‘Something just wasn’t right’: Child welfare conference focuses on recognizing signs of mentally ill parents

Posted June 26, 2014, at 6:12 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — People who knew Tavielle Kigas — a 5-year-old girl who was intentionally starved to death in her family’s Bangor apartment in 1993 — told responding police they knew something was wrong with her mother. But they didn’t understand the signs of mental illness.

“As I spoke to some of the witnesses — teachers, friends, neighbors — they said, ‘Something just wasn’t right.’ But they couldn’t articulate it and didn’t have the tools to intervene,” former Bangor police Chief Ron Gastia, who led the investigation into the girl’s death, said Thursday during the 20th annual Maine Child Welfare Conference.

Tavielle’s mother, Tonia Kigas Porter, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity. She was committed indefinitely to a psychiatric hospital.

This year’s conference was focused on teaching 266 child protection caseworkers, nurses, social workers, students and mental health professionals how to recognize the signs of mental illness in a parent and, if so, whether it led to child abuse, Gastia said.

“Not all children with parents with mental illness are at risk,” he said at the event he helped organize, held at Wells Commons at the University of Maine. “We want participants to learn to recognize abuse and when abuse becomes a risk to the welfare of the child.”

Teresa Ostler, a social work professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author on the subject, gave the keynote speech. She said identifying and establishing when a parent with mental illness poses a significant risk to children is a daunting task.

“It will be unique to each parent,” Ostler said.

A parent with a mild or severe form of mental illness can become depressed, emotionally unavailable, have delusions or hallucinations, or other diagnoses that can lead to child neglect, high-risk behaviors, emotional or physical abuse, as well as other types of child abuse, she said.

“Time is of the essence,” Ostler said. “Children are deeply affected when a parent has actual mental illness.”

The more that is known about the subject the better, she said, adding that going into an evaluation with an open mind is key to attaining a correct assessment.

“Seeing them in the office is one thing, seeing them at their home is another and seeing them at McDonald’s is another,” Ostler said.

Everything learned also needs to be taken in context, she said, recalling one woman who was investigated because she put her baby in a cardboard box. The investigation showed she had little money and put the baby in a box on the floor of her kitchen while she was cooking in order to keep an eye on the child.

Understanding the mental illness is crucial to determining whether children are at risk, she said.

“Know the illness and know the prognosis,” Ostler told the packed room of attendees, some of whom sat on the floor.

She also said it is important to know the treatment and find out whether the person is responding to the treatment — if they taking their medications or going to counseling — and know what their support system is like at home.

“We have to give a parent a chance for change,” Ostler said, adding the caveat that “change has to take place in a timeframe that makes sense to the child.”

“It’s complicated,” she said later. “People can change, but some can’t change in a timeframe that’s helpful for the child.”

Just before she ended her speech, Ostler said “asking for help is a sign of strength,” not a sign of weakness, as many people with mental illness perceive.

“It’s always a challenge to understand where to draw the line between a good parent, a good enough parent and a poor parent,” said Mark Moran, a licensed clinical social worker for Eastern Maine Medical Center, who also helped organize the conference.

Each case is different, he said, because “there is so much variability with mental illness.”

Many parents identified as having mental illness and are educated become wonderful parents, Moran said, adding it’s “the ones who don’t realize they have a problem or, if they do recognize, can’t accept or afford the treatment because of a lack of insurance … that are the problem.”

Kathryn Maietta is a licensed clinical social worker in Bangor, UMaine sociology department adjunct faculty member and director of the Batterer Intervention Program in Penobscot County. She spoke about the difference between domestic violence and anger and the all too common misdiagnosis of mental illness.

Domestic abuse is a learned behavior that concerns power and control, not a mental health illness, she said.

“Domestic assault is a series of acts with three commonalities: preventing the victim from doing something they want, forcing them to do something they don’t want to do and making [the victim] afraid,” Maietta said. “It’s not about losing control. It’s a systematic method of asserting and maintaining power and control.”

When batterers are misdiagnosed with mental illness and given a treatment it is “irresponsible and dangerous to victims,” she said in the conference brochure.

Other conference speakers included Diane A. Tennies, a forensic psychologist from Bangor who is president of the Maine Psychological Association; Kimberly Day, National Children’s Alliance deputy director; and Kelli Star Fox, a practicing substance abuse and family counselor from New Hampshire.

For Gastia, the case involving Tavielle Kigas is a reminder that when something just isn’t right about a parent, it’s time to do an assessment.

Kigas Porter, who was committed indefinitely to what was then the Augusta Mental Health Institute in the spring of 1995, received treatment for her mental illness over the years and was slowly permitted more freedoms. She was released from state custody last month.