Six sue to kick-start service for juveniles

Lawyers representing six children sued Gov. Mike Easley and Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr. on Tuesday, saying the two were not improving services intended to keep troubled youths from landing in juvenile prison.

In the lawsuit filed in Durham Superior Court, Lewis Pitts, an attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina, asks a judge to force Easley and Lake to follow the law governing juvenile justice. Under the law, the two lead an advisory council that is supposed to meet four times a year and recommend to the legislature ways to improve children’s access to services ranging from mental health treatment to special-education classes.

Instead, the State Advisory Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention did not meet for two years until February, and neither Easley nor Lake attended then. Meanwhile, the budget for the state Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has been cut from $160 million in fiscal 2000 to $128 million in 2002.

The council made no recommendations at the February meeting but is expected to meet again Thursday. Easley will participate by phone, a spokeswoman said.

The defendants have 30 days to respond to the lawsuit, after which a hearing would be scheduled. Pitts said all he and his fellow lawyers are asking is that state leaders look for ways to improve access to services for troubled children.

"I think what’s going to be very interesting is, will there be legal maneuvering to avoid the issue, or are they going to work with us," Pitts said.

The suit seeks no damages.

Easley was not available for comment, and Lake could not be reached. Easley’s spokeswoman, Cari Boyce, said that she could not comment on litigation but that the governor has tried to improve the lives of children by supporting the state’s early child-care initiatives, Smart Start and More at Four, as well as after-school programs.

But those are not the kinds of services the six children in Pitts’ lawsuit needed.

Little help available

Despite excruciating efforts, the suit says, guardians and foster parents could not get preventive services for which their children were eligible. No one could find help for a 14-year-old Durham child who was born with cocaine in his system and is now thought to be in a gang. A Durham woman could not get mental health treatment for her nephew, 15, who was taken from his mother because of her drug abuse.

Two more Durham teens couldn’t get special education through the public schools despite learning problems, the suit says. A 10-year-old from Wilson County who is eligible for special education and mental-heath services has not received them and recently attacked another child in school.

The odyssey with Jess

Tuesday, retired Marine John Higginbotham and his wife, Renee, stood before reporters and walked them through a two-year quest to get treatment for their 11-year-old son, Jess Gonzalez, who has been in their custody since he was 3.

Higginbotham said Jess was taken from his mother at 5 months because she was addicted to crack. He and his wife, who have a son 10 years older than Jess, decided to take the boy in because they had room in their lives and wanted to spare him the world of foster care.

"He was cute and cuddly and bright and smart — and he still is," Higginbotham said.

But over time, Jess showed signs of mental illness. At first, he hoarded food in his bedroom in their Onslow County home. Not cookies, but bologna and bread.

He started having trouble in preschool, acting out. At home, he began torturing the dogs, trying to drive a plastic sword through their boxer’s mouth and tormenting their chihuahua.

He was diagnosed with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, and for a while, medications helped. But by the second grade, his "storytelling" had turned into blatant lies; he began experimenting with fire, and he became increasingly hostile to Renee. They put him in therapy that year.

When he was in the third grade, doctors said he should be placed in a residential psychiatric hospital for children. The Higginbothams could find no openings in any such facility in North Carolina.

They found a hospital in Virginia, but their insurance required them to pay 20 percent of the cost, which would leave them with a bill of between $6,000 and $30,000 for a stay of three months to one year. They decided to get financial help from Onslow County, and Jess was signed up for Medicaid.

That’s when the Higginbothams found themselves in a Catch-22.

They had a hospital, and they had insurance, but using Medicaid money required permission from the state Department of Health and Human Services. And the department, which is in the midst of a statewide mental health reform, is trying to reduce what it calls "out-of-state" placements.

Officials with the department’s Division of Mental Health denied Jess’ placement. Instead, the Higginbothams were offered the help of home aides.

Jess attacked his mother shortly afterward and was committed to his first psychiatric facility. In the course of the next two years, he would be committed to seven. He picks his fingers raw, staples his lips and sticks needles into his body. He had incidences in which he barked like a dog on all fours, kicked a pregnant woman, threatened to kill a hospital staffer.

Higginbotham took over much of Jess’ care because of his aggression toward Renee. In an effort to appeal the state’s denial of the out-of-state hospital best-suited for his problems, the former aviation mechanic began to spend a lot of time in courtrooms and filling out paperwork.

Finally, some action

In the end, Higginbotham wrote a five-page single-spaced letter to his senators and to health officials in Washington, detailing his odyssey. In March, at age 11, Jess finally was placed in a suitable private facility in Charlotte, Higginbotham said.

"I became enough of a squeaky wheel to get greased,” Higginbotham said. He and his wife want Jess to get well, to come home and live with them as a family, to one day go to college just as his older brother has.

He cannot imagine how a single parent, or any family without the considerable resources he committed to his son’s cause, could ever find appropriate treatment for a child like Jess.

"Had the state advisory council been meeting, I could have appealed to them,” he said. "All I wanted was 20 percent for my co-pay. They spent far and above again on Jessy than what it would’ve been if they had done what I asked in the first place."

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