The Struggle Of Finding Help For 'A Dangerous Son' Stacy Shapiro and her son are featured in the new documentary A Dangerous Son, directed by Liz Garbus. It follows families with children who have violent outbursts due to mental illness.
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The Struggle Of Finding Help For 'A Dangerous Son'

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The Struggle Of Finding Help For 'A Dangerous Son'

The Struggle Of Finding Help For 'A Dangerous Son'

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Stacy Shapiro of Everett, Wash., came to our New York studios a couple of days ago...

STACY SHAPIRO: Can you hear me OK?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...To talk about her son Ethan. He's 16, and he struggles with - well, a lot.

SHAPIRO: Autism, ADHD and ODD and newly, IED, which is intermittent explosive disorder, and anxiety.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that tangle of disorders can sometimes create violent situations for Stacy, for others and for Ethan.


ETHAN: If only there was a lifeguard who could help me try to control myself because they save everyone, even when they drown.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A new HBO documentary "A Dangerous Son" follows Stacy and two other families as each desperately seeks treatment, a lifeguard for a child with behavioral disorders. Director Liz Garbus was also in the studio. In the film's opening scene, Stacy is driving Ethan, then age 10, and her younger daughter when Ethan lashes out.

SHAPIRO: What you saw in the car - it was a daily occurrence. Sometimes multiple, directly towards my daughter or myself mostly, but anybody who might have, you know, gotten under his skin for whatever the reason.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sort of hitting and shouting and...

SHAPIRO: Yes. And it was really difficult because people would constantly look at me and try to judge me or think they could do a better job or tell me all the reasons why he's probably like that. But they weren't in my shoes, and there was very little I could do. It got to such a point where I knew I was doing the wrong thing at times, like, giving in. But I was too scared not to because I physically and mentally couldn't handle the aftermath of what would happen if I didn't.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you struggled to get him help. And one of the - he ended up going to a residential facility, but there aren't that many beds in most states. I mean, there just aren't the places to give people the help they need.

SHAPIRO: That's true. And the one that he went to, which is featured in the film - it wasn't the greatest experience. In fact, I was hoping for much more when he came out. I remember saying to them at one point, please tell me if my son needs to be somewhere else. If it's just that you can't keep him longer because I don't feel safe and I don't think that he is ready to come home. And they, like, would not - they wouldn't say that either. But he was still having violent behaviors before he left there. So I felt, like, OK, his time is up, and he has to go, more than, he's ready to go home, but that's the story you're feeding me. So I felt a huge injustice there, and it was no better when he came home.


LIZ GARBUS: It's a lot.


GARBUS: Yeah, and Stacy is sitting - I mean, you know, as soon as she starts talking, her eyes are welling up with tears. There's an enormous weight on one person. It's a lot, and that's why we made the film.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, tell me. Tell me why you made the film.

GARBUS: Rehabilitation in this country is something that is very expensive, but the costs of not doing it are worse. And so that's why we made the film. You listen to Stacy - she loves her son. She loves her other children. She's being put in a nearly impossible situation. The beds aren't there. We also talk in the film about a state senator...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Creigh Deeds in Virginia.

GARBUS: ...Whose son was mentally ill, was threatening to hurt himself, hurt his father. This is a state senator - couldn't get a bed for his child when his child was in crisis. And his child ended up shooting him and taking his own life. And I'll just say one more thing we say in the film - and it's important to foreground all of this with - is that, you know, children with mental health issues are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of violence. And, you know, of course, the greater danger than them hurting anybody on the outside is them hurting themselves or those around them. So the outliers are these stories that are in the news. That doesn't make it OK to not discuss the situations that Stacy and the other mothers in the film find themselves in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Stacy, what advice do you have for parents who might have children dealing with similar issues to Ethan?

SHAPIRO: Well, one thing I would say because I have met quite a few people - unfortunately, I don't know that they're in denial. But if you suspect something, please don't wait. Get the help, especially because there are so many kids now being diagnosed that the wait lists are so long because the earlier the intervention starts, the better. And also, if they do have severe behaviors, please don't be afraid to get your local law enforcement involved. I know it seems extreme. But for me, Ethan has never gone to jail. But just having them there had, A, helped de-escalate him and, sadly, did create the kind of paper trail I needed when he got older, and things got worse, when I had to take bigger action - that they could see that this was an ongoing problem, and it didn't just start.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think, Liz, needs to happen to help kids like the ones in your film?

GARBUS: You know, the involvement of law enforcement, you know, obviously, in Stacy's case was a positive. In many other cases, it's been a negative. So it's definitely not a cure-all. I mean, what - you know, it would be much better if there was a number to call in which, you know, there was a SWAT team of medical professionals who would come in rather than police officers. You know, of course, if you're an African-American family calling, the police officers won't always go the same way it would in Stacy's case. I mean, and that's a reality for families of color. So, I mean, I think that, you know, one thing - isolation is terrible. So destigmatizing families like Stacy's who are going through this and seeing how hard they're trying is really important. And then, you know, on state levels, there need to be more beds available, and we need to have crisis prevention for these families.

SHAPIRO: And I also want to add, find a network like Facebook groups or other people because that support - it's vital, especially when you feel like you're alone. And it is a lonely, lonely place to be to be this kind of mom.

GARBUS: Bringing it out into the sunlight into the daylight and not keeping it hidden away people and feeling ashamed.

SHAPIRO: And I don't think they should have to feel ashamed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you both have done that. That's Liz Garbus and Stacy Shapiro. The documentary is "A Dangerous Son." And it debuts on HBO on Monday. Thank you so much.

GARBUS: Thank you for having us.

SHAPIRO: Yes, thank you very much. I very much appreciated the opportunity to speak with you.

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