For more than four hours Friday, May 9, John and Jane Smith* talked to The Daily Tribune News about their son’s battle with mental illness and the lack of assistance from “the system.” Their 13-year-old son, Jason*, now is one of two juvenile teenagers charged in the alleged aggravated child molestation of a 7-year-old boy at Advocate for Children’s Flowering Branch Children’s Shelter.
Arrested April 17 in connection with the crime, the Smiths say Jason needed to be placed in a maximum oversight facility instead of in a foster home or the shelter. But, how he came to be there began a decade ago.
Taken into the Smith home from family at the age of 3 ?, the couple say they had no intention of raising their son and set out initially to keep his birth family intact. In November after Jason turned 5, the couple officially adopted him.
“He was happy. He knew what was going on. He’s a smart, smart, smart kid,” said Jane Smith.
Although he was never “an overly affectionate child,” the Smiths began to see disturbing signs about the time Jason was adopted.
“I don’t know if we just didn’t know or if we were so exhausted or what, but there were just little things that we just always kind of off that he would do. I think I just kind of always chalked it up to, ‘He’s been through hell,’” Jane said. “… There was like fits that he would throw, and I think that the first time he tried to set fire to something he was about 5. That kind of progressed from there, and it wasn’t that he would just set fires … it was the panic of us. It was funny to him to see us panic, if that makes sense. I don’t think that we really even grasped any of that back then.
“There were other things, like frogs and stuff; he would kill them. I think, at first, we were like, ‘Ah, little boys do stuff like that.’ … Then it kind of progressed from there. Oh, the cat would get hurt or the dog would get hurt. Things just weren’t right, and I don’t really know how to explain it except you have this uneasy feeling like something’s not right.”
Jason’s behavior also transferred to school, where the Smiths say there was trouble “every single day.” What began as acting out turned to talking back, theft and, eventually, violence toward other students.
“When he couldn’t get a reaction from the little stuff, it became bigger and bigger and bigger. I don’t really think there was anything we didn’t face at school,” Jane said.
No punishment seemed to work. The couple tried changing Jason’s diet, read books recommended by family and friends, “everything.”
“Lord, have mercy, we tried,” Jane said.
By second grade, Jason had become violent at home, going into rages that lasted for hours and destroying furniture and belongings.
“I don’t think we knew what to do. We were scared for our lives. We were seeing doctor after doctor after doctor and we couldn’t get anywhere with anybody. I think it’s really hard to understand the parents are being abused. I think a lot of people see that kids get abused and that’s horrific … I don’t mean to take light off of that but we were abused for a long time and we didn’t know what to do,” Jane said. “We struggled with ourselves a lot. ‘Why can we not fix this? Why can we not make this better?’ Because we do love him, we’ve worked our rear ends off to provide this home for him, not materialistic things but a home with a family that loves him and wants nothing but the best for him, and we had huge dreams for him. He’s incredibly intelligent and I’ve kind of always had this thing that God has really big plans for him, and even in all this, I still believe that. … Maybe one day he can use all this to make a difference for someone else.”
When the diagnoses began coming in, the Smiths say the list included reactive attachment disorder and conduct disorder, which is the term for antisocial personality disorder in a juvenile under the age of 18.
Reactive attachment disorder begins before the age of 5, according to the Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.org, and is a rare but serious condition where infants and small children do not establish healthy bonds with parents or caregivers.
Conduct disorder often is the precursor to antisocial personality disorder, which falls on the list of Cluster B personality disorders. Cluster B traits are characterized by dramatic, overly emotional and unpredictable thinking or behavior, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The Smiths say Jason made threats against their life and his. They placed locks on their bedroom door, and each night locked up their personal effects and the knives.
“It’s horrible to say you were afraid of your kid, but I was,” Jane said.
“I believe that he does have a good heart. There is a place there … I think that he is so overridden with mental illness and I think it is so much bigger than we ever thought it was. I don’t think we ever comprehended how big it was,” she said.
When Jason began middle school last year, the threats escalated quickly. Within the first weeks, he had been accused of making threats to rape multiple girls.
“Since it’s a hearsay allegation, there is no consequence this time,” said John Smith. “My thing is … if it’s six girls that said it, and they’re six different girls who aren’t friends, chances are, you know what I mean? If it’s six close friends, OK, I see where you’re coming from, but it was like a sixth-grader, a seventh-grader … But they just kind of swept it under the rug.
“… I tried because, you know, he has to have a consequence, doesn’t have to be jail, but he has to learn that … you can’t do that here.”
Although no actions along the lines of rape had occurred, the couple believes it was not outside the realm of possibility.
“I think that just at a certain point we knew, like, there wasn’t really anything that was off limits,” Jane said.
In the spring of 2013, things began to unravel and would eventually lead to Jason going into the Division of Family and Children Services custody.
The then 12-year-old began running away. Then, in late summer, he attempted to set the Smith home on fire using lighter fluid. He was burned in the process.
While at the emergency room at Cartersville Medical Center, Jason admitted to medical professionals he was attempting to kill himself.
Watching her son sit through the pain of burns to his arms and face without emotion was a turning point for Jane Smith.
“There was nothing, not a tear, nothing. He had nothing. And that, for me, was like, ‘This is way bigger than I ever thought it was,’” she said. “I think that was a very defining moment for me because I had no idea. I mean, the significance of whatever mental illness is going on there is so much more than I thought it was.”
For the next eight weeks, Jason was repeatedly admitted to the ER, an inpatient facility in Villa Rica and back to out-patient treatment once he returned home. All the while, the Smiths worked to find a residential, long-term facility in which to place their son. The boy’s parents tried placing him into a facility and paying themselves. The only facility they located charged $181 per day and would not take Jason because of his history with fires and harming animals.
Jason then was placed at Devereux, a residential treatment facility in Kennesaw. Insurance, however, was paying only week-to-week and the Smiths had no idea how long it would last.
“So we were told very early on, if [insurance stops paying], for him to stay here you’re going to have to call DFCS, and we were even told for him to stay here you’re going to have to refuse to pick him up, which charges will be brought against us if we did that. And we’re like, ‘We’re not going to do that,’ like regardless of the situation,” Jane Smith said.
The family also began to see signs of improvement.
“He was very minutely to kind of give us some honesty. I don’t think we saw that before, generally speaking. As a general rule, he’s not honest. ... Unfortunately, he’s more honest about the over-the-top things than he is about the everyday things,” Jane said. “… At this particular point we were making some headway in therapy, and the one particular therapy he told us, ‘I am more comfortable here.’
“In a sad, happy kind of way that was a breakthrough for us because we’re like, ‘This is what he needs.’ Although I’d love for my little boy to be home with me and to be able to be what he needs, we figured out at that point that wasn’t what he needed. I think it’s what any parent would do, you have do what he needs.”
After repeated dead ends trying to place their son in a residential facility, hope emerged in the fall of last year during an interagency planning meeting.
“… Everybody told us, you know, ‘You can’t bring him home. You can’t. If you bring him home, you need to know what’s going to happen if you bring him home. He will potentially kill you,’” Jane said.
“That’s when we were told by a lady from DFCS and a couple of other people there, if we would go to DFCS for help that DFCS could get him placed — what we were trying to get him in was a maximum watchful oversight is what they call the program — and that DFCS could place him in one of those,” explained John Smith.
“What we were explained to in there was, because of the bureaucracy, was we can’t get him in there, but the state can get him in there for like a year at a time. At the end of the year, there’s a review that either goes another year or he comes home and then a second year they make like a big decision,” he continued. “We were willing to take that risk because I had strongly felt at the time that if he was basically force fed therapy for a year with the little bit of progress it would do something. So I was willing to take that gamble and I didn’t want him to wind up in the juvenile system. Because your other option is to bring him home and when he breaks a window you call the cops and eventually he’s going to get toted off to [juvenile justice].”
During his stay at Devereux, his psychological diagnosis came back with Cluster B traits.
“… Nobody, nobody, nobody wants to touch that. It’s therapeutically technically not treatable. They have no success stories,” Jane Smith said.
“As soon as it said Cluster B, therapy was over. They were ready for him to go home,” John Smith added.
The couple decided to sign emergency paperwork with DFCS, who, the couple was told, was to try to keep Jason at Devereux and, if not there, he would be placed in foster care for up to 72 hours while placement was found.
“Well, before we signed it we almost changed our mind because we did not like the whole foster care thing for a lot of reasons,” Jane Smith said. “First and foremost because we didn’t feel like he would be safe in that setting with other children and you have to kind of understand that technically speaking we are the foster home. From a technical standpoint that’s the whole reason back 9 1/2 years before we took him in we didn’t want him in a foster home. And, so to us it was kind of like, no.”
The couple also believed once Jason was in DFCS care they would maintain 100 percent access to their son.
“He feels better in that kind of setting. That’s what he feels best with and all that, and we said, ‘We’re going to be with you 100 percent of the way,’” Jane said. “… From what we understood they had explained the process in detail to us. That’s not how it happened, but that’s what we’d been told by a couple of different people. And I do have an email … In particular, I was told by a lady at DFCS, you will have 100 percent contact with him. Not true. Not true at all, actually.”
After learning Jason was going to be released, the Smiths sought the assistance of DFCS who placed the boy on a temporary 72-hour hold in Lithonia therapeutic foster home.
“We go to court; we find out that in fact that is not a temporary hold. That’s where he’s staying,” John Smith said. “My second thing was he doesn’t need to be sharing a room with any kid, especially a younger kid. And, if he absolutely has to be sharing a room with a kid, it needs to be an older kid and there needs to be 24-hour supervision. At the maximum watchful oversight, we have no concern over that because that’s what they do.”
“The judge was incredibly gracious with us in that first court hearing, in fact through all of them. She was very gracious with us. She explained to us her hands were tied. She only had so much power,” Jane added.
According to the couple’s first caseworker, Amy Flack, the state could not locate placement for Jason.
“… He had been denied at over 50 facilities in the state. To be honest with you, not all that surprising because I had already called about half of those facilities, so I kind of knew that,” Jane said. “But we had been told before all of this that that’s why we were doing this is because we couldn’t get that to happen, but they could.”
“The truth is everything they said that was going to happen was a lie. It did not happen,” John said.
“At that point I think that was our only hope, you know. Maybe we had to believe that, but I believed that they were going to help us. Do I believe, or did I believe then that there was probably corruption in the system? Yeah, but I think I had to believe that this is what we needed to do and that these people would truly help us. I really thought they would.”
The Smiths then began trying to remove him from the foster care setting and get him the help they felt he needed.
“After the first court date when they just lied to us, now I’m like, ‘You guys are morons. I just want my kid back home. At least I can keep him safe,’” John Smith said. “At the second court date that’s all I was saying. If you’re not going to put him in a maximum watchful oversight, send him home. That’s all I said. Every time I was asked a question that was my answer. But then they turned it around like we abandoned the kid.”
“We did not fully understand that once we asked for their assistance we couldn’t have our kid back. We didn’t get that. We were asking for their help,” Jane said. “… I understand that there are children that need to be removed. I get that. I would be a huge advocate for that in the correct circumstances — this was not that circumstance. We only asked for their help because he needed psychiatric help.”
“I think the true problem is those Cluster B traits. So what they’re trying to say without saying is he needs to be in a [facility] like this but we don’t want him,” John said.
“He’s too dangerous for everybody and nobody wants him, but he needs that,” Jane added. “If you’re not going to do that, give him back to me and we will find a way. We were serious. It didn’t matter what we had to do; we would find a way to get him some help. How, I do not know. That’s what he needed.”
The couple then learned Jason was sharing a room with an 8-year-old at the foster home.
“… We flipped out and told them, ‘No. No. No. A hundred-thousand times no. This is not OK. Our kid is not a little kid. He is big,’” Jane Smith said. “Their response to us was there is a safety plan in place. I said, ‘What exactly is the safety plan?’ … They’re like, ‘Well, there’s a baby monitor in the room.’ These children can hack into computers. What is the baby monitor going to do?
“I was like, ‘You guys cannot be serious with this.’ ... You’ve seen the diagnosis, you know our story, you know what has been going on. You cannot leave him in the room with this boy.”
In January, the 8-year-old made allegations against Jason that went against policy.
“For the last couple of years, there has been a dark cloud of not if something’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen. Is it going to happen to us? … Our greatest fear, and I mean this from the depth of my soul, our greatest fear is that someone else would get hurt or that he would commit suicide or something of that nature,” Jane said.
At that time, the Smiths learned Jason was being transferred to Flowering Branch.
“She had either written to me or spoke to me in a phone conversation, ‘This is the best thing right now. This is the best place for him right now.’ To be honest with you, at that moment, we were like, ‘He’s five minutes down the road. He’s not three hours away anymore.’ I think to any parent that’s like, ‘Ahh, at least he’s closer,’” Jane said.
But, the Smiths say, matters did not improve with the move. They say Jason began missing therapy sessions, was failing classes at school and admitted to having pornography.
Then came the call.
“She goes, this is very serious. And of course my heart drops to my knees, and I’m like, oh my God, what happened? And she said, ‘[Jason] has allegations against him perpetrating a minor.’ I’ll be honest with you, my response was, ‘What the hell does that mean? I don’t know what that means. What does that mean? … Did he molest somebody? Did he hurt somebody? What does it mean? What does it mean?’” Jane said. “She let me scream for a little bit there and I was. I went off. I was screaming and screaming. I was hysterical. Finally I got myself calmed down. [John] got me calmed down. … That’s when she told us the allegations were for anal penetration and forced anal penetration and forced oral sex. I have no words. I was devastated.
“Before this incident, I didn’t think anything could shock me. I was wrong.”
“… I couldn’t process for that little boy. And that’s the reason why I tell you, four or five days before they weighed my son and he’s 182 pounds and 5 foot 7. My mind can’t comprehend this. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand why all of this came to this,” Jane said. “The court, when we begged them, the meetings that we had where we begged them and told them and told them and told them, and it had to come to this. And how many times we were looked at like we’re idiots and we don’t know what we’re talking about and how could we say that about our son? I wish I couldn’t say that about my son. I wish I couldn’t. I wish I could tell you that this is inconceivable. But it’s really not.
“I wish I could face my son and absolutely unequivocally believe him. I have no reason. I just have no words for it. And, on top of that, now we’ve completely lost our son. I have no idea where we go from here. What we do from here, I don’t know.”
In hindsight, the Smiths say questions linger over whether the agencies involved attempted to hide what occurred at the shelter.
“About mid-March the tides changed. ‘Oh, we want you involved in everything, and we want reunification.’ And we’re like, ‘OK, we’ve seen this happen before because this happened at Devereux when they were ready to get rid of him right after the diagnosis, and now we’ve got the diagnosis and everybody’s all happy-go-lucky, ‘We want Mr. and Mrs. [Smith] involved in everything,’” Jane said.
The alleged victim arrived at Flowering Branch in mid-March, but the allegations did not surface until April 12 when the shelter director, Angela Irish, was told. The victim’s mother reported the allegations to the Bartow County Sheriff’s Office on Sunday, April 13. Irish reported to deputies that she had contacted the victim’s caseworker instead of authorities, which Advocates for Children’s Patty Eagar said in April was at Irish’s discretion.
“Around about the time where all of the sudden we’re working toward reunification, but for some reason we can’t get into therapy or home visitation. Not to mention, even when you go back to when he was in Lithonia and he got moved for there was allegations made of whatever — my whole thing is this when he was in school, sexually he threatened boys and girls. He’s been caught doing it or he’s had allegations on it. There was an allegation that no one — at the Lithonia foster home there was allegations, but no one ever told us what they were or who they were to or from,” John Smith said. “Then all of the sudden we’re moving back to Bartow and we’re working toward reunification, and then, in March, they pick up with that’s all you hear is reunification, reunification. But you can’t seem to get him.
“And then April we get the phone call that this happened, and then at the bond hearing we find someone mentions it happened in March. If you sit back and look at that in the big picture, somebody’s hiding something. They were trying to dump him out of the system before it got out. That’s what I’m seeing when I look back.”
For John Smith, if the shelter had called police and requested assistance, the issue would be moot.
“In all honesty, if that would have happened the shelter would have just called the police and said, ‘We had an incident, need somebody up here immediately,’ they wouldn’t, in my opinion, have done anything wrong. But the fact that you called DFCS and you waited and there’s the time, there’s a cover-up there,” he said.
“We were the ones that had to scream for them to get him out of there. We were on the phone screaming at them, ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ They sent him to school. I said, ‘What the hell is wrong with you people? Why would he be at public school?’” Jane said. “If these are the allegations, I don’t care, I’m sorry. And I understand innocent until proven guilty. I understand, but I also understand the situation from front to back. And like I said, I would love, love, to be able to say, no way, no how. But there’s too much history and I do not know. I don’t.
“We’re just normal people. We work our butts off and all we ever wanted to do from day one was help him and to be a family for him. I can’t comprehend any of this. I can’t comprehend how we got to this point, and I certainly can’t comprehend how something like this happens. … I do not want vengeance for any of them. But the thing is we’ve just been shut out completely. And I don’t know what else to do.
“There are just so many unknowns and so many questions and so many things that just don’t add up, and at the end of the day, absolutely none of that, none of our story, nothing matters because, if what is alleged is true, that little boy’s life will never be the same.”
In mid-May Patty Eagar said the shelter had been cleared by Bartow and White County DFCS offices and the state’s Office of Provider Management.
“…We have had three investigations ourselves here, and we’ve gotten a clean 100 percent, ‘you did nothing wrong’ from two different, three different agencies,” she said.
Bartow County DFCS Director Lynn Green could not comment on the investigation at that time, saying it was not completed and was considered an ongoing investigation.
Green said she knew Jason’s parents maintained parental rights even though he was in DFCS custody.
When asked if he was taken into custody in order to place him in a facility, Green said, “I don’t recall exactly. I know some of the reasons that he came into foster care were in order to hopefully get him some better treatment for his mental health, but I don’t recall off the top of my head exactly how it all happened.”
There was no concern about Jason’s placement at Flowering Branch and he would not have been placed there if there was concern he would harm another child, according to Green.
“… We had a psychological done, a psychological evaluation done and that was provided to Flowering Branch. But, again, I’m going completely off memory here,” she said. “We would never place a child if we had any reason to believe that he would [harm another]. We would not place a child with other children like that.”
She did not recall if the Smiths had voiced concern over his placement at the shelter.
“That, I would have to go back and talk with the actual case manager and the supervisor. Off the top of my head, I don’t recall only because we have over 200 kids we work with every single month,” Green said.
At Green’s request, additional questions were emailed to her the morning of May 14. She did not respond to those questions.
Eagar could not comment on whether the shelter was aware of Jason’s diagnosis.
“We are not allowed to talk about mental health diagnosis. That is a breach of his confidentiality,” she said, adding that the agency is equipped to handle children with mental illness and can provide “whatever they need.”
The Daily Tribune News on May 13 filed an open records request for the juvenile court proceedings involving the Smiths. The Smiths also filed for copies of those hearings.
On May 16, the DTN was advised DFCS had filed a motion for a hearing in juvenile court to prevent the release of those recordings. The hearing is scheduled for June 24. The court previously allowed the newspaper to hear the recording of a Feb. 25 court proceeding involving the Smiths.
By sharing their story, the Smiths hope, in some way, to help those facing the same battles they faced by increasing mental health awareness.
“Just because you physically cannot see something wrong with him does not mean he is not sick. That’s what frustrates me to no end about the mental illness thing — you can look at my kid and he looks fine. He’s not fine. Everybody knows it. It’s all there,” Jane Smith said.
“… I have been overwhelmed to know the network of people who confront these same issues, these same challenges with the whole part of the mental health and the health care system, and it just keeps continuously getting deeper and worse and worse,” she said. “I think that is, at this point, one of our major I don’t know if you could call it a goal because I don’t even know if we can think straight at this point, but I do think that as a society we have to become more aware of this. I was living it and I didn’t know there were other people living it. It’s true, there are a lot of families living like this, and there is no hope and they feel very hopeless and they’re very depressed and sad and don’t know where to turn and don’t know what to do because there is no help.
“Unfortunately incredibly unfortunately our particular situation in this particular case is the exact reason why because the system fails over and over and over again.”
Struggling to “grasp the inhumanity of all of it,” Jane said the system and society has a responsibility to those in need of help.
“… To the mental illnesses, to the DFCS system, now to the juvenile justice system and this poor woman and her kids — I don’t care who she is and I don’t care what she’s done, if there are situations in regard to herself and her family that need attention, then we as a society have a responsibility to help her in that. We don’t have a responsibility to rip her family apart and put her children in danger and then to let her sit there and pick up the pieces,” she said. “… We just needed help. Why shame us and our family and put our son in danger because he wasn’t capable of handling a placement like this and why put other children in danger? For what?”