The story of one family's battle to be heard
and find hope in treating the mind.
The story of one family's battle to be heard
and find hope in treating the mind.
Radio Silence is a term used by military as a signal to cease all communications when the enemy is near. In this context, the phrase refers to the unfortunate reality of one way communication in the juvenile justice system.
There are names you won’t recognize here, ones you can’t put a face to.
Catherine is the first.
Maggie told us about Catherine while sitting in a coffee shop with Niles. We’d met Maggie just a week earlier. Now while waiting for our coffee, we asked her to start at the beginning. She shared stories from her childhood, her career, her radical feminism in the 1970s. She told us the story of how she and Niles met – at work in Colorado.
They married at age 40, after an almost 10-year friendship and only three weeks of official dating. Four years later, there was Catherine; a foster child who’d bounced from one foster home to another nine separate times before her 10th birthday.
Maggie and Niles felt they had a lot to give and were still young enough to raise children. Maggie had uterine cancer at age 23 leaving her unable to conceive a child so they decided to look into adoption. She had one rule; she didn’t want to foster; she wanted to adopt.
“I don’t believe in checking kids out and figuring out if you want them or not,” she said. “You don’t get to do that when you birth them. They kind of come the way they are and you don’t get to exchange them.”
Maggie was determined to help Catherine, who’d experienced severe abuse before the age of five. She was a failure to thrive baby. Along with Catherine came diagnoses of ADD and depression, and her therapist at the residential treatment facility doubted whether she’d ever see a successful adoption. The workers were concerned that Maggie and Niles would want to return Catherine, just like the families before them. They actually took the couple to court to try and block the adoption.
Maggie’s resiliency is extraordinary; she battled cancer and she won. She fought to adopt a child that so many others had failed, and again, she won. To simply say she’s used to fighting is an understatement.
In an effort to offer Catherine some closure she might want later in life, Maggie started to seek out and locate all of Catherine’s four birth siblings.
“I wanted her to be able to connect with them if she ever felt the need to,” she said.
Catherine had an entire history that had been lost after being separated with her siblings. Maggie felt finding them could offer a way to heal if she wanted to.
Through this process, Maggie found Cassandra, one of Catherine’s half-sisters. She was 6 years old, and had recently been relinquished from the foster family she’d been adopted by and lived with for five years.
“When you are six or seven you’re pretty unadoptable,” Maggie said when talking about the decision to adopt Cassandra.
Niles told Maggie, “We can’t have that little girl thinking she’s not wanted.”
So there she was, a new mother of two at 45. Both children burdened with severely traumatic pasts. By giving them a permanent home, Maggie and Niles had given them a future.
That future turned out to be rockier than expected. The sisters didn’t get along the way Maggie and Niles thought they would. Nobody liked Catherine, not even her teachers.
The family tried therapy, medication, and other techniques to help each of them deal with adjustments to a new family and one another – learning to trust when the past made it clear that they shouldn’t. .
The girls were on opposite ends of the spectrum. Cassandra looked perfect to the outside world but raged at home; while Catherine was stable at home, she couldn’t function anywhere else
“It got to a point where it solely became about surviving,” Maggie said about the day-to-day struggles of raising two pre-teens with severely troubled pasts and a laundry list of what was yet to be revealed, severe mental illnesses.
These issues didn’t subside as the girls got older. They became even more intense for Catherine, who began running away after her 15th birthday.
We watched Maggie take another sip of her coffee while looking back at Niles with an almost knowing glance – as if sharing the sentiment; they both know she’s just getting started.
Maggie and Niles always filed missing persons reports when Catherine ran away. It’d become routine by this point, only this time she’d been picked up and put in a home for runaway kids. Catherine made up a story about how she had gotten pregnant. In this story, Maggie and Niles had told her she could live with them, but only if nothing happened to the baby. She told the home that the baby got sick and died and on the day of the funeral, her parents kicked her out of the house, so she ran.
Episodes like this were common. Looking back, Maggie says she understands where these delusions came from—Catherine has since been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and chronic depression.
“I thought she needed unconditional love more than she needed psychiatric care,” Maggie said when reflecting on her decision not to have Catherine committed to a treatment facility. “We really didn’t understand at the time that she had a mental illness. We believed that the behaviors that both girls exhibited were the result of their really tragic childhoods.”
Maggie said the family felt tensions rise as Catherine grew increasingly more hostile.
“We lived in fear that we would not wake up in the morning,” she said. ”She was extremely violent and had a passion for knives.”
She refused to get a job and continued having uncontrollable rages.
“I wanted to put her in the process of getting herself a life.” She said.
After Catherine turned 18 in June, Maggie told her she had to leave the house. Summer wasn’t even over before Catherine returned, announcing she was pregnant.
Nine months later she gave birth to Paul.
Yes. That Paul. The one you know. The one you can put a face to.
Initially, Catherine enjoyed being a mom. The attention she got made her feel special. But quickly those positive feelings faded and the reality of motherhood set in.
One evening when Paul was crying, Maggie checked to see if Catherine needed any help. She was unraveling. And told Maggie later that she didn’t know what she would have done if she hadn’t shown up.
Catherine didn’t want to accept any responsibilities at home and her anger continued to spin out of control One evening she left with Paul. They spent the night in a homeless shelter before returning. Catherine told Maggie she wanted them to take care of Paul while she left to get her life together. She never wanted Paul to spend another night in a shelter. She feared he would end up there, or worse, if he were left in her care.
Maggie and Niles adopted Paul when he was two years old.
Paul doesn’t remember Catherine. He’s aware that he’s adopted and that Catherine is his birth mother. The two don’t have a relationship but want to meet and build a relationship in the future. Maggie still talks to her over the phone regularly; Catherine, finally diagnosed four years ago, still struggles with mental illness.
“She’s doing better now than she’s ever been before,” Maggie said. “She’s had a job for three years now where she works regularly an even overtime. She’s been able to thrive because she’s gotten a diagnosis and proper medication and treatment.”
At 53, Maggie was a new mom again.
Despite the hell she and Niles had been through with Catherine and Cassandra, they signed up again. Maggie didn’t believe in letting a child grow up feeling unwanted or alone. And so she took on the responsibility of raising another child with no guarantee that his future wouldn’t look just like his birth mothers, but she said Paul was different.
“I would look at Paul thriving and I would think to myself, ‘My god! This is what Catherine could have been.’ I never would have thought that jail was in the cards for Paul.”
Maggie thought because she and Niles were raising Paul free from the traumas Catherine experienced, there was nothing to worry about. She would love him unconditionally and he would be fine. He would grow up happy and healthy – and, for the most, part he did.
Paul started hearing voices when he was eight. Once, he was playing in the backyard with a friend and throwing leaves over the fence. He told Maggie there was a man on the other side telling him “No.” A voice in his head.
“It’s just your conscious,” she told Paul. She never thought anything of the incident. She said she didn’t know that she should.
He never displayed any blatant signs of defiance—just typical teenager stuff, Maggie said.
Similar to Catherine, and unknown to them, Paul began sneaking out at night. One night, he burned down a neighbor’s barn. He immediately came to Maggie and Niles and told them what happened. Maggie called the police and told Paul to confess.
“I thought we were doing the right thing, but that’s because I trusted the system,” She said.
That confession led to Paul’s arrest, and his first experience with the juvenile justice system. He was found guilty and sentenced to complete a program while at the Department of Juvenile Justice.
There was never a comprehensive psychological evaluation. Instead, the focus was on his behavior, defiance, and treatment for criminality.
"While appropriate, it never got to the root cause of the offense. A skilled psychiatrist at the facility was able to prescribe medication which helped Paul navigate the program." Maggie said.
His second arrest came while he was on probation, the night before Maggie and Niles were supposed to take him to be evaluated by a psychiatrist in Lexington, Kentucky. Paul tells Maggie he became overwhelmed with life. He was so afraid of messing up and "just wanted to run away from everything." There were the voices always telling him what to do, so Paul ran away from home.
He walked for miles and started to get thirsty, so he broke the window of a country store. The owner came out to find Paul and shot at him.The gun misfired. Paul ran.
Police found him down the highway and again, being scared, he ran. When the officer chasing him caught Paul, he sprayed him with pepper spray, causing Paul to spit. Some of that spit landed in the eye of one of the officers.
Paul was charged with felony assault to an officer and armed robbery. He had a hammer with him that he used to break the window and unknown to him a person was living in the back of the store he broke into. He was taken to DJJ , where he has been waiting for over 9 months.
All 9 months would just be marking time were it not for Niles and Maggie requesting that the court order Paul to receive psychological counseling while in detention.
Public defenders have worked tirelessly on his case. Medication has been tweaked and a diagnosis has been given to the court of Aspergers Syndrome and a mood disorder, which sometimes shows itself in adolescence.
Maggie and Niles believe it is critical that Paul get appropriate mental health treatment so he doesn’t spend his life in the revolving door.
What we’ve found so endearing about Maggie through this process is her ability to remain steadfast in her pursuit of Paul’s freedom and his treatment. When we reflect on our many conversations, what always remains is that she didn’t see any of this coming.
Paul was a good baby, a good kid, and a good pre-teen. Then one night he burned down a barn and their entire world changed.
Maggie spends her time advocating for those with mental illness—it’s like a full-time job, she said. She is the president of her National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter in Somerset, Kentucky. She shares in the message of GG Burns, another Kentucky advocate for mental illness, that the only way to prevent tragedies is by getting these individuals proper treatment. Maggie is a believer in early diagnosis and high family involvement. In spite of her advocacy efforts, her son still sits in a maximum-security detention center waiting for the state to figure out what’s best for him.
Months after our coffee shop conversation, Maggie doesn’t know Paul’s future. We sat with her at a picnic table at a park in Adair after his last competency hearing. No one knew what to say.
She was somber, defeated. Just hours before, we felt hopeful the system wouldn’t let Maggie down again – but it did. We’ve seen them go through three court dates since January, with a fourth scheduled for June. Meanwhile, Paul waits.
She sat and wrote a note to Paul like she always does after court. She told him to keep holding on.
“I have to be strong for him, that’s all that matters.”
A few days after the hearing, Maggie called to share Paul’s newest poem with us.
That glorious land, where
The children play; warm
rivers await my return,
To row down, to relax.
Warm sunny days where calm
reigns saw supreme, I walked
Betwixt the trees, they
Waved at my entrance, saying,
"Hello, young traveler, we welcome
Thee to the forest. The forest
of serenity." I picked the soft,
Juicy apple from a tree, trying
It's wonderful taste. Where the
Wind blows, where the forest land
Points, I walk, toward an unknown
Path. My life in the hands of
My own body.
When shall I be free? These
Abrasive walls hold me prisoner.
Forever now, the winds never
Touch my face; the sun's warm
Countenance is fake. If I am
To forever suffer, who will be
The one to show me mercy?