Teenager's transition to Colorado's adult mental health system highlights problems

Girl has history of being abused, homicidal ideas

DENVER - The parents of a mentally ill teenager are concerned the girl is a threat to herself and society, but also say their warnings are being ignored.

The Rockwell family says they've fought to keep their daughter, who we're calling "Megan" in this story, in residential care. Now that Megan is 19, her parents say the system is eager to push her back into society and an unsecured living facility.

"They feel that since she's an adult now, they should be able to open the doors and hand her keys to her own apartment, literally," said Megan's adopted mother Irene Rockwell.

"The first thing that comes to my head… if someone says… starts pissing me off… it's like: 'Kill 'em now,'" Megan said.

"I visualize myself doing it, torture them in my brain," Megan said.

"It just pops into your head out of nowhere?" CALL7 Investigator Theresa Marchetta asked.

"Just when I'm angry," Megan replied.

"What do you do to stop that thought?"

"That I don't know. I don't think it will ever go away," Megan said.

The Rockwells said they wanted to share their story in hopes of preventing another national tragedy.

Megan's care is funded by Medicaid, but the providers who get the money don't always agree on the level of treatment Megan needs. They also don't always take into consideration her history of violent, unstable behavior.

At a rare family dinner away from Megan's residential treatment center, she and her family were brutally honest about the dark moments in their lives.

"She tried her first poisoning at [age] eight," Irene Rockwell said.

"We try to tell them what her pattern is," said Charlie Rockwell, Megan's biological father.

"The last time she tried to poison someone was in a residential facility," Irene Rockwell said about an incident four years go. "She tried to poison the entire cottage by pouring the water out of the ice cube trays and filling them half with bleach and half with water," Irene Rockwell said.

The family said they feel torn between their devotion to Megan and their obligation to keep the rest of the family safe.

"We know what she's capable of doing 'cause she's done it in the past, and we get blown off," said Charlie Rockwell.

The Rockwells say Megan's biological mother was abusive and used drugs.

"She was put in a washing machine at 6 months old," Charlie Rockwell said.

Her biological mother also tried to drown her twice and ram a stick into her head through an ear. All of that happened before Megan turned 4, when her biological father and adoptive mother got custody.

"She's gone through sexual, emotional, physical abuse and neglect in every which way," her father said.

Megan has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, mood and attachment disorders. Her health records document repeated "suicidal and homicidal" thoughts.

"She threatened to slit her therapist's throat. She said, 'If you don't be quiet, there's gonna be blood on the walls,'" Irene Rockwell said about an incident just over a month ago. "She can look at me and say, 'Mom, you're not safe. I'm gonna kill you.' That's another reason she doesn't live with us."

The family says they're at the mercy of a mental health system that qualifies their daughter for residential care in 30-day snapshots. It is a dangerous system, they say, because it fails to take into account Megan's full history.

If Megan goes weeks without a serious incident, her parents say the system considers her "cured" and moves her to a less secure facility.

"Every single therapist that has been involved with her deals with her for a year or two then turns around and says to me and my husband, 'We're sorry, you were right all along,'" Irene Rockwell said.

"I can't be on the streets by myself, I can't be," Megan said. "I just flip, yelling, screaming. Am I gonna get hurt? Is someone gonna kidnap me?"

Tom Dillingham, executive director of the Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health, said that the system put Megan back at square one after she became a legal adult.

"You have to start again and go through the whole perspective, redefine yourself and get into the system," he said. "When you're accessing the system and you don't know where the money comes from, you don't know how to get in the front door."

In Megan's case, it's Medicaid.

"I kept asking, 'who do I contact, who do I contact?' They wouldn't answer me," Irene Rockwell said.

The providers don't always agree on the level of what treatment Megan needs.

The CALL7 investigation uncovered report after report documenting Colorado's "broken," "confusing" and underfunded system.

A 2008 report points out Colorado's service areas and boundaries are "confusing." A member of the panel that wrote the report used the same word to describe the variety of funding sources.

"For a parent to have to constantly say, 'My kid can't love me, you have to help her.' It kills us," Irene Rockwell said.

"Why can't I just be normal like they are? Why can't I have brain function like the other kids do? It's just rough sometimes being me," Megan said.

After a recent appeal, a medical director denied authorization for Megan's residential treatment stating her "psychiatric symptoms are not severe and acute enough."

It is difficult to hold any one person accountable here, because so many agencies and entities are involved in the system.

After the shooting in Newtown, Conn., Governor John Hickenlooper proposed an $18.5 million plan to address many of the deficiencies in the coming years. Until that is approved, CALL7 found little to keep patients like Megan from slipping through the cracks.

The only current option is a mental health hold in a hospital emergency room.