SHE IS 23 YEARS OLD NOW, a medical secretary at the National Institutes of Health, and finally, she says, she has control over her own life. It has been eight years since she was released from Spring Grove state mental hospital, where she was committed by her mother and a Maryland court. Most of the people she associates with now know nothing of her past.
She is willing to talk about it now because she sees the direction the U.S. Supreme Court is taking in ruling more and more in favor of parents in family law and less in favor of children's rights. The young woman says she does not know the solution to conflicts between teen-agers and parents that result in family breakdowns. But she knows that halfway houses and foster homes are not the answer and she knows firsthand that commitment of the child to mental institutions isn't either.
She has been there. "I guess the thing to do is open up everybody's eyes so they can see the problem and maybe we'll find a solution. But even having been through it, I don't know of one. I count my blessings every day."
This woman was 12 years old when her mother and stepfather separated and when her emotional conflicts with her mother -- whom she regarded as strict and overprotective and verbally abusive -- became serious.
In the end, the teen-age girl was declared beyond control of her mother, made a ward of the court, and placed in a mental institution without ever having had an independent lawyer to represent her interests. Nor was there ever an adversary proceeding to discover whether she was mentally ill or simply having family problems with her mother, problems that could have been resolved with far less traumatic measures than institutionalizing the daughter and drugging her for nine months.
By the time the girl was 13, her relations with her mother had deteriorated so much that her mother placed her in a mental health program run by Prince George's County.
"One evening, I reached my wit's end," she recalls. "I smashed a compact mirror and slashed my wrists. There was blood all over the bathroom. I went to a girl friend's house and she hid me. My mother came . . . and she dragged me out by force. Instead of taking me to the hospital, she tied me to the sofa until the next morning when she had me admitted to the Prince George's County psychiatric unit."
After two weeks of observation, she was released into an outpatient program that included counseling for her mother. Then, her family minister suggested she be sent to a home for children in Virginia. "That was, in effect, an orphanage," she says. "No other children there had any parents at all . . . I was there for two, maybe three months. While I was there, something sort of snapped inside me. These children didn't have any parents. I did have parents. I was just an unwanted child. I lapsed into a series of depressions and I tried seriously to take my life.
"I have a series of scars on both my arms that are now 10 years old. They'll be on my arms until I die, to remind me of what I did to myself . . . It's the tendency of a child, when a parent tells you you're unworthy . . . not to lash out at the parent, but to accept that judgment of lack of worthiness." She accepted the judgment and tried to kill herself with a razor blade.
"My mother and the minister picked me up and brought me back to court," she says. "The court had me sent to the Maryland's Children's Center in Baltimore for a 10-day evaluation. I was there for a month. Most of the kids in there had committed crimes . . . There were little cells they would lock you into every night, with toilet facilities within the cell.
"After my 30 days, I was sent back to court and the judge decreed I be sent to Spring Grove state hospital for a 30-day evaluation." She was 14 and sat in a courtroom hearing herself being committed to Spring Grove. It was a name she recognized with terror. "When I was in the Children's Center, people spoke of that institution as someplace people go in and they're never heard from again."
She was placed on tranquilizing drugs and in a ward with elderly people. "Everyone was on this drug and it kept them like zombies." Days and weeks and months passed and she kept insisting to the staff that she was only supposed to be in there 30 days, "They started laughing at me." She was a child maintaining that paper was coming to the hospital from the court ordering that she be released after 30 days. The papers had been lost. No one believed her. "Then you start to really wonder about yourself."
Finally she ran away and called her stepfather, who had just remarried and moved to Rockville. He hired a lawyer, who started habeas corpus proceedings that eventually led to the girl being released from Spring Grove and placed in the custody of her stepfather and stepmother. She has not seen her mother since 1971.Later her stepparents also received custody of her two half brothers.
Then came what she calls the "toughest part" of her ordeal, the two years after she was released from the hospital when she had to learn how to be a normal teen-ager again. She weighed 150 pounds when she was released, as opposed to her previous weight of 98 pounds. She had a Parkinson's disease-like shuffle brought on by the drugs. "I slobbered. My eyes were glazed. I looked like I was crazy," she says.
"I didn't do well in school. I used a lot of profane language. When I went out with the kids they'd talk about Saturday night and boys, and I'd talk about this girl I knew in the hospital who'd slashed her wrists. That's all I knew. A lot of the kids were forbidden to see me." In the 10th grade, she got in with the wrong crowd and started using LSD and marijuana.
Later in high school, she met her husband-to-be. "I went back to school and turned myself around and made the honor roll. When I graduated I received the second highest honor in the school and a $100 cash award for the most-improved student."
This young woman could not get along with her mother. The solution found by her mother and the courts was to place her in homes, children's centers and mental institutions. The girl never had a lawyer appointed to represent her interests until her stepfather hired the lawyer who obtained her release from Spring Grove. Nor was there ever an adversary commitment proceeding in which her side was legally represented, nor were there reviews of her condition after she was sent to Spring Grove.
Last month the Supreme Court, in 6-to-3 decision, ruled that it is not necessary to have adversary proceedings to explore the merits of parents' desire to commit a child. "Our jurisprudence historically has reflected western civilization concepts of the family as a unit with broad parental authority over minor children," Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote. ". . . historically, it has recognized that natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children. . . .
"That some parents may at times be acting against the interests of the child creates a basis for caution, but is hardly a reason to discard wholesale those pages of human experience that teach that parents generally do act in the child's best interests."
Generally they do, or at least they think they do. But we are dealing with a society marked by family breakdowns and parents throwing up their hands and saying they do not know what to do with their children. And we know that some parents bail out and find ways of committing their kids to institutions, and we know that the children frequently have no advocate, no lawyers, no disinterested third party who is paid to listen to their side.
And last month the Supreme Court, in effect, said that was all right. We give criminals a much fairer shake than that.