What is a mother forced to do to get help?

The first time I saw the video of Jessica Beagley I was shocked.  But as an attorney and psychologist, I knew immediately there was a deeper story here.  I watched several attorneys that morning on the talk show circuit, talking about what a “terrible” mom Beagley was and how “abusive” her behavior was towards the child.  There weren’t any psychologists invited to speak.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the behavior in the video is abusive.  I would never recommend those sorts of tactics to parents and would have to report the sort of behavior in the video as abuse if confronted in my practice with such a tape.  But to describe this simply as a “stunt” to get on Dr. Phil in a two-minute sound bite doesn’t do this story justice.  It doesn’t do us justice.

Beagley was desperate.  And just like the mom who put her child on a plane back to Russia last year, Beagley’s son was also adopted from Russia along with his twin brother at 5 years old, and has since been diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).  RAD is one of the most difficult issues to treat in children.  Traditional methods of discipline typically don’t work for these children and they often have higher pain thresholds.  Nearly every horror story you’ve ever heard about an adopted child is a result of poor attachment.  With RAD the child doesn’t trust any adult, ever, and acts accordingly.

Since traditional therapies don’t work with these children, new and different ways of working with these kids pop up frequently all over the country promising a cure.  For example, Law and Order did an episode a number of years ago on the death of a child during holding therapy—holding therapy in part, is designed to control and calm the child, and the situation.  One of the tenants of most of these therapies is that the adult establish control of the situation with the child and establish rules and guidelines to be followed.  What was very clear to me when I watched the video, is that Beagley was trying to break through to a kid who is resistant to nearly every form of discipline, and frequently disregards rules.

“Beagley,” according to the Associated Press, “made the video and went on the Dr. Phil show because she was desperate to find help for her son.” Imagine bringing home two 5-year-old boys because you want to shower them with love.  You then find that one won’t respond to your affection, won’t follow basic rules of behavior, and lies, hits, and steals without regard for any consequences.  And, your husband is a police officer who sees where these sorts of behaviors most frequently lead in adults.  I have worked with families where one child with RAD has taken a knife to the throat of a younger child.  I have also known couples who have chosen to abandon these children because the behavior was just beyond their capacities as parents to handle.  What do you do as a parent?

The Beagleys couldn’t get help in this situation and that was the case in the several that I have described.  Jessica Beagley’s son is finally getting the help he needs because he was finally properly diagnosed.   It appears from reports that the Dr. Phil show facilitated the diagnosis and is paying for his treatment.  Ms. Beagley has humiliated herself and put her child’s physical well-being at risk.  But why are mothers often forced to go these lengths to get the help they need?  And, why are we so quick to judge them? 

An Anchorage jury decided Beagley’s unorthodox parenting was indeed a crime, finding the 36-year-old mother of six guilty of misdemeanor child abuse last Monday.  Her sentencing will happen next week.   Our justice system paints a very dichotomous picture of Ms. Beagley.  Prosecutor Cynthia Franklin, who told the jury that Beagley abused the boy in an attempt to get on national TV, called the verdict a just one. “(The jury) concluded that it is child abuse to hurt your child as an audition for a television show,” she said.  Defense lawyer Willam Ingaldson had argued Beagley struggled to correct the troubled boy’s bad behavior and was reaching out for help. That’s not a crime, he argued.  Beagley “was trying, in the best interest of her child to do the “right” thing however misguided. 

I would suggest a more compassionate story that can be told to the jury about Ms. Beagley.  This mother trying to get on a reality show was merely a symptom of how our social services failed her and her son. 

We need to have a larger discussion about this, outside of the limits of the courtroom and the two-minute sound bite.  The real discussion we need to have includes what happened outside the video? What happened prior to the video? What happened after?’ Why was this mom, and why are so many others forced to take such drastic and misguided steps to help their children?  We seem to have a new story every few months that points out the difficulties parents have in obtaining much needed mental health services for their children.   That conversation is difficult and it will necessarily result in some systematic changes, but I challenge us all to have it.  I don’t want to see more dramatic videos like the one Ms. Beagley made. Or worse yet, the results if all of these moms continue to go without help.