Not long after David Mallamo arrived at Mount View Detention Center last August, he made lists of weapons he wanted to build into an arsenal and lists of people he wanted to kill. He wrote a letter instructing a staff member to go to his parents' house, "cut all phone lines, cut all connections to the world, and raid my house for any weapons you can find and take any money. Bring tasers, tase everyone but my sister."
The child of a mentally ill, drug-addicted mother and a convicted pedophile father, David inherited the anger and violence of his biology. Adopted at seven, he'd periodically lash out at people who tried to steer him toward stability: teachers, therapists, even his adoptive parents, Paul and Susan Mallamo. His behavioral problems escalated with age. He went to Mount View, a locked facility in Lakewood run by the Colorado Division of Youth Corrections, after picking up criminal charges for assaulting a male staff member at a residential treatment center where he'd lived for a year. Because of his violent and aggressive tendencies, he was frequently isolated from the general population at Mount View and not allowed phone contact with his parents. He was placed on suicide watch three times.
For two years now, the Mallamos have been engaged in an often adversarial debate with the Jefferson County Department of Social Services and County Attorney's Office over what to do with David. In January 2003, after David made a series of threats to the family and experienced a psychotic break, the Mallamos concluded that he was too sick -- and too dangerous -- to live in their home. When the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, the agency that contracts with the county to provide services for kids like David, refused to fund his placement in a residential treatment center (RTC), the Mallamos had to leave him in the custody of the Jefferson County Division of Children, Youth and Families. The county eventually authorized David's RTC placement, and the Mallamos were charged with abandoning their child ("Wild Child," December 4, 2003).
During the multiple hearings before District Judge Brian Boatright that followed, the Mallamos, Jeffco attorneys and child-welfare workers evaluated every possible long-term placement for David -- from juvenile detention to commitment at Fort Logan or the state mental hospital in Pueblo. Although the county pushed to move him through the youth corrections system -- and out of the custody of social services -- the Mallamos repeatedly argued that their son was mentally ill, not criminal, and that he needed treatment, not a trial.
Two recent court-ordered mental evaluations supported their claim. Last November, David was diagnosed with a phalanx of psychological disorders, including a schizophrenia-spectrum disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention-deficit disorder, narcissism and depression. Another psychologist determined that David was too cognitively scattered to comprehend the criminal charges against him or participate in a trial. "At any moment in time he can be distracted by some internal impulse or thought that may or may not be grounded in reality," wrote Dr. Terri L. Finney, who concluded that David "requires ongoing residential treatment and psychiatric followup. It is uncertain whether he will be able to function competently outside of a structured situation for several years to come."
Yet despite this consensus on the seriousness of David's mental illness and his history of running away, Jeffco social services repeatedly recommended that he be placed in facilities woefully ill-equipped to deal with him. The El Pueblo Boys Ranch -- a facility with limited therapeutic and psychiatric programs -- and an unsecured residential facility run by the Griffith Center for Children were among the recommended placements. (Both ultimately refused to admit David.)
"David's first criminal charges occurred when he was in the custody of social services, so they should have known better than anyone what could have happened if he went to one of these places," says Paul Mallamo. "When I heard that they were actually proposing that he be sent to unsecured facilities, I just thought, ŒUgh. I give up. Let's go get him.' They just do not get the severity of this kid's problem."
In treatment plans and progress reports filed since January 2003, social services has repeatedly downplayed David's mental illness. Back when David was in middle school, and arrested and hospitalized after turning over desks and threatening teachers and classmates, a Jeffco caseworker wrote that he "has struggled in school with behavior and grades." Elsewhere in the same report, the caseworker concluded that David "is a bright and intelligent young man when he applies himself." Finney's competency evaluation, however, placed some of David's mental-functioning abilities in the retarded range, with a full-scale IQ of 80. (Because David is a juvenile, Jeffco social services refused comment on his case, as did the County Attorney's Office.)
"When David first came to Jefferson County, he had a diagnosis from a JCMH doctor that said, 'He's got a little anxiety, a little PTSD,'" says Susan Mallamo. "Even though that diagnosis has proven to be completely inadequate, completely at odds with what every other therapist has said, the county has always been loath to admit that they are dealing with a psychotic child. They don't recognize mental illness in Jefferson County."
David will have to leave Colorado to finally get the help he needs. At the end of March, he will enroll at Marillac, a residential treatment facility in Overland Park, Kansas, with intensive programs for seriously mentally ill youth. The move will also bring David closer to his family: Last spring, the Mallamos moved to Lawrence, Kansas, to pursue the Marillac placement as well as a new job for Paul, a social worker.
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David's move comes after months of courtroom wrangling over who will pay. When officials with the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services said their agency would not fund services for an out-of-state child, Assistant Jefferson County Attorney John Thirkell argued that the placement would cost cash-strapped Jeffco nearly $14,000 a month. But because David was adopted under the guidelines of the Title IV-E Social Security Act -- a federal-funding mandate that requires the government to cover health care for high-risk adopted children -- the bulk of the bill will be covered by federal dollars. His transfer falls under an interstate agreement that allows children to be move from one state's child-welfare system to another's.
"When they figured out how to pay for this using Title IV money, you could just see the relief come over Judge Boatright," says Paul Mallamo. "He was faced with this terrible choice -- to break the bank at the county and deprive other kids of care, or send David to some place and give David substandard care. We really believe the Marillac placement could be the only thing standing between David and oblivion, and I think Judge Boatright understood that."
Marillac staffers have admitted to feeling some trepidation about admitting a child as severely ill as David, and the Mallamos are nervous, too. "We're not saying he's going to shine at Marillac," says Paul. "It's really up to him at this point whether he's going to descend from la-la land and allow anyone to challenge his fantasy world. But we have to believe that if you're in a place that at least recognizes mental illness in children, you're off to a decent start."
David is now sixteen.