Friday, May 26, 2006


Blaming the system instead of....

The Washington Post headline breathlessly exclaims: Psychiatric Care Denied To Gunman, Attorney Says and opens the story with this:

“In the three months before he fatally shot two Fairfax County police officers, Michael W. Kennedy and his parents tried numerous times to get him immediate psychiatric help, their attorney said. Four times, Kennedy was sent home without getting help, and two mental health facilities told them not to bother coming in at all.”

Left out of that litany of society’s failures is this:

“The Kennedy family was not satisfied and returned to Woodburn the next day. MacDowell said a crisis intervention team met with Kennedy, determined that his family had insurance and found a bed for him at Potomac Ridge Behavioral Health Center in Rockville. He was voluntarily admitted the next day, April 18, but broke out a window later that evening and left. He told friends that he didn't like the way he was being treated. He then stole a car and drove back to Fairfax.”

So while the headline reads “Psychiatric Care Denied”, the story makes clear that that wasn’t always true. And when you read that “two mental health facilities told them not to bother coming in at all”, you have to read further to discover why:

“She called Inova Fairfax and Dominion hospitals, both with limited numbers of psychiatric beds, and was told that there was no room,…”


“Kennedy's family knew he needed help and had him seeing a private therapist early this year, MacDowell said. But on Feb. 13, while home alone, the teenager shot the family dog. Kennedy told police and friends that he had been suicidal that day, then decided against killing himself but accidentally fired a gun and hit the dog.”

So he’s seeing a therapist (which again means he’s not totally without help), he’s suicidal and shoots the family dog. The parents’ reaction?

“Despite Kennedy's mental problems, the parents did not remove their guns from their home because the weapons were kept in locked containers, MacDowell [the attorney] said. The Kennedys did not expect their son to break into them.”

I do not mean to pound on the parents – they have suffered the ultimate loss compounded by the death of two policemen at their son’s hands with their guns. But the attorney’s statements still strike me as an attempted verbal sleight of hand. This may just be a start of an offense against a possible wrongful death suit by the families of the two policemen. Still, when I read about the availability of guns to a suicidal, dog-shooting boy, I’m not blaming some overcrowded psychiatric ward. And when I don’t read that the therapist and parents had attempted to have the boy involuntarily committed because he represented a danger to society, I’m not going to be so quick as to blame a care center for missing that diagnosis after an initial meeting. We don’t – and I’m including the attorney, Richard MacDowell, among the ‘we’ – know for sure what was said when Michael Kennedy spoke with evaluators so we don’t know exactly why he was not admitted on those occasions.

We do know though that the one time he was admitted, he left after one day and stole a vehicle (and apparently his parents did not return him). In light of the stolen car incident, then, that Prince William Hospital’s “staff thought Kennedy was claiming mental problems to evade criminal charges” on May 4 is not altogether unreasonable.

Despite the attorney’s cynically best efforts, I’m not laying the fault for this tragedy anywhere near the “system”.

Yes but blaming the system is consistent with the editorial position of the post
Oh right there's that wall.
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