Nowhere to turn

From The Oregonian, October 25, 1999, by Michelle Roberts

READ – Losing Christopher – a son out of control, October 24, 1999

On May 22, 1996, Sydney Putnam moved Christopher Hutchinson‘s folder to the top of her stack.

Putnam, a caseworker for the state Office for Services to Children and Families, was juggling the cases of two dozen of Lane County’s most troubled children, those whose mental or emotional problems were so severe they needed special services or residential psychiatric treatment.

For weeks, Putnam had hoped counseling would be enough for Chris. Now it was clear it would not.

Chris’ stepmother, Mary Hutchinson, had just called crying that the 11-year-old had broken into a house and pointed a gun at another child. Chris’ father, Casey, was at the end of his rope. Chris’ school called, too, worried because the child saw ghosts and felt imaginary bugs crawling on him.

Putnam had to act fast. There was a real chance that Chris would hurt someone or that his frazzled father might snap and hurt him.

This wouldn’t be easy. A 10-year veteran, Putnam knew how to work the system. But it was overcrowded and poorly equipped to handle the sickest kids. The boy who beat his mother unconscious with a broomstick. The 12-year-old girl who kept running away to have sex for drug money. Another child who, out of the blue, smeared feces on the walls and urinated on the carpet. The ones who posed the most danger to themselves and others.

Putnam faced a confusing and fragmented mental health system that was born out of a national movement in the 1960s to treat the mentally ill in their communities, away from the cold, isolating state-run institutions in which they’d been housed.

Individual Oregon counties run some services. Others are private but contract with county and state agencies. Small and rural counties generally have fewer services. And most programs offer only counseling.

Community-based programs serve many people and work for most. But they aren’t tailored for the sickest people, those who need intense medical attention and containment.

Putnam immediately determined that Chris — who had chased his sisters with knives and threatened to cut a teacher’s unborn child from her womb — was too violent for a foster home. Emergency shelters operated by nonprofit organizations were available, but every one she contacted was full.

Meanwhile, Chris got worse and complained that he was hearing voices telling him to “do things.” So Lane County Mental Health Services committed Chris to Providence Portland Medical Center. This hospital, with a crisis team trained to quickly evaluate mental breakdowns and a lock-down unit for children, was available for only the most urgent cases.

Providence doctors examined Chris. A psychiatrist held up Rorschach inkblots, and the boy saw nothing but blood, decapitation and death in the black-and-white images. Also alarming was the gruesome violence in Chris’ stories and how the boy threw his head back and laughed out loud when he told them.

Based on his potential for violence, Providence doctors recommended that Chris be placed in long-term residential psychiatric care. But there was a six-month waiting list for those programs, leaving Putnam to scramble for a place that could contain Chris until something opened up.

Looking Glass Evaluation and Treatment Center in Eugene agreed to take him temporarily.

The nonprofit program designed to stabilize destructive children often used group therapy to treat the dozen or so 11- to 17-year-olds in its care.

But Chris, the youngest child there, couldn’t sit still for therapy. He created so much chaos kicking, screaming and making animal noises that entire rooms of kids were cleared to isolate him. Two months later, Looking Glass officials asked Putnam to move him.

The Jasper Mountain SAFE Center in Marcola, northeast of Springfield, treated the same disturbances as Looking Glass, only in younger children. Putnam got a bed for Chris, but he hit, kicked and bit staff members. The center wasn’t able to deal with his frenzied aggression, and staff members couldn’t hold him by the arms 24 hours a day. After a few weeks, this center, too, asked for Chris to be moved.

“We were holding our breath and hoping no one else would get hurt until we could get him somewhere else,” Putnam said.

On a typical day in the summer of 1996, Putnam got to work before 7 a.m. and by 10, she’d called several programs.

One wouldn’t take Chris because he had started fires. Another wouldn’t take him because it gave priority to kids in its own county. Another wouldn’t take him because he required restraint and they didn’t do that to children. An additional complication was that Chris needed to be near his family, which eliminated most programs in Portland, two hours away, where more-intensive mental health services were available.

Putnam left her disheveled desk 13 hours later, exhausted and frustrated.

Some places agreed to at least consider Chris, so she spent as many as three days carefully typing a detailed account of his life and treatment history. While her family was home eating supper, she was at the office making copies.

The Children’s Farm Home in Corvallis, a former orphanage that serves 100 of the state’s most emotionally troubled youths, contacted Putnam and agreed to put Chris on a waiting list.

For the next four months, Putnam pursued the Farm Home relentlessly. Administrators had worked with her and knew she wouldn’t be so persistent unless her back was against a wall. She persuaded them to take Chris ahead of several other children who needed help almost as badly.

“We were optimistic,” Putnam said. “For what’s available, it seemed like the best place for Chris.”

The Farm Home is approved to use everything from medication to physical restraint. The only place more restrictive was the Oregon State Hospital in Salem.

Casey and Mary watched helplessly as Putnam steered Chris from program to program. He didn’t seem to be getting better.

Casey had been there when, during a counseling session at the Jasper Mountain SAFE Center, the boy refused to stay seated and swore at the therapist.

When he was ordered back to his bunk, Chris’s face contorted and he jumped on the windowsill, clinging like a cat trying to avoid bath water.

Two staff members peeled him off the window, but Chris jerked away, scooted under a conference table and wrapped his body around a table leg. He began to hiss and growl and bite at the air.

“Eeeech! Eeeech! Eeeech!” he screeched like a hawk.

The sounds were so realistic the hair stood up on Casey’s neck.

“That bothered me worse than anything that had happened up to that point,” Casey said. “You’re sitting there, and they’re trying to drag your son out, and he’s fighting, kicking and staring at me for help. That’s still Chris. That’s still my son.

“I felt like I was losing him.”

When Chris was transferred to the Children’s Farm Home, Casey and Mary held their hope in check. The program had reached some pretty tough kids, Putnam reassured them.

Casey and Mary drove an hour each way for family therapy. When Casey got a job managing a video store in Klamath Falls, the couple drove their 1973 Chrysler four hours each way through the Cascade Mountains.

“We were committed,” Casey said. “We drove through snowstorms. One time, our car blew up. We still made it to his treatment.”

But their newfound optimism soon dissolved.

“We’d go there, and they’d tell us, ‘He takes all of our time. He’s a difficult child. He needs one-on-one,’ ” Casey said.

During one visit, a staff member told Casey and Mary that Chris had kicked him in the groin and face and knocked him down the stairs.

Another time, Chris acted like a beaver, gnawing everything from bedposts to doorknobs so fiercely that Farm Home workers feared he would crack his teeth.

Then, seven months after Chris had been admitted to the Farm Home, Casey took a call that left him wailing in Mary’s arms. Chris had announced he was a woodpecker and banged his head against the wall. He gnawed large chunks of flesh out of his arms trying to sever his veins.

It was time to try the state hospital.

Putnam had placed one girl there after the child tried to strangle a Farm Home staff member.

To be admitted, a child usually must be homicidal, suicidal or psychotic. Chris appeared to be all three.

Casey’s hand trembled in June 1997 as he signed the paperwork to commit his son.

“I have not been responsible,” Chris said. “I’ve been making animal noises and thinking like I was an animal.”

Although he’d arrived in a straitjacket, Chris was polite and cooperative for his admission interview two days later. He spoke rapidly but in a monotone. His expression was flat from heavy medication.

Chris celebrated his 13th birthday in the dim, hollow halls of the children’s ward.

The last state-run mental institution in Oregon, the state hospital is reserved for the criminally insane and the most severely mentally ill.

Only 20 beds are available statewide for children as young as Chris. To be admitted, a child usually must have failed a federally accredited residential program such as the Farm Home.

Casey and Mary found visiting Chris almost unbearable.

Mary shivered when the doors locked behind them. The paint was chipped, and the furniture was sparse, drab and uncomfortable. A sticker on a child’s bulletin board read, “You’re just jealous because the voices talk to me.”

They found Chris almost catatonic, sitting in a robe drooling in front of a big-screen television. Mary called to complain that Chris’ medications must be too strong.

“He was like a vegetable,” Mary said. “It was very depressing.”

As weeks turned into months, Chris morphed into someone almost unrecognizable. He put on 75 pounds because of his medications. He was bloated and pale. The child they knew was gone. They wanted him better, but they weren’t sure this was the answer. It was so draining, they didn’t visit as often as they knew they should.

When Chris could speak coherently, he cried. “I want to go home. I’ll be good, I promise.”

“I want you home, too,” Casey would say, rubbing Chris’ head. “But we gotta have you ready.”

Chris had been in residential psychiatric programs almost two years. But after all the time and effort from pediatricians, psychiatrists and psychologists, still no one could say with certainty what was wrong with him — or what to do about it.

Mental illnesses can be convoluted and intertwined and therefore difficult to diagnose. Children are especially difficult because they are ever-changing. Puberty and its hormonal changes often cause emotional stress that complicates diagnosis and treatment.

At Looking Glass, Chris continually scrubbed the dollar bills in his wallet with soap and water, so his therapist, Jana Freed, thought he might suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. He also began talking with an imaginary puppet friend he called Eddie, continuing evidence of psychoses.

Chris said he missed and loved his mother, who left when he was 2, and he singled out women staff members for extra defiant behavior. That led Freed to think he might have an attachment disorder.

He confessed that as punishment when he was 5, a woman caretaker had put his penis into a vacuum cleaner and turned it on, so that added post-traumatic stress disorder, which is similar to shell shock or battle fatigue. Children often suffer the disorder after rape and abuse.

Chris’ inability to sit still was chalked up to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He ate stuffing out of a couch and paint off the walls at the Farm Home, evidence of pica, a craving for nonfood items often found in people with psychiatric disturbances. Doctors suspected his animal noises were tics, possibly Tourette’s syndrome.

Therapists also said he had other behavioral and conduct disorders that made him willfully defiant and capable of hurting others without remorse.

Several doctors suspected organic problems such as fetal alcohol syndrome and drug exposure. But Chris’ biological mother, Cherie Toombs of Ontario, denied that was possible.

Such a complex array of diagnoses made Chris even more difficult to treat. For example, his attention deficit disorder made it impossible for him to sit still long enough for therapy discussions.

And medications for one illness would mask symptoms of another. Further complicating things, Chris sometimes recanted symptoms, making it almost impossible for doctors to distinguish between truth, hallucination and manipulation.

After months of observation, state hospital psychiatrists diagnosed Chris with bipolar disorder, or manic depression.

Doctors tried lithium, a mood-stabilizing drug often used to treat bipolar disorder, and risperidone, most often used to treat schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.

“He was much calmer, much less intrusive, was able to follow staff directions,” noted Dr. Michael Duran, Chris’ psychiatrist.

Chris began doing normal things. Lying on his hospital bed, he wrote a flurry of letters, including a fan letter to actor Jim Carrey, whom he admired for his realistic impersonations. He stopped acting up in the hospital classroom and dove into mystery novels. A fifth-grader, Chris read at a seventh-grade level. Where once he had been cruel, Chris was kind to younger children in the ward, telling them not to be afraid of the shadowy halls after lights-out.

“With the medication, Chris was getting better and better and better,” Casey said. “We didn’t expect him to come home perfect, but he wasn’t being restrained. Things were looking good.”

Casey and Mary were cautious but hopeful in February 1998, when they got word Chris would soon be released. Chris had not lived with them for almost two years, and they didn’t know what to expect.

“I don’t have any problems now,” Chris said during a session with his new psychiatrist two days after his release.

But his parents weren’t so sure. The boy’s medications calmed him, but outside the structured hospital setting, he had no idea how to stay inside the boundaries Casey and Mary set.

And there was a new problem.

Chris, now 13, was making sexual gestures at home and in public. He seemed oblivious to how inappropriate his actions were, even making sexual comments in front of his grandmother.

The Hutchinsons had moved to Coos Bay after Casey got a job managing a wholesale furniture warehouse.

Dr. Richard Staggenborg, director of Coos County Mental Health Services, was assigned to administer Chris’ psychiatric care.

“I don’t know if he’s going to make it at home,” Mary told Staggenborg. “I don’t think he’s ready to be in the community.”

Chris interrupted: “I agree with the lady when she said I shouldn’t be in the community, but I paid my toll.”

Staggenborg was concerned but wrote that Chris “does not appear to be an imminent danger to himself or others.”

“Judging from his history, this could easily change, however.”

Casey and Mary tried to enroll Chris in the Coos Bay School District in February 1998, but administrators didn’t want him.

A string of school shootings had recently terrified the nation. In Kentucky, a 14-year-old freshman calmly shot eight students in a crowded school lobby after an informal prayer meeting. Three died.

Before that, a Mississippi teen walked into the school commons, took a hunting rifle from beneath his coat and shot nine classmates, killing two.

Coos Bay superintendent Giles Parker was going to make sure it didn’t happen in his district.

“You hate to sound so callous, but you don’t want a dangerous kid in school,” said Parker, who wouldn’t speak specifically about Chris.

All schools are bound by federal law to educate disabled students — even those who are mentally ill and potentially dangerous — so Chris, a sixth-grader, was enrolled in the Responsible Behavior Program for at-risk students at Millicoma Middle School. He was allowed on school grounds for only one hour each day.

His teachers were told to keep a close eye on him and pay attention to any violence in his writings.

Within a month, Chris didn’t get off the school bus one afternoon.

Mary called police, but Chris finally skipped up the driveway several hours later. He admitted forging Mary’s name on a note telling the bus driver it was OK to drop him off downtown.

He had sneaked into an adult bookstore and flipped through pornographic magazines until the store clerk chased him off.

Another afternoon, he bragged that a bum had given him a cigarette and a swig of whiskey.

Making matters worse, Chris refused to take his medication. When Casey and Mary tried forcing him to swallow his pills, he’d swear and run out the door.

Despite Chris’ continued disruptions and poor grades, his teachers named him to the honor roll in April 1998.

“This could really boost Christopher’s confidence,” his teacher told Casey. “Maybe it would help if he had a little self-esteem.”

“Confidence is not his problem,” Casey said.

He and Mary felt like victims of a cruel joke when they received a bumper sticker that read: “I’m a proud parent of a Millicoma honor student.”

Two weeks later, Chris was expelled when he turned in the following writing assignment: “Chris had the lead in the play, King Lear. But his medication, lithanate, was intoxicating his body. He stared at a woman he wanted constly (constantly). He bought a gun that could blow a hole through someones stomach. One day when he was going to the play he had already drank 20, 40 oz. and was drunker than a skunk. Chris came dressed in a ski mask, black pants and the gun he bought. The audience thought he was part of the play so they clapped. But when the audience saw him cock the gun they stopped clapping and started screaming. Chris killed over 500 people that night but no one was alive to tell.”

A month after Chris’ expulsion, May 21, 1998, 15-year-old Kipland P. Kinkel opened fire in the crowded cafeteria at Thurston High School in Springfield, killing two students and injuring 22. Kinkel had killed his parents the night before.

Chris sat riveted to the TV news accounts. Melissa, Chris’ older sister, had been a classmate and a friend of Kinkel’s when the family lived in Springfield.

A few days later, Casey was in the garage when he overheard Chris talking about getting a gun from a neighbor.

“Yeah. We’re going to trade him something for it,” Casey heard Chris say. “He’s got a pistol.”

“No, you’re not,” Casey said, startling Chris and a friend. “Stay the hell away from him.”

The Hutchinsons decided that if they could channel Christopher’s gun fascination, maybe they could gain some control. Casey bought a plastic BB gun for $18.99 at Wal-Mart and set some rules.

But when Casey and Mary were at work, Chris broke into their room and stole the gun. He couldn’t find the BBs, so he loaded it with small rocks and shot at stray cats. Once he held the gun in a kitten’s ear and pulled the trigger.

Casey and Mary called the Coos County branch of the state Office for Services to Children and Families and begged them to find a place for Chris.

But this office had never heard of the Hutchinsons and called Lane County to get Chris’ file. The new caseworker, too, concluded that Chris was too violent for the services SCF provided. And now that he was a teen-ager, he was too old for most programs that contract with the agency. His sexual behavior eliminated him from even more.

“Kids like Christopher fall through the cracks,” explained Beth Vaagen, the Coos County SCF branch manager who oversaw Chris’ case. “We’re forced to leave them in the community until they do something that will elevate them enough to get resources from the juvenile department or Oregon Youth Authority.

“That means committing a crime.”

The caseworker told the Hutchinsons to call the police every time Chris did something, in order to build a record on him. SCF also called the Coos County Juvenile Department and asked it to hold Chris accountable for his actions.

“They were telling us, ‘When Chris commits a felony, we’ll have the resources and a place to put him,’ ” Casey said. “I told them, ‘Jesus, this is wrong.’ ”

Furious, he drove Chris to the juvenile department and marched the boy up to the front desk.

Nervous, Chris squeaked like a dolphin.

“I’ve got a young man named Chris Hutchinson,” Casey told a receptionist, who quickly called a caseworker. “I’m going to drop him off for you guys, because if he stays with us I’m going to beat him.”

“We’ll just bring him back to your house,” the caseworker said.

“If you don’t take him, I’ll throw him through the window,” Casey said. He argued until the caseworker threatened to call security.

Finally defeated, Casey drove Chris home.

The Hutchinsons were right back where they had started.