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A Family's Painful Journey

Dawn Rieck worries about money on the way to visit her daughter Jessica at a facility in Leesburg. Son Anthony, 4, is in the back seat.
Dawn Rieck worries about money on the way to visit her daughter Jessica at a facility in Leesburg. Son Anthony, 4, is in the back seat. (Andrea Bruce Woodall - Staff)

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By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Dawn Rieck sat at the dining room table in her split-level house at Andrews Air Force Base, chain-smoking. She wore a distant yet acute expression, as if she were trying to read the wind.

She was listening to her daughter play.

At that moment, her middle child, Jessica Marie Caughlin, 11, was not beating her 4-year-old brother or killing her big sister's hamster or cutting the goldfish in two. She was not threatening to stab her mother. The knives were all locked in the garage.

With this child, however, her mother is always anticipating the next disaster.

It's like this for many parents who are raising children with serious mental illness.

With nerves and budgets, jobs and marriages regularly strained, they are consumed in the struggle to care for their children. Some say they need help that neither private insurance nor the public health system comes close to covering.

Yet this day, Jessica was simply playing with her two dolls. There was a bad doll named Dana Marie Caughlin. And there was a good doll named Princess Angel.

"Give me one feather from your wing," Jessica commanded Princess Angel.

With the feather, Jessica blessed Dana Marie -- who rose up from the floor and flew briefly, happily -- only to crash again.

It was like a small vignette from Jessica's own childhood: the powerful medications that steady her and then let her down, the sojourns through altered states and locked wards, only to return to a mother who is resigned to send her away again, even abandon her again, in an attempt to get her the care she needs.

What she really needs, the mother said, are intensive home- and community-based services: counseling, case management, respite care, psychiatric rehabilitation. They are called wraparound services for the way they are supposed to enfold the family and child.

Without wraparound, an institution can become the only option for parents such as Rieck, she said. "We're not giving up our kids because we want to," said Rieck, 37. "We can't do anything else for them. They are hurting other people. They are hurting themselves. There is nothing we can do anymore."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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