Tragic Story
by Teresa Kellerman
April 20, 2002

The headlines of the news story read, "Widowed Man Forgives Adoptive Son for Attack."

Last September 6th, a boy in Arizona shot and killed his adoptive mother. The first time I heard about this incident, several questions popped into my head. The first question I asked was, "Is this child possibly alcohol affected?" It turns out he has either Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) or a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). He and his two brothers were adopted as a sibling group by this wonderful family in a small town in rural Arizona. Social services apparently knew the birth mother drank during pregnancy but the McMullen family was not warned that there was a risk of the children having FAS disorders. One year later, this family has lost their mother, and the boy, who has many of the symptoms of FAS, will be tried for his crime as an adult.

I spoke at length with the Dad just two months after he lost his wife. He also was injured on that fateful night. The Dad wants to do everything he can to help his son get appropriate support services while he is held accountable for his crime. He knows that the boy is just a little kid on the inside and doesn't comprehend the seriousness of what he has done. The boy told his Dad he wished he could give all the money in his allowance fund to get his Mother back and to undo what he had done. The boy wants to know when he can come home.

The Dad knows that he could sue social services, but he won't. "I'm not that kind of person." I met with him and his lawyers and gave them as much information as I could find that would help bring justice as would be appropriate for a child with FAS. This boy clearly did not understand what he was doing at the time. The competency issue is important but sometimes confusing. Read the article "Competency and Capacity" for a better understanding.

Here is Jonathan's story: A 12-year-old friend was spending the night with Jonathan's family. The friend was a foster boy (with symptoms of RAD) who had recently witnessed a murder. Apparently he talked the boy with FAS into killing his family members so the two of them could take the family car and take off to have a good time. How he got hold of a shotgun I don't know. I'd rather not get into a discussion about the pros and cons of gun ownership, but if you have guns, for God's sake make sure they are locked up. The point is, this boy with FAS was easily talked into doing this horrible act by another boy who may very well be alcohol affected himself.

Another question I asked myself was, "Could my sweet Johnny ever do something like this?" He has been talked into doing many stupid things for no good reason at all. I have to honestly say that John could be talked into doing something like this, or could have when he was 15 and not half as mature and thoughtful and reasonable as he is now at age 24. The boy who killed his adoptive mother was as sweet and innocent and thoughtless and gullible as any of our kids. Each of our children is at high risk of becoming a victim or a perpetrator of a crime, or both. Because of their warped judgment and crooked conscience, the potential is there for them to become a liar, thief, sexual deviant, or murderer (one or all of the above). It is my opinion that our kids need to be protected from themselves, from the disability they carry with them forever, from the neurological dysfunction that puts them at risk of becoming another statistic or headline or subject of the "stupidity awards" that everyone else laughs about.

I have heard parents of teens with FASD say this kid should face the consequences doled out by the legal system (prison time as an adult), after all, murder is murder. These parents think that their child is different, would never do something like this. I say, don't be so sure.

This isn't meant to scare anybody. It is meant to motivate you to be assertive with the folks at social service agencies who hold the power to help or not help our kids get what they need. Tell them about Jonathan in Arizona. Tell them that he is just like your child. Tell them you don't want your child to end up like this boy. Ask them, when they want you to let go and give your child more freedom, if they are willing to be liable for what might happen in that "free" environment without protective restrictions.

When a professional reads about FAS and the neurological impairment, they read words like "doesn't learn from consequences, emotionally immature, poor impulse control, impaired conscience, lacks judgment." When these words are applied to a real person in a real family in a real community, people can see how these characteristics might play out in a real tragedy.

Even though there is no way to take back that terrible night in the McMullen household, I can't help but ask, "What could have been done to prevent this tragedy?" Maybe there is something we can gain from this family's loss. By finding out how this devastating event could have been prevented, we can perhaps find answers to the question, "How can we prevent similar tragedies in our own families?" We are reminded to keep weapons out of the hands of children, and to enforce safety rules regarding guns and other dangerous objects. There are families who keep household items like scissors and knives locked up, just because of the potential risk that they could be used without regard for safety and consequences. I believe that Jonathan's family would have taken stricter precautions had they known about the risk of FAS and the implications of impaired judgment and arrested conscience development. We can look at Streissguth's studies on Secondary Disabilities to learn what protects a child with FASD: Early recognition and diagnosis; eligibility for services; appropriate intervention and supports; stable family environment.

Jonathan had a loving and stable home. We know this is not enough. Jonathan and others with FASD need protection and care that is specific to FASD, by persons who are educated about FAS issues and who thoroughly understand the need for appropriate support services. Social service agencies and the court system need to wake up and heed what we have been trying to tell them - our families need help!

Are you still telling yourself that your child with FASD would never do something like this? Let me ask you this: Isn't there some horrible thing that you child has done in the past year that five years ago you would never have dreamed would happen? Haven't you had the experience of knowing and understanding the nature of FAS and still been surprised by some unpredictable situation? Hasn't your child engaged in behaviors that go totally against the moral values that you have lived and taught in your home and family?

I don't think we can afford to pretend that this could never happen to us. We parents need to be more diligent in providing close supervision and ensuring safety of the child (of any age, while we still have the chance) as well as the safety of others. We need to help our child understand and accept the limitations imposed by the neurological impairment, that they need an external brain, protection from their disability, because we don't want them to end up locked up in a prison or a mental institution or a morgue.

We also need to do more to educate the "system" and our communities about FAS disorders, about how prevalent they are, about how misunderstood affected individuals are, about what can be done to prevent problems and assist families and person with FASD. I'm doing everything I can, by putting quality information on the web site, in formats that you can download and print to share.

I hope that you print out the free brochures. I hope you carry around the brochure about FAS and the Brain to hand someone next time you have an impromptu conversation about FAS. I hope you will find a few other families in your area that can hold a Bell Ringing ceremony at a church or university on FAS Awareness Day on September 9th. I hope that you will consider talking to a local news reporter about your family's story (you can do this anonymously if your child does not want the publicity).

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