Another death, another reason to remove stigma of mental-health care

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 8:17 PM

We leash them, attach wireless alarms to their shoelaces and shadow them on the playground with the tenacity of a Secret Service detail.

Sometime in the past couple of decades, the American childhood has been kidnapped by our country's tremendous fear of strangers.

But statistically, the gravest dangers to young children are right at home.

We learned that again this week with the shocking death of 2-year-old Angelyn Ogdoc.

Angelyn was on a five-story walkway between Tysons Corner Center and one of its parking garages on Monday when her grandmother, who was there with the little girl's parents, suddenly grabbed her and allegedly threw her over the side. Angelyn plummeted 50 feet to the ground and died hours later at a hospital, according to Fairfax County police.

Take a moment to shudder. We all have.

The grandmother, Carmela Dela Rosa, 50, was charged with murder. She was taken into custody right there in the parking garage.

The circumstances of this one are awful. I don't know any parent who hasn't pulled a kid away from a steep drop after shaking off the image of the child falling over. That part of the death was extremely unusual.

But for a family member to be arrested in the case is not.

"Of all children killed under age 5, over 60 percent are killed by parents," said Philip Resnick, who in 1969 created a new classification in American criminal analysis - filicide - when he first studied and catalogued parents killing their children.

"When it's the grandparents, that's called grandfilicide. I have only seen a couple ones myself," Resnick told me.

Sure, grandma is supposed to be all cookies, kittens, needlepoint and hugs. But the stress of helping raise children can wear on grandparents who may already be dealing with other problems, and there are few services available to them, said Jennifer Crawford, a directors at Family Services Inc. in Gaithersburg, which offers mental health, parenting and community services.

Crawford used to run grandparenting counseling sessions when she worked in the District and said that for many grandparents, going through parenting all over again was tough, especially when "they're being in a place where they developmentally shouldn't be at this point in their lives."

We don't know the full story when it comes to Dela Rosa, of course. And even a worn-out, fed-up grandparent doesn't just throw a child to her death.

There are likely just two explanations for what could have led to such a despicable act. Grandma was either pure evil, or she had some mental health issues.

If unfiltered evil drove this, my guess is that it would've manifested itself at some point in her 50 years on this earth long before an evening at the shopping mall.

Neighbors said Dela Rosa seemed like a "loving, doting" grandmother and a vital community member.

It's more likely that there was a mental illness eating away at her that was not being properly treated.

Investigators told The Post that there was not one precipitating factor that led to the incident, but they confirmed that Dela Rosa had been wrangling with mental health issues.

Her public defender agreed.

"We have just begun the investigation, and we are seriously investigating her mental health issues and the battles she's had with mental health over the last several years," said Dawn M. Butorac, deputy Fairfax public defender.

Friends said they saw the clouds gathering. "She was nearing a nervous breakdown," one said.

It's a threat frequently ignored in a country where mental health care is stigmatized and too often discounted. That's especially true in the region's growing immigrant population.

Dela Rosa is from the Philippines, and a family member told The Post that she was recently upset because she couldn't go there for funeral services after her brother died.

That's one of the biggest hurdles Crawford tries to overcome in Gaithersburg: getting people in immigrant communities to address their mental health.

"We are seeing a tremendous amount of trauma in immigrant communities. Sometimes it's the trauma of violent things they witnessed in their home countries, or the trauma of getting here, then the trauma of being here. Some of the trauma is really tragic and horrific," she told me. "They miss their families, their culture."

And opening up those old psychic wounds while trying to fit into a new culture and society could be especially damaging.

"And there's a huge stigma to it," Crawford added.

That was partly the case of 23-year-old Seung Hui Cho, who battled with mental illness and the stigma it carried in his Korean community before he massacred 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007 and then killed himself.

People who knew Dela Rosa said she appeared depressed.

"But depression looks different in different cultures," Crawford said. In some cultures, sleeping all day and withdrawing may not be seen as a medical problem.

Her agency has received several small grants to try to address the mental health of the region's immigrant population and the recession's increasing strain on them.

Four years ago, Family Services had 500 clients for mental health services. Today it has 1,200, she said.

More people need to acknowledge that the afflictions that lurk inside our heads, our homes and our families can be more pernicious than the stranger-danger threats that consume so much of our time, energy and money.

Little Angelyn deserves that from the rest of us.

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