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'I don't have the skills to be in the outside world'

Sunday, July 15, 2001

By Steve Twedt, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A decade ago, Mayview State Hospital's now-closed adolescent unit was home to a troubled 9-year-old named Kevin Walker.

How he landed there, and what happened to him afterward, demonstrates the damage that can be done when society turns its back on mentally disturbed teens.

As a toddler, Kevin had been given up by his birth mother and lived with two different foster families in New England.

Donna Walker, a school nurse living in Glenshaw, was interested in adopting a child. Working through an agency, she learned about 5-year-old Kevin, but was astonished by a report she was given about him. "It was 100 pages, and in those 100 pages, he'd never done anything right. I couldn't believe one kid that young could be that bad."

She decided to bring him home to Pittsburgh.

Donna Walker loved her new son, but she learned quickly that she could never leave Kevin alone. He was constantly on the move, constantly making impulsive decisions.

"There were two Kevins. There was this compassionate, caring Kevin and there was this raging lunatic." He set fires in the bathroom, ate erasers, picked holes in the television speakers. He cut his own hair, cut holes in his jeans, and pulled the soles on his shoes back so they would flap when he walked.

And he would run away, constantly.

She took Kevin to various specialists, and their diagnoses ran from attention deficit and hyperactivity to mild cerebral palsy. By anyone's measure, Kevin was a handful. After a brief stay at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at age 9, Kevin refused to go home and was sent to Mayview for 30 days.

Kevin's first brush with the law came later on at school, in the seventh grade. His account, and his mother's, is that Kevin was sitting in class with his feet on the desk when the teacher, a substitute, swept Kevin's feet off the desk with his hand. Almost instinctively, Kevin kicked at the teacher. He was charged with aggravated assault.

By then, though, Mayview's adolescent unit was closed. So, during the next five years, Kevin shuttled in and out of Shuman Juvenile Detention Center six times, going to one program placement after another. He was repeatedly cited for a "failure to adjust" -- usually because he ran away -- and would then be sent back to Shuman.

"Shuman never knew what to do with me," Kevin said, "and none of the placements did either."

And while Kevin often disobeyed the rules, he was rarely violent toward others. The same could not be said about harming himself.

During one of his early stays at Shuman, Kevin was hospitalized after the staff found him eating the teeth of his comb. Over the years, he has cut himself repeatedly, swallowed cleaner and tried to hurt himself several other ways.

Today, the faint scars from self-inflicted cuts criss-cross Kevin's arms like tracks on a ski slope. They don't necessarily signify suicide attempts, he said. "It releases a lot of stress when I do it. It makes me feel not quite as stressed."

His second stay at Shuman lasted nine months, primarily because no one wanted a mentally troubled teen with a history of assault. At one point, he ended up pulling a year-long stint at Cresson Youth Development Camp, a maximum security facility for delinquents in Cambria County. At least it had a therapist and psychologist, he said. "Even though it was a complete lockdown, I didn't mind it so much."

Kevin is 19 now and lives in Carnegie, but he has trouble coping with everyday decisions. It's not surprising for someone who spent his formative years locked up in one institution or another, effectively removed from mainstream life. "I feel like a caged animal," Kevin admitted during his last stay in Shuman. "I don't know what's going on in the outside world."

Stories like Kevin's have played out over and over again, in Pennsylvania and across the United States, as states have deinstitutionalized mental health treatment.

Teens who need intense, long-term mental health care have been moved to community settings, where they are supposed to learn to be a part of a neighborhood. But that doesn't apply to people like Kevin, whose many encounters with the juvenile justice system have put that alternative out of reach.

Had Mayview, or something similar, still been available, said Kevin, "I wouldn't be in the predicament that I'm in right now, not going anywhere. Right now, I don't have the skills to be in the outside world."

Kevin left Shuman last spring, lived briefly with his adoptive mother in Glenshaw, and then moved in with Art Merrell, a former Shuman chaplain who's known Kevin since Kevin's first detention nearly 10 years ago. Merrell tried to help Kevin get work and get on with his life, but Kevin could not quite move forward.

While Merrell was at work, Kevin would watch television for hour upon hour, absorbed in reality-based police and ambulance shows. His daily smoking habit grew from 4 or 5 cigarettes to two packs. Eventually Merrell nudged Kevin harder, urging him to complete his General Equivalency Diploma, which he was about a year short of earning, and get a job.

But even though he has pushed Kevin, Merrell is sympathetic to his plight. After years of detention and corrections stays, he said, Kevin faces adulthood with little idea of how to live a "normal" life.

There are times when that becomes acutely obvious.

One day in February, Merrell returned to the apartment to find Kevin's coat, watch and wallet on the floor, but no sign of Kevin. Because they had argued earlier, the scene alarmed Merrell.

Not long after Merrell had left, Kevin had boarded a bus on Brownsville Road, riding a mile or two before getting off. A few paces later, he stood in a parking lot, where he reached in his pocket for the handful of aspirin he'd taken from the apartment.

With an afternoon storm moving in, Kevin jammed the 30 or so pills in his mouth. He passed out before the ambulance arrived.

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