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Mending Marcus

In 2006, studies indicate that 16 million of America’s 80 million children suffer some sort of diagnosable mental illness. Of those, as many as 4 million are severely emotionally disturbed. The truth is the voyage to normalcy for these children can be grueling, stressful and uncertain. But with therapy, time and the support of parents, it is by no means impossible.

Today we introduce you to one of these youngsters, 6-year-old Marcus. Through the cooperation of his parents and Spofford Home, a residential treatment center in Kansas City, we follow him as professionals and parents search for the key that can give him a future.

Be good, Marcus. Kym-Berly Barrera tells her son. Don’t get in trouble.

Marcus turns to her, his almond eyes soft and brown, his voice sweet.

I won’t, mama, he says.

For his first day in kindergarten he wears a blue T-shirt, cargo shorts and tiny sneakers. His sandy hair is cut short.

The two sit in the family’s beat-up Voyager with its exhausted upholstery and littered floorboards. Kym looks at her son’s face, trying to gauge his tension.

Sometimes she can see trouble coming. The dark circles under pouting eyes. The unfocused expression. Other times, her firstborn’s moods are as invisible as a roadside bomb.

Her “angel,” she calls him, unfazed by the irony.

Marcus swings open the van’s door, jumps out and sprints up McKinley Elementary’s front walk, his backpack bouncing on his shoulders. Kym follows him and at the entryway hugs and kisses him and turns him over to his new teacher. In her heart, she prays that school will open a better chapter in his life. But she is not naive and has been through too much. When she talked to the school about her son she told them straight out:

“He’s going to tear the place apart.”

Back in the van, Kym does not go home. She pulls around the corner, parks and tosses her cell phone on the dash.

She waits. In time, awful fantasies will swim through her brain — his new school in flames, Marcus standing in the parking lot laughing maniacally. Sometimes she’d swear she smelled smoke.

Her cell phone rings.

She races back to school, up the concrete steps and pushes open the double doors.

Where is he? she shouts.

Marcus has escaped into the hallway. He’s broken a girl’s crayons and tossed them on the floor. When she told him to pick them up, he flipped his desk and chair.

In the hall, a wall of teachers tries to box him in a corner as if he were a feral cat. Marcus shrieks. He curses as he laughs.

•••

Kym Barrera wants Marcus to be the way he is when he is calm, playing with his plastic dinosaurs, loving animals and smiling his wide, toothy grin.

A 23-year-old Kansas City, Kan., mother of three, and pregnant with her fourth, Kym is tough, a woman who grew up in a house steeped in booze and violence. But she’s weary and worries if even her toughness is a match for Marcus.

She wants to think of him at his best: Marcus, cuddly and kittenlike — a “mama’s boy,” she calls him, craving attention, nuzzling under her arm as they watch Animal Planet, his favorite channel. She likes to think of the way he runs and rarely walks. When he does walk, it’s a spread-leg waddle, like a gunslinger walking toward a showdown.

But when he wakes with his “blank face,” and those dark circles beneath his eyes, she knows “you’re in for hell.”

By age 5, Marcus had already been hospitalized for severe psychiatric problems six times. He once whipped his 4-year-old brother, Ricky, with metal tubing.

He sheared off his baby sister’s hair. He’s been booted out of day care. At home, he slams doors, smashing their knobs through plaster walls. He pummels his brother and mother. At night Kym examines her legs, sore with islands of blue bruises. Marcus also punches himself. In the head.

“I’m stupid! I’m stupid!” he screams.

Later, whimpering in anguish and confusion, he becomes sweet Marcus again. He crawls into bed with Kym and his step-dad, Adrian, a quiet and gentle man from Mexico who is kind to his children. Kym recalls Marcus cooing, “I love you, mom,” and falling asleep.

A generation back no one knew how deep mental illness went in children. Today, the problem is clear, ranging from general anxiety to the most debilitating depressions, obsessive compulsive, bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders.

“There is not a classroom, not a church, not a neighborhood, not an after-school program or day camp that does not have a kid with mental illness,” said Susan Crain Lewis, president of the Kansas City-based Mental Health Association of the Heartland.

In 1990 Kansas community mental-health centers employed eight caseworkers statewide dedicated to disturbed kids. Today Kansas has 900. Mental illness is the No. 1 reason kids age 5 to 17 are hospitalized in Kansas. In Missouri, the Division of Mental Health served 8,400 children in 1995. Today, it helps nearly 17,000.

For most children, mental-health care has improved over the last 20 years, but “for the severe kids,” said Duke University psychologist Barbara J. Burns, “it’s as chaotic as ever.”

The worst are the 4 million children severely emotionally disturbed like Marcus. These children fail in school, hurt others, hurt and even kill themselves. They go to juvenile detention, to therapists, to caseworkers. They are deeply medicated, hospitalized and placed in residential treatment centers for days to months to years, always shadowed by a question:

Can they be saved?

What’s known about childhood mental illness is only outpaced by what is unknown, including its exact cause — a daunting interplay between genetics, personality traits, brain chemistry, outlook, experience, culture, parenting, traumas.

All Kym wants is for someone to help her “little man” be better, and soon. Signs are developing that Ricky might be as damaged as Marcus, or worse.

“I only wish I could wave a magic wand and everything would be normal with my babies,” Kym would write in a journal. “Seeing my babies in pain, especially emotional pain, leaves me feeling like a scared 8-year-old.”

•••

By May 2006, Kym’s “angel” has fallen low.

Marcus’ school behavioral assessment quotes a list of chaotic behaviors: “…walking around the room, loud talking, aggressive comments to peers and the teacher, tearing up material, climbing on furniture and throwing things.”

Kym stands in the center of her faded living room talking to a counselor from the Wyandot Center, the local community mental-health center where she has brought Marcus for years.

“Give me six weeks, six weeks to get him back in control,” she says.

Since the beginning of school, Marcus, now age 6, has been hospitalized three more times. At home, he’s even more wild. Minutes ago, he tried to stab Ricky with a screwdriver. The Wyandot counselors now want Kym to consider a drastic measure:

“Level 6,” the most intensive residential care in the area. In others words, sending Marcus away for months.

Kym’s reluctant but exhausted. She’s fended for herself her entire life and she is her kids’ greatest ally. She’s also their most exacting taskmaster.

“When you’re the youngest of five, you learn to fight,” she says. At 11, Kym herself was diagnosed with a temporary “displacement disorder” because she’d been ripped from her family. She spent more than five years in a residential care facility and months in foster homes.

At 18, she was on her own and pregnant with Marcus. It was miserable: more than two months in the hospital with a toxic pregnancy, leaking amniotic fluid, enduring pre-eclampsia. Marcus, born six weeks early, almost died.

Because of it, she named him Marcus Anthony, “strong, valiant fighter,” although in her darkest moments she wonders about the price: Marcus’ misery.

“I’m convinced the difficulties with the pregnancy are related to what he has now,” she says.

By the time Marcus was 2, he was already biting and kicking Kym constantly and hitting his year-old brother. At first, she thought he was a horrible brat. But it was more than that. By age 3, Marcus was collecting medications and diagnoses like other kids collected toys: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), reactive attachment disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, oppositional defiant disorder. Currently, doctors think he suffers ADHD, bipolar disorder and PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). It’s a vague neurological disorder related to Asperger’s syndrome and autism. In part, it may be what causes Marcus to seem oblivious to others’ emotions, to fly into extreme anger, to ignore his own safety. He once tried to climb out the second-floor window onto the roof.

Kym was determined to handle it. She shuttled him to doctors, therapists, social workers. She dealt with schools, worked the Internet and versed herself in every detail of Marcus’ diagnoses.

She was tough, yes, tough enough, she thought, for anything life threw at her. But the pressure kept rising until it became insanely intense.

She looks around her house. It’s a clapboard rental two doors from the gas station where, besides everything else, she works the midnight shift behind bulletproof glass. The house is also a filthy disaster.

Inside, plywood covers the second-floor windows to keep Marcus from jumping. The brothers have knocked holes in the walls and scribbled everywhere with crayons. The curtains, ripped down so often, are strung up with ropes. The carpet is trod thin and stained. Marcus breaks lamps, rips pictures off the walls, throws toys and still punches his brother.

Day after day she parks at the school waiting for the inevitable call. He’s out of control. Please come.

Now, as she stands in her living room talking to the social worker, a deafening crash buries the conversation. They turn to the staircase just as Kym’s vacuum cleaner somersaults off the bottom step and clatters to the floor.

Marcus.

That night, a call goes out to a place called Spofford Home. Marcus is going to Level 6.

Day one of four

Helping others, one man shows how a life can turn around. | A15

@ Go to KansasCity.com to find where to go for help in your area.

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