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Parents of children with developmental disabilities struggle to find help

| Monday, Dec. 24, 2012, 3:54 p.m.

GREENHILLS, Ohio -- Starting at age 7, Teddy Shuman would transform at a moment's notice from a sweet-natured boy who struggled with developmental disabilities to a child driven by uncontrollable rages.

He would hit, kick, bite and scratch in episodes that sometimes lasted for hours, leaving him and his parents exhausted.

No one — least of all Teddy — understood what triggered his outbursts. But by early adolescence, he knew when one was coming on.

“He'd stand at the top of the stairs and say, ‘Call 911,' “ remembers his father, Thom Shuman.

In wake of the Connecticut school shootings, Americans are searching for explanations and solutions. Families like the Shumans say a crucial answer is a coordinated, easily navigated system of mental-health services that makes treating a psychiatric illness as acceptable and predictable as treating a physical disease.

Without it, tragedies will continue, they say.

For 20 years after adopting Teddy in 1988, Thom and Bonnie Shuman made dozens of phone calls and drove hundreds of miles to find help for their son, who had a host of developmental, emotional and behavioral problems. Teddy was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and had been sexually and physically abused during his first two years of life.

But help for a child with Teddy's problems was hard to come by. When his parents found it, it usually lasted for a short time.

“People who haven't had to work with the system don't understand,” Shuman says. “They say, ‘Just find them somewhere to live.' Well, there aren't any places and if there are, they're full.”

By early adulthood, Teddy had been in more than 20 different treatment settings, from pediatric psychiatric units to residential care, from Indianapolis to Louisville, Ky.

Then one night in February 2006, the Shumans got the phone call families of violently mentally ill children dread.

Teddy's roommate at a Fairfield, Ohio, residential facility was found dead, a belt wrapped around his neck. Authorities said Teddy, then age 20, was responsible.

A judge later ruled him incompetent to stand trial and dismissed the charges.

After his roommate's death, Teddy was placed at the Columbus Developmental Center, a structured residential program where his parents say he continues to do well.

“It shouldn't take horrible things for people to get the help they need,” Thom Shuman says.

Now they say that the sorrow and furor over the Connecticut school shootings should be channeled into a national conversation on mental-health services and a campaign to reduce the stigma and isolation that leave families feeling overwhelmed and alone.

“The easiest thing is to label someone as evil, to say they were born without a soul,” Thom Shuman says. “But we have to remember that this is someone's child. This is a human being. Like the case of Adam Lanza (the gunman in the Connecticut shootings), we'll probably never know the depths of his brokenness.”

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