Parents Judged When Their Children Commit Murder

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Guests

Jeannette Halton-Tiggs, mother of Timothy Halton Jr., who killed a police officer in Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Dave Cullen, author, Columbine

Within moments of the shootings in Tucson, citizens, commentators and public figures publicly debated the motives of alleged shooter Jared Lee Loughner. Was he mentally ill? Or was it poor parenting? In times of tragedy, it can be tempting to point fingers at the perpetrators' parents.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

After the shootings in Tucson nine days ago now, many people had questions for Jared Loughner's parents. Jeannette Halton-Tiggs had empathy. Just last year, her son was sentenced to life without parole for the murder of a police officer.

In a story for the Daily Beast, Halton-Tiggs wrote that she's pretty sure she knows what the Loughner family is going through - the guilt, the shame, the despair. She notes that throughout the proceedings, the media portrayed her son Timmy as a monster. What he is, she said, is one of the many thousands who suffer from severe mental illness, and he could no longer be forced to get help after he turned 18.

Parents, if your child has been convicted of hurting someone else, or if you worry you might get that phone call one day, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later on the program, for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, "I Have a Dream." But first, Jeannette Halton-Tiggs joins us from member station WCPN in Cleveland, and thanks very much for coming in today.

Ms. JEANNETTE HALTON-TIGGS: Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And you begin your piece describing the day your son Timmy got sentenced. You tell us you could not cry.

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: No, I - I was cried out, Neal. I could not disrespect the family of Officer West by sitting there crying for my son, who was still alive, while her son, Mrs. West's son, is dead.

And I had gone through so much over the past 20 years. It was a living hell, a maze of horror to go through the judicial system, the lack of medical services there, for my son all the tears were gone. My worst fears came true when I got that phone call.

CONAN: You wrote that, in fact, you expected one day to get a call that your son had been killed by a police officer.

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: Exactly. I was more prepared for that. I was never prepared for the call that my son had killed someone or a police officer, though in the back of my mind, I knew that if he did not get the treatment needed, that he was going to hurt someone eventually.

CONAN: And what was it like, then, to go through those proceedings? As you say, your piece is titled "The Mother of a Monster."

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: Yes. Well, to go through the proceedings, I felt a sense of relief once I found the death penalty was taken off of the table. But I knew that he would never come home, and that was fine with me because, Neal, there are no services out there for me to be able to take care of this boy.

If they told me that my son could come home tomorrow, I'd say, no, you have to keep him. Because where he is now, he is getting the psychiatric treatment that he's needed since he was eight years old but at the expense of Officer West's life.

CONAN: And how is he doing in prison?

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: Well, he's wondering when is he coming home, actually. He thinks this is just one of his many 25 hospitalizations that he's had over the years and that he'll be let go at any - that he'll be let out at any time.

He really doesn't talk about the night of the shooting or anything like that. It's almost to him like it never happened, as if it was a dream. And he's awakened from the dream, but we're the ones that are living it. He only goes by what we tell him right now.

CONAN: And are you in touch with Officer West's family?

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: No, unfortunately, I am not. I have tried to reach out to Mrs. West, but it was suggested that I not. But at any time that she needs to talk to me or would like to talk to me, Cleveland Heights Police Station, this captain has all of my information. I would be happy to talk to her.

CONAN: And I can understand both positions. Tell us a little bit, though, about the empathy you have for the Loughner family and what they are going through in the aftermath of the incident in Tucson.

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: Oh, my God. They may never overcome the feelings of the guilt, the shame, the despair. But they have to understand that the boy who did this is a very sick boy.

And in my family, we had arguments about how sick my son was, or my family was in such denial that he wasn't even sick. And I was the enemy because I was the one trying to get him help and I was the one who called the police when my son attacked someone.

So they have to come together as a family. And Jared's going to need them now. The media right now is portraying him as a monster, as they did my son. And I know their family knows that he's not a monster.

His friends, Jared's friends, spoke yesterday and described him as a smart, funny, kind gentleman with a talent - he's a talented musician. And I do believe that because there were two Timmys. There was the unmedicated Timmy, and there was the medicated Timmy. And yes, they are totally different. And when my son was unmedicated and did this heinous act, yes, he did act monstrous.

So I do not blame the media at all for calling him that name at all. But they need to come together as a family and understand that their son has a brain disease. And we as Americans need to stop overlooking mental illness and treat it as the disease that it is, as we do cancer, autism, diabetes.

CONAN: The shame, though, and the guilt - there must be terrible moments when you say: What could I have done? Am I responsible?

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: Oh, yes. Neal, I've lived far too long behind a self-imposed wall of silence because of the embarrassment of my son's schizophrenia. A lot of people at my job didn't even understand that I had a son.

So now I'm no longer silent. I am the voice for parents who have mentally ill children. My goal is to help improve mental health services, how we treat the mentally ill in America. At the present moment, I am writing a book. I've been writing for the last two years. I've had to get this out of me or I would probably go insane myself. So I - and it's titled "The Monster's Mother."

I hope that I can get a talk show on Oprah's station. We have to keep this going. Just because it's in the media right now, in a month or two months from now, let's not stop talking about mental illness. We only bring up the subject when there's tragedy. Let's keep it going.

I would love to have a talk show on Oprah Winfrey Network. Oprah, so if you're listening, or your producers, please. But we - seriously, in all seriousness, we have to keep this subject going. We just can't stop in a month or so, after all the hoopla is done with Jared Loughner and his family.

CONAN: And you write, you mention the two Timmys, and I'm sure the Loughners, as you say, remember a kid who was a good musician and lots of fun. We also see that picture, that awful mug shot in the newspaper.

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: Yes, yes, yes. And, you know, I'm sure they have pictures of Jared growing up, where you wouldn't see that. But at that time, the young man who did this heinous act has a brain disease. He has a mental illness. So he is unmedicated. So yes, that picture is scary, and an untreated mentally ill person is a very scary person to come in contact with. If I may read something from psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey.

CONAN: Sure.

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: It says, it's been estimated by psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center, that over 40,000 dangerously mentally ill individuals are roaming America's street on any given day, untreated, akin to walking time bombs. Why are we so surprised when one of them occasionally goes off?

CONAN: I hear what that says and I understand that. Just to point out that the vast majority of them do not go off, and we have to be...

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: Well, these are the dangerously mentally ill.

CONAN: I understand. I understand that. We have to be careful, too, about -people have rights and you have to be careful not about forcing people to do things that they're - you know, after they're of age, they don't have to do.

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: No, my focus more is on those - there's a small percentage of schizophrenics that are violent, maybe one percent. So Jared and my son do not represent the majority of the mentally ill. Okay, they are a small part of one percent of violent schizophrenics.

People function quite well. They just need services and support. Mentally ill people are more apt to be victims than they are to be attackers, perpetrators.

No, I am not in any way saying to take away rights just because someone is mentally ill. I'm saying we need to focus more on finding out which ones have the violence in them. And those are the ones who need to be kept under watch, that need a support system, the services.

I mean, everyone needs the services, of course, don't get me wrong. But if we want to stop things like what happened in Tucson, then we need to absolutely focus on the mentally ill that are violent.

CONAN: We're talking with Jeannette Halton-Tiggs, the mother of Timothy Halton Jr., who killed a police officer in Cleveland Heights, sentenced last year to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

We want to hear from the parents of children who have also done terrible things or parents of children who they fear may do terrible things, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And we'll go to Ellen(ph), and Ellen's on the line with us from Denver.

ELLEN (Caller): Yes, I want first of all to thank you so much for putting some light on this subject because I have felt so sorry for the family. And when I saw on national news that one of the victims went to the family's house to forgive them, I really got angry.

I have a son in his 20s who is exactly like she described. He's two different people. When he is taking meds, he's kind, considerate, he's extremely intelligent and good with children.

But when he is not taking his meds, and he has been diagnosed either schizophrenic or schizophrenic-affective, they weren't sure, but when he's taking - when he's not taking his meds, which is often, he is screaming, yelling, pounding on things. And at times I've had to have him leave the house. And so far, he will do that for me, but I always wonder when it's going to escalate to the point that he will be out of reach.

I will say, we're in the state of Colorado, and his problem is compounded because he was able to get a marijuana license with very little - and Colorado is trying to change all that now, but at the time, I know they had no idea about his illness.

CONAN: And you, from your description, Ellen, you must have that awful phrase going through your head of a danger to himself or others.

ELLEN: Absolutely. And every time I hear a siren, if he's gone from the house, and I hear a siren, I think - oh, no, it's my son. Something has happened. And I just, I feel so sorry for the parents. Once they turn 18, we - our hands are really tied.

CONAN: Well, Ellen, we wish you the best of luck. I know that's probably a thin reed to hang on, but that's all we can offer.

ELLEN: Oh, I appreciate it very much. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. We'd like to hear from those of you in the audience, the parents of a child who may have done something terrible or, like Ellen, you fear may do something terrible. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

When we come back, we'll be talking with Dave Cullen, who is the author of the book "Columbine." Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

After 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner allegedly opened fire at a shopping center nine days ago, many people asked the same question: Why? His parents released this statement: This is a very difficult time for us. We ask the media to respect our privacy. There are no words that can possibly express how we feel. We wish that were so we could make you feel better.

We don't understand why this happened. It may not make any difference, but we wish we could change the heinous events of Saturday. We care very deeply about the victims and their families. We are so very sorry for their loss.

If you're a parent, and your child has been convicted of hurting someone, or you worry that they might, call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Dave Cullen is with us. He's the author of the book "Columbine" and joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. DAVE CULLEN (Author, "Columbine"): Thanks, Neal. Thanks for having me, and thanks for doing this topic.

CONAN: Okay. I should also mention Jeannette Halton-Tiggs is still with us in New York. I didn't want to forget about her.

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: Yes.

CONAN: But Dave Cullen, as you see some of the assessments that have come down about Jared Lee Loughner and what his parents had to say, well, there's obvious resonance with Columbine.

Mr. CULLEN: There really is, although I've been happy to see that this time, the blaming of the parents so far has not been as dramatic as it's been in some cases in the past, perhaps because he's a little older, he's 22. Maybe we've learned something.

But it hasn't got bad yet, but that still remains to be seen.

CONAN: And the blaming of the parents in Columbine, again younger children and still at home.

Mr. CULLEN: Right, and it was really intense. There was a poll shortly after Columbine, it was repeated years later with similar results, that - I believe it showed 83 percent of the people blamed the parents as being the most responsible for it, even higher than the boys themselves.

CONAN: That seems awfully convenient.

Mr. CULLEN: It does. It does, and what people forget, we have occasions where sometimes, it's - it sort of falls into one of two camps. situation like Jeannette's, where it's very obvious that something was wrong with the boy, and there are certain cases where the killer really fools everyone or is depressed and just seems like a morose teenager where there aren't really signs of - you don't see anything like this coming whatsoever.

CONAN: Even retrospectively, going back through diaries and journals.

Mr. CULLEN: Exactly, and in the Klebolds' case, Sue Klebold said that for the first six months afterwards, they were actually in denial, which I think was a very strong admission for her to make, where they knew he had killed these people, but they thought either he had been tricked into it, or he didn't really understand what was happening, he didn't think he would be killing people that day. And it took them that long just to accept the fact that he really did mean to do this.

And part of that was after reading his journals and seeing, okay, it's crystal clear that he did intend to do this.

CONAN: I wonder, denial, Jeannette Halton-Tiggs, you say a lot of members of your family were in denial for a long time.

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: Absolutely. No matter what my son did, they blamed it on the lack of his father being in his life, he was just acting out. But he did some serious things.

I mean, as an eight-year-old child, he started torturing small animals. He had to be taken out of school because he was disrupting other children and put in a positive education program because he was very smart, but he had behavior problems.

No matter what my son did, my aunt, my daughter, they protected him. And they did it in a loving manner, but it wasn't the best thing to do because we had conflict amongst the family. And like I said, I became the enemy.

CONAN: You became the enemy within your own family.

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: Within my own family, to my son. To my son, I was the enemy because I was - he felt that I just wanted to have him locked away and the key thrown away. I was the one who forced him to take his medicines, even though before they started giving him an injection, he would take pills and then spit them out.

I was the one who stayed on him about going to the psychiatrist and the social worker and just trying to get his Social Security or Medicaid in place because he could not hold down a job.

CONAN: I wonder, Dave Cullen, the mother of a monster, well, Jeannette Halton-Tiggs has, to some degree, embraced the term. I wonder if the Klebolds have.

Mr. CULLEN: Yeah, that's a really painful term. I think that's very painful for them, and I wish that we in the media could stop using that partly because we don't think of the individuals involved, the family, but also it's not a very helpful term.

I don't think we really understand what's going on with the sort of three or four different types of killers if we just categorize them as monsters, and that's sort of very easy. Oh, there are these horrible, different, alien beasts that we don't understand. And that we're never going to understand them if we lump them into that kind of a category.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to Evelyn(ph), Evelyn with us from northwest Indiana.

EVELYN (Caller): Good morning.

CONAN: Hi.

EVELYN: Hi. I was calling about my son. He's currently 16. He's had services for years. We've had services since he was six years old. And we're at a point, now, where the most recent facility that he is in, they don't have the capacity to give him the services that he needs.

And they've recommended a state hospital setting, only in Indiana, we don't have a state hospital. So they have now decided that they're going to make him part of the legal system and have decided to put him through probation court, which is just going to land him back out on the street with no help.

CONAN: And he's 16. He is - he can be required to get help until he turns 18.

EVELYN: They can refer him to counseling, but we went through outpatient counseling services for years and years before it ever came to the inpatient facilities that have been available. And he's been through every facility in northern Indiana and has been sent to another facility and yet another.

So putting him back out on the street and putting him back into outpatient services is, you know, is taking a step backwards. And I'm terrified for two reasons. I'm terrified that without the services he needs, he's not going to have a chance to be successful in life with the services and medication and behavioral therapy.

But secondly, I'm terrified he is capable, he is capable of doing some really heinous things.

CONAN: I wonder, Jeannette Halton-Tiggs, obviously the legal situations are different, the medical situations are different. Some of the emotions, though, must be the same.

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: But she said one important thing. As a mother, she knows her child is capable of doing some heinous things if he is not treated. I felt the same way, but nobody would listen to me. No one would listen when I said this boy is going to hurt someone.

I mean, and when we talk about - I don't want to infringe on anyone's rights, but my son should not have been emancipated at 18, and I would never infringe on anyone's rights just because they're mentally ill. But, I mean, but yes, they have the right to be homeless, they have the right to eat out of a garbage can, and they have the right to die with their rights on.

But she said something very important, and when her son turns 18, she's talking about steps backwards, it's going to be more steps backwards, because he can decide if he wants to get treatment or not. He can decide if he wants to take those meds or not.

And in my son's situation, as being a violent schizophrenic, he should not have been in the position to make those decisions. We should not have let him call the shots.

EVELYN: I couldn't agree more. And the thing is, my son is also a violent schizophrenic. He has shown the ability to be violent to family members, to be...

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: My son...

EVELYN: He has seriously hurt many staff members in these facilities he's been in. And the thing about is if we're allowed to step in when an average person that they want to commit suicide, we can step in and require them to get mental services. Why in the world, with someone who has shown that they are dangerous, do we not protect the society and the child?

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: Exactly. The Secret Service had my son, because he was a threat to President Bush when President Bush was here in Ohio, they - he wanted to go and kill President Bush with his - he's a commander of 1,800 soldiers when he's sick.

The Secret Service had him. They put him in a mental facility. They found a group home. They - the only problem was, they asked Timmy: Do you want to go to this group home out of state?

My son was allowed to make that decision, and he said: No, I'm not going anywhere. Why would let this man do that?

CONAN: Dave Cullen, you were trying to get in?

Mr. CULLEN: Yeah, well, this is a separate conversation going on, which I think is very healthy, among some of the experts in the psychiatric field that I've been talking to the last couple weeks, where I think there's a recognition there that we went way too far a few decades ago in dismantling the public psychiatric system and the system of committing people against their will and that we need to move back not to where we were before but someplace in the middle.

CONAN: It was dismantled in part because of widespread abuse.

Mr. CULLEN: Correct, correct, and that with good intentions, we put these people out on the street, but that isn't necessarily - that isn't a good solution, either.

And especially Jeannette made the great point early on is that most people who are mentally ill are no danger to anyone else. They are not violent. But that fraction of 1 percent who are, we can identify most of the time those people who are dangerous. And those people we really need to treat in a separate category and go back to saying, hey. These people can't function on the street themselves. We need to come up with a new system where we do need to take more aggressive action, and where they can't decide for themselves whether or not they should be treated.

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: Exactly. Exactly. We...

EVELYN: Right. And in terms of my son, I'm happy that we're finally having a national conversation about this, but I have so much sorrow that this conversation is beginning far too late, I think, to impact my son. I'm afraid that it'll be too late for him.

CONAN: Evelyn, we wish you and your son good luck.

EVELYN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye.

Let's go next to - this is Diana, Diana with us from Aurora in Colorado.

DIANA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

DIANA: My son is 27 years old now, and he's diagnosed bipolar, with some psychosis. And it took him - when he was 19, he was arrested for armed robbery. Before that, I had spent three years - while he was still under my care and control before he turned 18 - begging insurance companies for some kind of long-term, inpatient treatment. If he lost a psychiatrist, I might have to call 20, literally, before I could get another one to take him as a patient. I had a psychiatrist tell me he was just a teenager, and I did not understand teenagers. And that was why we were having all these problems. And he - I consider myself so blessed that no one was hurt...

CONAN: In the...

DIANA: ...and he was not killed.

CONAN: In the armed robbery?

DIANA: In the armed robbery. And that he got - it was a year with no medication in Arapahoe County detention. And once, his public defender, I said, talk to him. Explain his situation, and then go back to him in an hour and ask him to tell you what he said - what you said about what - I said, and you will understand. It's not that he's stupid. It's that he does not - that he has a twist in his thinking, and it's mental illness, and he needs help.

CONAN: And how long will it be, Diana, before your son is released?

DIANA: We don't - he's actually in community placement now. He's in college. He's finished his junior - finishing his junior year in college. He's done all this on his own with the treatment in the state hospital. And, you know, it's a miracle and it's a blessing, and I know it is, because I feel so much. And the worst denial - it takes a long time for a parent to give up that dream of the perfect child...

CONAN: Yeah. Well...

DIANA: ...that they believe they had.

CONAN: Diana...

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: Can I...

CONAN: Yes. Go ahead, please.

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: Can I comment? She has mentioned probation. Probation was basically a godsend for my son because he had attacked a police officer in 2005. He was put on a four-year probation, which meant that the state would have to pay for his expensive injections, his psychiatric visits, and he had a safety net of social workers and doctors that would check on him constantly.

The problem was - and in that - and let me say this - and in that one year, my son did more than some do in 10 years. He got a job. He got a house. He furnished the house. He bought clothes. He bought a brand-new car. But it was cut short by three, because the court or the judge said that he felt that my son was doing so good. But the truth was my son was a high-maintenance client, and they did not want to continue to pay for his medication and his support system, and they snatched it right from under him. But they expect us as parents to front the bills for all of these things. I've gone bankrupt, as well as many Americans have, trying to support our mentally-ill children.

DIANA: Exactly.

CONAN: Diana...

DIANA: And that's exactly what's happened to my son. As he has progressed through the state hospital and through his treatment, he now has, you know, we can't - he's been denied SSI because he's not stupid...

Ms. HALTON-TIGGS: Oh, yeah. That's definitely...

DIANA: ...but he's still mental ill. And he still needs the treatment, and he still needs the medication. And trying to get that is just an ongoing battle.

CONAN: Diana, we wish you the best of luck, and continued good luck with your son.

DIANA: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about the parents of kids who, well, could be on the verge of getting way, way out of control or, in some cases, went over it.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And we have some emails I wanted to get to, this from Judy in Sonoma. My brother has schizophrenia and ended up setting fire to our house when I was a teen, killing my grandmother, all to get rid of the TV that was telling him what the do. It was front-page news in our small town. We've known for years that he was ill and could only get him temporary treatment because of patient rights. He could not get the help he needed until he'd broken the law. It was an incredible tragedy for our family.

Today, as I hear debate of the crime in Tucson, I hear people say of course he was sane, because it was premeditated. They're afraid this heinous crime will go unpunished if he is found to be insane. There need to be adjustments to our judicial system, as well our medical health system, to recognize and treat the medically - mentally ill. Let it not be an excuse for the crime as the public seems to fear, but a reason to treat these people and keep our society safe.

This is an email from Phil in Saint Paul. At 20 years old, I was old diagnosed with bipolar and aggressive tendencies. The worst I did was choke the family dog. My parents stopped me. The monster is in me, but with meds and the support of my family, I'm going to live with this chronic illness. I always feel sorry for the perpetrators. We can understand, but that does not mean excusing what they did or taking the precautions to keep the public safe.

And I wanted to read this, Dave Cullen. This is Susan Klebold, Dylan's mother, of course, from columbine, wrote she was feeling also a victim. This from her essay in O magazine: While I perceived myself to be a victim of the tragedy, I didn't have the comfort of being perceived that way by most of the community. I was widely viewed as a perpetrator or, at least, an accomplice, since I was the person who had raised a monster.

Mr. CULLEN: Yes. It's terrible. You know, I think the big problem with most people is they have not put themselves in the position of the parents, because one fascinating bit of data that I have that I found out was that when I - I've done a lot of readings and tourings and gone to high schools in different places where people have read my book. And I ask the audience how many of them at the beginning thought the parents were to blame? And most hands go up. Eighty, 90 percent of their hands go up. And I ask after reading it, how many people blame the parents? And very few, perhaps 10 percent still do.

And it's not - I was careful not to take any position in the book. All I did was describe what they had done, what life had been. And all it takes was this person to consider, oh. This is what it was like to be that mom. Maybe I wouldn't have known either, or done anything differently.

CONAN: Dave Cullen's book is "Columbine." He joined us from our bureau in New York. Jeannette Halton-Tiggs joined us from WCPN, our member station in Cleveland. We thank them both very much for their time today.

Coming up, it's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We'll listen to "I Have A Dream."

Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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