling their story, they might be criticized for their treatment of Chris at times. But they felt strongly that unless someone spoke out, other families would continue to suffer.

The Hutchinsons turned over 500 pages of documents about Chris, including report cards from first grade on, daily teachers' reports, detailed psychiatric records and interviews from six hospitals and institutions, records from the Oregon Youth Authority, audiotapes of 14 court hearings, letters from Chris, home videotapes and photographs, and the diary of his younger sister, Susie. The Hutchinsons also authorized the state Office for Services to Children and Families to release the family's case file and discuss its contents. They granted the same permission to the youth authority, Coos County Juvenile Department and Coos County School District. Those agencies cooperated with the story, also wanting to expose the lack of treatment options for severely mentally ill children.

Chris agreed to cooperate during the early reporting of the series. But after he became a ward of the state, and was later sentenced to jail, authorities would not grant access to him, citing policy. His parents, mental health workers and corrections staff have told him about the story, and he agreed that it should be told.

Chris has no felonies on his record. His most serious crimes are trying to use his mother’s credit card at a 7-Eleven store and shooting his little sister with a BB gun loaded with pebbles. Yet he’s living alongside children who have raped and murdered.

Chris isn’t in jail because of the crimes he’s committed.

He’s there for those he might.

Nobody wanted this to happen.

The 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.

This is a story about how one family lost their son to a mental illness that has tormented him since childhood and to a state system that had no place for him except jail.


Casey Hutchinson began to suspect something was wrong in 1992, the year his son Chris turned 7.

The first-grader wandered the halls in the dead of night, his pupils dilated into black moons. Casey sometimes woke to find the boy standing above him, staring at him in the darkness.

Or Chris woke up shouting gibberish, his upper body jerked rigidly upright like a puppet on a string. His skin turned ashen and sweaty, and he didn’t respond to his name.

The freckled boy with light cinnamon-brown hair had always been hyperactive. By the time he started school, Chris was skittish and volatile. If the volume on Saturday morning cartoons was too loud, he was jumpy and irritable and picked fights with his sisters.

When Casey told Chris to do something, he did the opposite.

Once, at a mall in Idaho, the boy jerked out of his father’s grasp and darted into a crowd of Christmas shoppers. Security officers found him almost an hour later, alone in the elf shack of a Santa Claus display devouring candy canes.

From his first days in school, Chris had trouble. Once, he snapped his crayons in half, hurled the pieces at his first-grade teacher’s head, dumped his desk on its side and screamed a profanity.

The teacher told Casey he must do a better job of disciplining Chris at home.

Casey figured he knew what was wrong. After all, the child had been through a lot.

Casey, lanky with wire-rimmed glasses and gaunt cheeks, had been married three times. Chris’ mother left the family when Chris was 2, under suspicion that she verbally and physically abused the boy and his two sisters. Casey said his second wife left when Chris was 7 because the strain of managing the kids, especially Chris, was too much.

Casey, too, had troubles. He had given up drugs and heavy drinking when Melissa, his oldest, was born. But he struggled to control his temper.

Making matters worse, Casey’s job selling and repossessing rent-to-own furniture forced the family to move six times as he worked his way up in the company. Idaho, Las Vegas, Reno, San Diego and Oregon — all before Chris turned 11.

Casey met his third wife, Mary, when she responded to a personal ad he put in the Reno Gazette-Journal: Looking to meet single female — must like kids. No head games. Call and will respond.

Chris immediately took to Mary, a tender-hearted woman with liquid brown eyes and a shy laugh. She and Casey married May 14, 1995, when Chris was 9.

The mother of two boys, Mary had moved to Reno after her divorce from a career Navy man. Her youngest son had been diagnosed with cancer when he was 4. She spent months by his hospital bed, cradling his tiny, frail body while chemotherapy dripped into his veins. The boy recovered, but the marriage couldn’t withstand the agony.

Mary, a J.C. Penney catalog clerk with no health insurance, feared she couldn’t afford her son’s treatments if he relapsed, so she gave up full custody of both sons.

With Chris, his older sister, Melissa, and his younger sister, Susie, Mary could be a full-time mother again. Chris lit up whenever she came around and pestered her constantly to play cards or dice. “He was energetic, a little hyper and wanting my attention really bad,” Mary said.


Two weeks after Mary moved in, she discovered that Chris’ problems were more serious than his father was willing to admit.

“Chris, do you smell that?” Mary asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Help me find that smell. Hurry up.”

Chris smiled and followed Mary down the hallway of their one-story ranch house in Reno. “Where is it? Where is it?” the 8-year-old chanted, delighted in the search. “Where could it be?”

He followed her through the brown-paneled living room and into each bedroom. Mary reached the bathroom. The door was closed.

That’s odd, she thought.

She opened it and saw a heap of wadded-up toilet paper burning in the middle of the gold linoleum.

She stomped out the blaze with her tennis shoes as Chris stood mesmerized by the flames.

“Chris, did you set that fire?”

“No.”

“Chris, we’re the only ones home. It’s obvious you set that fire.”

“Yeah, I did.”

“Why? Don’t you know we could have lost everything?”

“Yeah.”

“We could have been killed if it had gotten out of hand. Did you know that?”

“Yeah.”

“Then why?”

“Because I wanted to see what you would do.”

Casey told Mary not to worry. All kids make mistakes.


What confounded the Hutchinsons was their complete inability to control the boy.

Chris fidgeted at the dinner table and repeatedly stabbed the meat on his plate. Casey and Mary told him to stop, but he continued as though he were in a trance.

They tried timeouts, but Chris wouldn’t stay in the penalty chair unless they sat on him.

They sent him to his room, but Chris climbed out the window.

They spanked him, but after the punishment, no matter how severe, he would grimace and tell his father, “Thank you, sir. Can I have another?”

By the time he was in second grade, Chris was making startlingly realistic animal noises. He’d trumpet like an elephant or chatter like a chipmunk. At first, it was funny. Then it was irritating. And when it didn’t seem as if he could control the sounds anymore, it was scary.

Chris received satisfactory marks in spelling, math, science and reading. But when it came to respecting rules and playing well with others, Chris struggled.



When Chris’ teacher called, concerned about the boy’s bizarre outbursts and animal sounds, Casey was reluctant to admit something more serious might be wrong.

“We’d get calls — ‘Your son doesn’t stand in line and listen.’ I still wasn’t getting it,” Casey said. “I was defending him. I thought they were picking on him.”

Casey knew Chris was different, but it infuriated him to have other people think so.

It broke his heart when Chris came home saying the kids at school were calling him crazy, a “fruitcake” and a “freak.”

Casey understood what Chris was going through. When Casey was 8, he climbed a tree and touched a power line. The bones in his right hand were burned so badly he lost two fingers. The other children were cruel. “Alien,” they jeered. “Three-fingered freak.”

Casey wanted to shield Chris from that pain and insisted there was no problem.

At a teacher’s urging, Casey agreed to in-home counseling provided by the school. But the meetings broke down after only a few visits because Chris bolted in and out of the room hissing.

He continued to disrupt class, so Mary and Chris’ teacher decided that as a punishment, Chris couldn’t go on a field trip to watch how pizzas are made.

He drew a picture of his teacher tied to a train track with bombs around her. The bombs were drawn to look like Mary’s head. “We were both going to blow up because we wouldn’t let him go,” Mary said.

A few weeks later, the same teacher, who was pregnant, punished Chris by refusing to give him a snack after his animal calls disrupted afternoon lessons.

“I’m going to cut her open and take the baby out,” Chris told his parents.

When Chris was 10, Mary urged Casey to seek outside professional help. They found a private counselor a few blocks from Casey’s work in Las Vegas.

Casey didn’t earn much, even after his promotion to manager in the furniture business. So the family ate Hamburger Helper and dropped their car insurance to afford the $35 sessions each week.

The counselor asked Chris if he was sad because his mother had left. If he blamed his dad for their divorce. Or if he was angry because the family had moved so much.

But these sessions, too, failed after a few visits. Chris wouldn’t sit still, let alone discuss his feelings. So the doctor wrote a prescription for Ritalin, a mild stimulant used to treat hyperactivity.

With the drug’s help, Chris showed flickers of improvement. He mowed lawns and cleaned up after dogs in the neighborhood. He took Mary to lunch, arm-in-arm, with the money he’d earned.

His nightmares stopped, and he relaxed enough to carry on a meaningful conversation.

Then, without warning, Chris became worse than ever.

He began hiding steak knives under a favorite frayed recliner in the living room. When Melissa or Susie tried to sit there, he’d pull out a knife and point it at one of them.

Once, as Melissa tried to sit in the chair, Chris grabbed the knife and hurled it, hitting her with the handle, and ran away cackling. Another time, he chased Melissa and Susie through the house at knifepoint, sending them screaming into their bedrooms.

When the girls would lean on their doors to keep Chris out, he poked the knife under the door and stabbed at their feet.

The Hutchinsons felt like prisoners in their own home.

“It hurts to have to protect yourself from our own child,” Mary said. “But we feared for our lives.”

When they lived in places where the bedroom doors had no locks, Casey, Mary and the girls slid their dressers in front of their doors before going to bed.

Chris heard them. He stood in the hallway in his pajamas, demanding to know what they were doing. “You’re blocking the door because you’re scared of me, aren’t you?”



When Chris was 11, Casey took a job setting up a small finance company in Springfield.

Casey, raised in a strict but affectionate home in Myrtle Point, was glad to be back in Oregon. He hoped a smaller town would be a positive influence on Chris.

But shortly after the family arrived, Casey’s new career fell through. He got a job selling used Buicks, but that paid only $1,500 a month for a family of five. They applied for food stamps.

The financial strain was hard on everyone but the stress had the most profound impact on Chris. His nightmares returned. 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! Eeech!’ He’d screech like a monkey. He didn’t even know he was doing it.”

When Casey and Mary tried to enroll Chris in the Springfield Public Schools system, the boy’s behavior was so odd that, for the first time, he was placed in a program for at-risk kids.

His disruptions were so outlandish that his teacher often removed him from the classroom and sat with him in the hall. Once, he pounded his head on the window of the classroom door and chanted, “Witches shoes! Witches shoes! I’m going to eat you!”

Another time, Chris stood on his desk and announced he “knew the end of the world.”

He told his teachers he couldn’t sit still because bugs crawled on him. He screamed out in class because he could see shadowy figures that looked like ghosts.

Casey was so rattled he had trouble concentrating at work. At night, he sat awake chain-smoking Camel cigarettes as thoughts of Chris plagued him. He hated his job, but he worked 13-hour days so he wouldn’t have to go home and face the problem.


The family had been in Springfield only a few months, and Chris was extracting everything — their energy, their emotions, their sleep.

They could not afford a private counselor, and they had no health insurance, so they took Chris to the Lane County Mental Health Services office.

To ask for state help was a bitter pill for Casey, who rarely worked fewer than 50 hours a week. His first experience with such support had been nine years earlier, shortly after the kids’ mother left and he quit his job to care for the children. Back then, he had sat red-faced in an Idaho welfare office watching infant-care and breast-feeding videos so he could receive free formula for Susie, who was 6 months old, and whole milk for Chris, then 2, and Melissa, 4.

Here he was again, begging.

“We’ve got a time bomb,” Casey said. “He’s going to hurt someone if he doesn’t get help.”

The Lane County counselor told them they had to learn to live with Chris.

But Casey felt close to the breaking point. He spanked Chris several times a day. When the boy wouldn’t show emotion, Casey hit him harder.

He felt disgusted with himself. But he thought maybe if he could knock a little sense into Chris, everything would stop. Maybe if he could break Chris’ will . . .

One day, Casey went too far.

He grabbed the 11-year-old, slammed him hard against the living room wall and punched him in the stomach.

“No! Please. You’re going to hurt him!”

Casey barely heard Mary’s screams.

He stopped the second blow in midair and looked at the boy, splayed on the floor, choking and gasping for air.

Casey backed up slowly.

“You can’t beat him into being better. This child is sick. He is sick,” Mary sobbed.

Frustrated to the point of defeat, Casey couldn’t think clearly. He fumbled through the phone book and dialed the Lane County branch of Services to Children and Families, or SCF.

“He’s pushed us,” Casey said, his voice cracking like a scratched record. “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.”

Casey told a caseworker he punched the boy.

“Does he have any bruises?” the caseworker asked.

“No.”

With no evidence of abuse, the agency could not help.

He slammed down the receiver and swore.

Casey, a member of the Mormon church, called his bishop, who urged Lane County Mental Health services and SCF to look at placing Chris in a psychiatric residential program.

The agencies eventually agreed Chris’ problems were too complicated for the counseling he was receiving. But those programs were crowded, and it could be six months before a bed opened up.

“Just be patient. Hang in there. That’s all they told us,” Casey said. “How can you when you’re fiscally and mentally bankrupt?”

A few weeks later, Chris and another boy broke into the home of an elderly neighbor. As they dug through closets looking for cash, Chris’ eyes fell on a shotgun.

He picked it up and aimed it at the other boy. He rummaged through the house looking for shells but found none.

Chris later bragged about the break-in and the gun.

“I want to know what it feels like to shoot someone,” he told his parents.

Frantic, Casey and Mary called SCF and the police.

“Is it going to take someone dying before you help us?” Mary cried. “Does he have to kill somebody?”