EDITOR'S NOTE: Don't Turn Away is an ongoing project of the Mail Tribune, KOBI Channel 5 and the Jackson County Child Abuse Network to bring awareness to the community about child abuse and its effects.
By Sanne Specht
Medford father John Piatkin doesn't know where his 15-year-old daughter disappeared to after she ran away from the ChristieCare residential care facility in Portland for children with mental health challenges during a birthday outing with staffers a week ago.
Piatkin fears she is in danger. And he wants Mariah found so she can get the help she needs, he said.
"It's hard right now, staying at work," Piatkin said. "I just want to throw a backpack on and go look for her. I've just got to find my daughter."
It wouldn't be the first time Piatkin searched city parks and back streets for his daughter, whom he describes as fiercely independent, highly intelligent and suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity and bipolar disorders.
In recent months, Piatkin has tracked Mariah across the state, from Portland to St. Helens to Ashland. He said he has dragged her out of dangerous situations and stood guard over her through sleepless nights in hospital rooms. But no matter what he's done to keep her safe, Mariah's demons keep her on the run, he said.
"She has a lot of emotions," Piatkin said. "She thinks she can handle herself. But she hasn't had enough experiences in life to understand she doesn't have good coping skills."
National studies show one in five young people suffer from mental health problems. That means thousands of Oregon's children and their families face daunting challenges every day.
Resources are limited and can be difficult to access, either because there's a waiting list or the child doesn't meet specific criteria, said Pam Bergreen, Jackson County Department of Human Services coordinator.
"Sometimes the hardest part of this work is that you know what kind of resource might help, but you can't access it," Bergreen said.
Piatkin and Mariah turned to Hearts with a Mission, Medford's only teen homeless shelter, on Jan. 11, said Kevin Lamson, executive director.
Youths can stay for up to 72 hours without parental consent and up to 120 days with consent, said Lamson. No drug use, alcohol, weapons, sex or smoking are allowed. Teens are offered three meals a day and a safe place to stay, he said.
"She said she wanted help," Lamson said. "I told her I'd get her help. And I thought I could. I promised her I would not let go."
But when Lamson made his promise, he did not understand the level of care Mariah would need, he said.
"Mariah could light up a room. Or she could turn out the lights," Lamson said.
New to the social services scene, Lamson expected that helping teen runaways reunite with their parents would involve a safe place to stay, a little conversation and a lot of prayer. Finding out how badly damaged some of these kids are has been a brutal exercise in awareness, he said.
Lamson said sometimes Mariah, then 14, would sing and dance. At other times she would curl up in a fetal position. Sometimes she would verbally erupt. Her arms had bloody sores, wounds she inflicted upon herself, Lamson said.
"She'd use a pencil eraser and just drag it back and forth across her skin," Lamson said. "She said, 'when I deal with this pain, it makes the other pain go away.' "
Lamson and his staff do not have the training necessary to effectively help teens suffering from serious mental and emotional issues, he said. But they tried to keep Mariah safe as Lamson and Piatkin searched for resources better equipped to help her, he added.
"It seemed the more we tried to create an environment that was secure, the more Mariah felt trapped," Lamson said.
On Jan. 22, Mariah ran away, then reappeared a week later, Lamson said.
"She was pretty wet and hungry," Lamson said.
Lamson said his inexperience and other issues created weeks-long delays in getting Mariah properly assessed — a key step to finding long-term care. During this period, his staff struggled to deal with an out-of-control teen, Lamson said.
"Mariah had all this anger inside her she couldn't deal with," Lamson said. "Her way to escape was to run. She felt the walls were closing in. She said, 'I guess I'm not ready to be helped.' "
Mariah ran away from Hearts with a Mission for the last time on Feb. 4.
As with all health conditions, the keys to successful recovery include early diagnosis, intervention and treatment. Jackson County has no facility for inpatient and ongoing care for adolescents who aren't part of the criminal justice system. Child services has contracts with Southern Oregon Adolescent Study Treatment Center in Josephine County and another facility in Roseburg, Bergreen said.
Serious mental health problems, whether biologically or genetically based, can affect any child and family — regardless of age, gender, race or economic status. Problems also can be triggered by traumatic childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect or exposure to other stressful conditions in the child's environment, Bergreen said.
"You get the map your family gives you," she said. "We'd like simple answers for these kids. But it requires our long-term attention, not a short-term response."
Much of Mariah's pain can be traced to her parents' bad choices, said Piatkin, shaking his head.
"I had drinking and gambling issues. Her mom had drug issues. People are always trying to diagnose these kids. They should look at the parents," Piatkin said.
Piatkin's criminal record is long and varied. He has felony convictions for burglary, criminal mischief and weapons charges. His daughter suffered from parental neglect. She may have been sexually abused by an older family member, Piatkin said.
"I've done a lot of damage to her by screwing up my life," he said. "I just want to do right by her now."
Piatkin said he and his ex-wife cared for Mariah for the first few years of her life. When their lives spiraled out of control, Mariah was sent to live with his aunt until she was 11 years old.
"My aunt got her on meds — lithium, Ritalin," he said.
The following two years Mariah went to live with her mother in northern Oregon. (Correction: This paragraph has been altered to remove inaccurate information.)
"But they don't get along and she was always running away up there, too," he said.
Piatkin took custody of his daughter at age 13 in May 2009, shortly after he was released from prison and returned to Medford, he said.
"DHS called me and said (Mariah was missing)," Piatkin said. "I'd been out for a month. At two o'clock in the morning I jumped on a Greyhound."
Piatkin, armed with a picture of Mariah, wandered the streets of St. Helens in the pouring rain, calling for his daughter. He asked police whether they had seen her. He talked to strangers. Finally, he turned the right corner.
"There she was," Piatkin said. "She came running to me."
But Piatkin's reunion with his daughter was not smooth. From June to October, they battled constantly as he tried to set boundaries and regulate her behavior.
As the year wore on, Mariah continued to act out. She ran away again, this time leaving a note saying she was sorry. Piatkin succumbed to his own addictions.
"I started gambling again just to escape," he said. "I just let the place go. I didn't pay the rent."
Piatkin entered the Moore sobering center in January to get his own life straightened out.
"Mariah calls me," he said. "She wants to come back."
Piatkin met with Lamson and made arrangements for Mariah to stay at Hearts with a Mission.
"When John came he was really honest," said Lamson. "He tried to paint a really accurate picture of Mariah's addictions, anger and mental illness."
It would be a mistake to think that only children of drug addicts or felons end up battling mental and emotional illnesses. These afflictions affect 20 percent of children and are equal opportunity destroyers, crossing all socioeconomic and racial barriers, Bergreen said.
"People see a horror story in the paper and think it's the exception. If only they knew this is happening day in and day out," Bergreen said. "The difference is really made one child, one family, at a time."
Parents with children who suffer from mental illness or behavior problems say their troubles are compounded by shame, fear and community judgments, she added.
"Troubled kids and their parents can be ostracized," Bergreen said. "Rather than say we don't want you in our PTA, or our Scout troop, or our school, we need to be finding ways to support and include these community members."
Lamson said Piatkin is doing all he can to atone for past mistakes.
"Maybe you weren't the best father. But you're trying now," said Lamson. "People love to blame the parents. Why didn't they get some help? Well it's sure not as easy as it seems. Or as easy as it ought to be."
In a last-ditch effort to get Mariah long-term mental health care in an inpatient facility, Piatkin turned her over to DHS, he said.
"I let the state take custody of Mariah," Piatkin said. "They said it was the only way to get her the help she needs."
Adding to their challenges was the fact that Mariah ran away the day he and Lamson took her to OnTrack Inc. for her assessment, he said.
"They finally called and told us they had a place to put Mariah," said Lamson. "But we had to find her and get her there."
Piatkin searched local parks and nearby neighborhoods. Sometimes his 5-foot-9-inch daughter, who just turned 15 but looks 19, hangs out with older crowds, he said.
"She thinks she can handle herself," Piatkin said. "She's smart and she thinks she's tough. But she's going to get herself in something that she can't get out of someday. I'm afraid she's going to end up dead."
Piatkin found Mariah in Central Point and called police to assist with his efforts to transport her to a local hospital for evaluation and detention. It was a battle to get the officer to understand Mariah's situation was not that of a typical runaway, he said.
"It was important to get her to the hospital," Piatkin said. "He said there was nothing he could do unless she committed a felony."
Lamson said the responsibility for healing should not be placed on a damaged teen, or left to parents who may not have the skills or inclination to find the proper help. As a community, we must do better, he said.
"There has got to be an easier way to get kids helped," Lamson said. "The biggest meltdown I had was the day I had to tell Mariah I couldn't help her. I never thought you'd have to tell a teenager you can't help. And you shouldn't have to."
Bergreen said the mental health care system is chronically underfunded. There need to be more options for treatment, specifically long-term care, and more access to early education opportunities which have proven track records, she said.
"We say children are our most precious resource, but do we treat them that way?" Bergreen said. "This issue is not seasonal. It's perennial. And seed money doesn't last without good irrigation. We must find the persistence to stay the course even when resources are shrinking."
In April Mariah was placed at ChristieCare, a residential care facility in Portland for children with significant mental health challenges. She was placed in subacute care for three weeks, then shuttled to Douglas County Youth Authority for five weeks waiting for a bed to open up at CristyCare's intensive care unit. After three weeks back in the facility, and against Piatkin's advice, Mariah was deemed fit to go on outings provided she was accompanied by a staff or family member, he said.
His daughter disappeared on June 12. Piatkin said a staff member called to give him the news.
"I said she shouldn't go," Piatkin said. "I said she'd run. But they took her out to Portland anyway. And she was gone."
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail email@example.com.