It is a question with only one acceptable answer:
What do you do when your children are in peril?
You protect them. Always. Without hesitation and without remorse. That's supposed to be the deal when you become a parent. You should be willing to trade your happiness and health, if it comes to that, in exchange for their safety.
Now let me ask you this:
What do you do when your children are in peril . . . from one of your other kids?
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This is a story that begins with sadness and ends with heartbreak. In between is an indictment of Florida's disorganized and underfunded mental health system.
Four years ago, Allison and Jeffrey Brown welcomed 9-year-old nephew Nicholas into their home. It wasn't ideal; Allison was pregnant with her first child and not quite ready to leapfrog to a fourth-grader being rescued from a chaotic, and dangerous, home.
But she saw no alternative. Nicholas' mother died when he was 7, and he was sent to live with his father, who is no one's idea of a responsible parent. Allison, 34, says her brother Richard suffers from mental health problems and drug addiction, and records show he has an array of arrests.
"At the time I thought, 'How can I let this kid go into foster care?' " Allison said. "We knew right away, when we started getting calls almost daily from school, that he had some problems. But we thought, 'Of course, he has problems, he's had a traumatic life. What kid wouldn't have problems?'
"I just did not think his mental health issues would exceed my ability to help him. I thought I could save him with a good home, good parenting and counseling, and that's not how it worked out."
For a short time, they did make it work. Allison gave birth to a daughter, and then another. Along the way, Nicholas was officially adopted by the Browns. He was getting in-home counseling a couple of days a week, and a variety of medications. But instead of getting better, his behavior got worse.
And then it got scary.
Records from his middle school indicate he was expelled for continual disruptions, mild episodes of violence and inappropriate sexual behavior. Those issues spilled over into the home.
Nicholas, now 14, would touch himself in front of his 3-year-old sister. He would touch Allison in a sexual manner. He began hitting and poking his sisters. He had explosive tantrums and tied a plastic bag around his head in a suicide attempt. Later, a hunting knife was found hidden in his room.
Nicholas was Baker Acted for the first time on Jan. 14. And then again on Feb. 2. And again on Feb. 14. Because he denied he was suicidal and showed no signs of delusion, he kept getting released from the hospital. Yet Allison said one of the doctors told her that Nicholas was "a powder keg," and she should not bring him back home around her toddlers.
She called various agencies and group homes and was told the same thing: They could not accept Nicholas because his behavior would pose a risk to other children. The only private facility she could find was in Orlando and had no immediate openings. And it charged $12,000 a month.
Meanwhile, if she refused to pick him up from the hospital after his 72-hour Baker Act stay ended, Allison and her husband would risk child abandonment charges.
"We Baker Act someone, and they discharge them a few days later. It's a revolving door to nowhere," said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. "This all goes back to our inadequate mental health system in Florida. There is a lack of case management across the board in every area."
By late February, the situation had escalated. When told that he might need to go to a group home, Nicholas became enraged. He hit Allison with a full-length mirror and began tearing up the house. Allison's mother locked herself in a room with the toddlers and barricaded the door while Allison, who is five months pregnant, called 911. By the time deputies arrived, Nicholas had smashed two large holes in the living room wall.
"This is a real-life example of what happens when we underfund a system," said April Lott, CEO of Directions for Living, which provides wellness and recovery services for families in Pinellas.
"This is what happens when we don't acknowledge the well-publicized research of what happens to traumatized children. It's easy to pontificate or talk philosophically about issues, but a family in this situation is what it actually looks like."
Deputies handcuffed Nicholas on Feb. 25 and took him back to a hospital for his fourth Baker Act in six weeks. This time, Allison said, sheriff's investigators told her not to bring him home, and that they would back her up if she were to face an abandonment charge.
For the Browns, this was empty solace. They were being rescued from Nicholas, but who was going to rescue Nicholas from himself?
"I don't think any single person has failed us. I think the system is designed for failure," Allison said. "There is not a system in place, for child or adult, for people with mental health issues to get successful treatment. Certainly, not to the extent to which Nicholas suffers."
Secretary Mike Carroll of the Florida Department of Children and Families said the state began addressing these issues three years ago with the establishment of Community Action Treatment (CAT) teams that are supposed to intervene before a situation reaches dangerous levels. Allison said she didn't hear about CAT until Nicholas' behavior had gotten too extreme.
"It is definitely a population we struggle with," Carroll said. "We have to do a better job of getting upstream on this and servicing these kids earlier."
Nicholas is now living in a group home in Hillsborough County, and Allison said he is not receiving any mental health treatment. She has begun the process of legally terminating her parental rights, and she said caseworkers have told her Nicholas will likely be placed with the brother of his birth mother in New York.
I tell her she must feel an incredible combination of relief and . . .
"Guilt. Yeah. I feel like I've let this kid down. That I failed to help him, and he's going to suffer the rest of his life," she said. "I've cried countless tears because I don't know how to help him.
"But I also feel anger at what my family has gone through and what my kids have seen.''