Michael Swanson’s pointless execution of Sheila Myers & Vicky Bowman-Hall defines our continuing failure to make mental health resources available to even the most severely troubled people.

This story will fade away until the next Cho (Virginia Tech), Michael Swanson or Jeff Weiss (ten dead Red Lake) makes the front page and more families will be doomed to the years of grieving over the avoidable homicides that destroyed their families.

Blaming severely disturbed people for their crimes is nonsense and solves nothing (it’s counter productive-no steps are taken to solve the problem if that’s all we do).

It would be much more useful to get to know a family that has tried to find help for a very troubled child. As a volunteer County guardian ad-Litem, I came to know many very troubled youth and their parents and other caregivers.

My heart goes out to each one of you. The fear and worry are none stop.

Michael Swanson’s mother Kathleen outlined the years of terror the family lived with as her son received what now looks like almost no professional help even though he repeatedly showed signs of very violent behavior.

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It is unimaginable to most of us just how impossible our health care system is for most parents of disturbed children to find adequate mental health services in this nation (proscribing psychotropic medications without therapy is not adequate care).

What is it like to be Michael Swanson’s mother (18 years of terror) & know that your son is capable of shooting defenseless people in the face and have no way to stop this tragedy. Or for the friends and family of Jeff Weiss who talked (and wrote about) about his impending violence?

I know parents that want their children to be caught up in the juvenile justice system because they might receive mental health services inside the system (it’s largely a false hope).

About 66% of the youth in America’s juvenile justice system have diagnosable mental illness & fully half of them suffer from multiple and severe diagnosis (they are really troubled youth).

MN Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz has commented that 90% of the youth in the juvenile justice system have come through child protection services (they have been abused by their parents). Three million children each year are reported to child protection services. By definition, children that suffer from extended exposure to violence & deprivation have been tortured (traumatized) and need special care to lead a normal life.

As an active part (as a GAL) and observer of hundreds of children passing through the Hennepin County child protection system, I agree with Chief Justice Blatz, that we know who need mental health services and how to avoid filling the prisons and wrecking our schools.

MN spent half a billion dollars on its prisons last year and many states have increased spending on incarceration that exceeds their investment in education (and there is virtually NO investment in mental health services).

Yes, this all ties together to make my main point; Dr Bruce Perry is right. If the mental health issues facing this nation are not dealt with effectively, within the next generation 25% of Americans will be special needs people. The impact this will have (is having) on our schools, city streets, and economy is tremendous.

Michael Swanson is just a very violent example.

*Authors note; There is no causal relationship implied between Michael Swanson and child abuse. I simply want to point out the great and growing need for attention to better mental health services for youth in America.

Minneapolis Star Tribune Article;CARROLL, IOWA – For nearly two hours Wednesday, Michael Swanson’s mother sobbed as she told a jury about 18 years of near-misses with a son who from the very beginning was never like other kids.

They knew something was wrong early on, Kathleen Swanson testified. From birth, the boy never slept and never stopped moving. She had to quit her St. Louis Park day-care business after she found Michael, still a toddler, preparing to jump on top of an infant lying on the floor.

He was only 11 when a psychiatrist told her that he was a lost cause and needed to be locked up. His grandmother, his aunt, even his own mother feared he was going to hurt them — and he usually admitted thinking about it, she said.

But always, it seemed, Swanson was caught before someone got hurt. Until Nov. 15, 2010.

“It all changed when I woke up that Monday,” she testified, her shoulders heaving as she described the morning she awoke to discover her Jeep, her debit cards and her very troubled 17-year-old son all missing. That night, Swanson drove from St. Louis Park to northern Minnesota to Iowa, where he allegedly shot and killed two convenience store clerks.

His mother’s testimony marked the third day of Swanson’s first-degree murder trial for the slaying of Humboldt, Iowa, clerk Sheila Myers, 61. He will be tried separately for the slaying of clerk Vicky Bowman-Hall, 47, of Algona, Iowa.

‘I felt powerful’

Kathleen Swanson was the first defense witness. The prosecution rested its case following the playing of a two-hour videotaped interview that the defendant gave Iowa criminal investigators shortly after the shootings.

In the video, Swanson’s calm demeanor struck a chilling contrast with his mother’s raw emotion on the stand. He described in an unaffected tone how Myers had given him cash before he shot her in the face from 2 feet away.

“I felt powerful. I just didn’t care,” he told Special Agent Mike Krapfl with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation in the early morning hours of Nov. 16.

“My adrenaline was going good. I just felt like, ‘Well, sometimes people get shot.'”

He talked about how, after not sleeping for four days, he chose the Humboldt Kum & Go store to rob because Myers was the only person there. He put on his ski mask, packed a handgun and pointed it at her while setting the bag on the table. She put the money inside it, he said.

“Then I shot her,” said Swanson, now 18. “And I left. I just walked out.”

His voice on the videotape reflected little emotion, but he smiled and scratched his head when re-enacting the noise that Myers made when he shot her, a “half-scream, half-gasp.”

He shot her in the face, he said, because “it was final.”

“If I was just gonna shoot to injure, why would I shoot her at all?”

Years of pain, pleas for help

The slayings marked the culmination of years of attempts to get help for their son, Kathleen Swanson testified — psychiatric care, commitment, even time in a juvenile facility.

He’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and more. Incident after incident, he bounced between juvenile facilities and temporary inpatient psychiatric care. He was kicked out of the St. Cloud Children’s Home before his evaluation was complete, she testified.

As her husband, Robert, listened, Kathleen tearfully repeated the common refrain they used throughout their son’s youth: “What are we gonna do with this kid?”

When he went with an aunt to do community service at Pioneer Park in Annandale, he stole $250 from the nonprofit. The aunt demanded he return the money and apologize. Then after returning home, she found two of her deceased husband’s shotguns in the trunk of her car and a hatchet, baseball bat and handguns in the bed of her four-wheeler. She called Kathleen to pick him up immediately, fearing he was going to hurt her.

He admitted he was angry at her and was charged with felony gun theft following the incident. He spent 10 days in the Anoka County Juvenile Center in Lino Lakes before a judge ordered him to go home under his parents’ supervision in 2006.

The Swansons installed locks that required a key to get out from the inside, and Robert Swanson locked the boy’s clothes away. They gave their son a towel and safety pin to wear around the house.

“If he was gonna break a window and run away, he was going in a towel,” she said.

Hope, and then gone

By 2008, after more problems, a probation officer recommended Michael Swanson be sent away for six to nine months. After a second opinion from a psychiatrist, his mother agreed. They went to Hennepin County District Court, and at the last minute the probation officer changed his mind. Sometimes it was worse for a kid to take him out of his home, the probation officer told her.

Foreshadowing his alleged crime, in April 2010 Swanson stole his mother’s Jeep, credit cards and took one of the dogs south on Hwy. 169. When he ran out of money, he called home and asked them to pick him up in St. Joseph, Mo.

Suspecting her son was bipolar, she struggled to get him on medication. Doctors who diagnosed him while he was in custody wouldn’t, or couldn’t, help when he was home.

By July he was sentenced to the Hennepin County Home School, a residential treatment center for adolescent offenders. She was told he would receive treatment there, but she said he never did.

He came home in early November, and things looked up for a time. They enrolled him in a clinical trial at the University of Minnesota. He was working at Cub Foods and even going to church.

“We felt like we were hopeful,” she said.

Then he was gone.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921 @ajillsimons

7 Comments

  1. The problem of children with mental disorders is extremely complex. One of the reasons, I believe, that children like Michael Swanson get sent from institution to institution is that no one really knows how to deal effectively with extremely mentally ill, and sometimes psychopathic/sociopathic, children. This is particularly true for early childhood.

    We know that the earlier the intervention, the better the outlook. Michael’s mother felt something was wrong during his infancy and she was more sure by the time he was a toddler. Yet we do not have enough child psychiatrists and psychologists to meet the needs of the children in this country. And of those who are providing services to infants, toddlers, and young children many of them are not equipped to deal with extreme mental illness and psychopathy/sociopathy in young children.

    Furthermore, there are no (or limited) insurance and Medicaid codes for billing for providing mental health services to infants, toddlers, and young children. Many of the DSM IV-R diagnoses require behaviors and symptoms to be present over time, something infants, toddlers, and young children cannot show. This gets to the heart of the issue of why it’s difficult to find even adequate mental health services for infants, toddlers, and young children. There is the belief by many, including some in the mental health profession, that infants, toddlers, and young children do not suffer from mental illness (how can an infant be depressed?) and certainly cannot be psychopathic/sociopathic. Policymakers are not going to require education and develop programs for something that they believe does not exist.

    Yet we know that infants, toddlers, and young children exhibit behaviors which are indicative of extreme mental illness and psychopathy/sociopathy. How many early education and care teachers have pointed out a child and said “That child is going to end up in prison someday.” And they are probably right. More often than not they do nothing about it. This is in part due to the belief that nothing can be done. Instead, what they should be doing is referring to mental/behavioral health services. Even if there is a lack of services for infants, toddlers, and young children in their community they should make those referrals to whatever services are available. They should be supporting families in their quest for finding the best possible outcomes for their children.

    Recently I had a young teacher tell me about a preschool child who was making sexual advances on other young children in his classroom which were inappropriate and not typical of a preschooler. She went to the director to ask her to make a report to child protective services. The director refused saying that the child had been enrolled since he was an infant and she didn’t want to cause problems for the family. The director then threatened the teacher if she were to report the incident. The teacher, rightfully so, reported the incident anyway.

    The director’s behavior, however, was typical. There is the fear of disenfranchising families, and perhaps losing needed revenue that often keeps providers from making reports or other types of referrals. They want to be able to show that they are professional and knowledgeable and skilled and can handle all sorts of behaviors. They, themselves, do not necessarily get the support they need to making the right decisions when dealing with infants, toddlers, and young children.

    I could go on… The bottom line is that until we fix the problem at the beginning, by first acknowledging the need and then increasing capacity for providing, at a minimum, adequate mental/behavioral health services for infants, toddlers, and young children, children such as Michael Swanson are going to continue to commit heinous acts.

  2. I believe Michael Swanson’s cry for help was perhaps louder than his family’s. He just did not know how to articulate his feelings. Michael Swanson was obviously an emotional disturbed person. After reading the horrible events of this story, one has to wonder as to why Michael Swanson was so unhappy and angry with himself to point of hatred. Michael not only hated himself but he hated other people as well. Is hatred a mental illness? I believe hatred develops because there is a lack of unconditional love from caring people.

    We can only imagine the overwhelming pain that both families have had to endure after the deaths of two innocent victims. When a person loses hope, life stops. This topic is a highly sensitive and complex psychosocial and socioeconomic problem. Many families are struggling to find solutions to help their children. Did the healthcare system ignore the Swanson family’s cry for help? No, but it does fall short in providing efficient psychotherapy to children and adolescents with serious behavior disturbances. A psychotropic medication can only numb the person and do not take away a person’s emotional pain. Resolving psychological pain takes time and teamwork meaning between healthcare professionals, families, and the community.

    In this situation, I believe Michael’s parents would have benefited from psychotherapy as well because they could have gained insight about themselves and their relationship with Michael. For parents to put their child through therapy and not do therapy themselves makes sense to me.

    Prevention is acknowledging a need for treatment. Secondary is accepting the appropriate treatment. Tertiary is rehabilitation and recovery, which should be ongoing to ensure that parents and children interactions are healthy. Child protective services primary concern is making sure the child has a safe environment. The court system cannot rear children. The courts can only provide guidance as to what would be the best course of action to remedy the immediate problem.

    There is something to learn from this tragedy. When families like the Swanson’s, cry out for
    help because their child’s behavior is out of control, we need to actively listen and come up with a plan of action that has consistency to defuse all destructive behaviors without using the court system.

    For long-term results, I believe the parents and children need to attend frequent psychotherapy sessions. Medication along is not adequate treatment. Therefore, our healthcare system needs to develop care around therapy sessions for our children rather than prescribing drugs. Otherwise, someone will end up shot and possibly dead.

  3. The assertions about “typical” behavior comes from years of experience of providing consultation to providers in every corner of the State. There are very strict mandatory reporting laws here, but it is difficult to follow through if a provider does not report.

    I do not mean to disparage providers. I understand their concerns. Many feel that it is in the child’s best interest not to report, because they believe it’s better to keep a family intact and when the child is in their care 40 hours a week, the child is safe. They also do not necessarily have confidence in the system if they were to report.

    This is a very complex issue and if it sounded as if I was placing blame on a group of people, please believe that was not my intention. I think placing blame is a useless endeavor. Rather, I was trying to point out that we have systems that are broken. We have providers who are underpaid and scrambling to keep their businesses afloat; we have a child protective services system that is so unwieldy that children and families are constantly lost in the maze; and we have a society that talks as if it cares about children and families but does not act it.

  4. I found this blog while doing some research and I want to make if very clear that my son Michael Swanson was NOT a victim of any verbal, mental, physical or sexual abuse. He is mentally ill. He has a wonderful loving and supportive family who supported him in all the efforts to get him help. I have always been especially close to Mike, and he always knew he could talk to me about things and many times he did. I cannot tell you the heartache that we have suffered from his actions. I firmly believe that he was in a psychotic state – that he has suffered from psychotic episodes since 2004 – but every time we got him hospitalized he stablized and then seemed perfectly normal and no one could figure out what was going on – so we were consistently told that he needed long term treatment to determine what his issues were. My ins would not cover more then 10 days – and after 10 days the hospitals would just discharge him and send him home with no treatment plan or follow up care – that to me is wrong. To simply tell parents your son needs long term care, and knowing your ins won’t cover it for them to not make any other treatment plan or give any direction to the parents is wrong. I can’t tell you how many times I was told that we had to come and get him and was told that its not their problem.
    To have a standing court order for long term treatment that should have been imposed but then was rejected by probation in what I feel was a cost savings to the county – even after I argued with them on the need to place him – then what good does a court order due if no one will act on it.
    What consistently happened was that he was sent home for us his parents to deal with, and we did our best. He saw counselors but they only could diagnose him with ADHD – and even when I told them there had to be something more – why was he doing the things he was doing I was just brushed off and told “this is just ADHD.”
    We begged the county home school to not send him home after his release. We were very upset that he was there to begin with – we argrued for a 6-9 month treatment to impose the court order not 90-120 days. His PO told us in our initial meeting he would look into placing him into a group home after his release, but in Oct I was told that would not be happening and we would need to take him home as “no judge would order out of home placement”.
    In Oct after they found very bizarre writings in Mikes room they were very, very concerned and asked us if they could get an evaluation. I was shocked – I had made the mistake af assuming an evaluation would normally be done as he was to get therapy there. The U of M Psychiatry dept collaborates with CHS and they sent 2 psychiatrists and 3 residents to do the evaluation = and afterward we were told that they to were very, very concerned. They recommended Mike be put on Abilify but did not write any prescription and did not see him again. The CHS held him for an add’l 10 days – as due to his good behavior he was to get out at 90 days. They did nothing to help him in the add’l 10 days he was there. He saw no one from the U of M – we had no add’l meetings. We were simply told we would meet and come up with a treatment plan, go over his evaluation and talk about medication with the Psychiatrist. They scheduled this meeting for the day Mike was to be released. The Dr – Jon Jensen – came into the meeting and did not have 1 piece of paper with him. He told us he couldn’t talk about Mike as he knew nothing about him as he was only observing Katie Cullen who did the evaluation, he was observing for her boards. Why he came and not her is beyond me. He gave us a history of psychiatry, told us about his patients, but any time we or the social worker tried to direct the conversation to Mike he would tell us he doesn’t know anything about Mike. When the social worker told him this meeting wss to be about putting Mike on Abilify (at the time I thought this was a med for depression – I did not realize it was an anitpsychotic) he simply said he could put Mike on Abilify but he could go pyschotic on it, that he instead recommended that we enroll him in a clinical trial at the U so they could thoroughly exam Mike, do family counseling and put him on meds if needed. That there was plenty of money in these studies so that they could do MRI’s etc. We never saw the evaluation and left there even more frustrated but reluctantly agreed to enroll him as that was the only option we were given.
    After Nov 15th it took me over 4 months to finally get a copy of that evaluation. I had to contact the CHS every week, and Judge Kathleen Quaintance had an order that no one could get access to Mikes records. Someone finally told me this and gave me her info and after I sent an email threatening a lswsuit and going to the media she agreed to allow me access. The evaluation signed by Jon Jensen clearly states that “with or without medication Michael was a danger to society and should be in a locked secure facility.” I cannot tell you how upsetting this was to read this in March – 4 mos after this tragic event that occurred 8 days after meeting this man who claimed to know nothing. Michael clearly met the danger to himself or others and this Dr should have placed him somewhere to get help – but instead I think he was looking to line his own pockets by earning the dept money for the trial they wanted Mike in, and for any speaking engagements he could get for Abilify. When Mikes lswyer spoke to him he claimed that he had no info from us his parents, when in fact we didn’t know when the evaluation was taking place or who was doing it. He did call Bob at work who was with a customer at the time and when Bob called him back he said ” its not important, I don’t need to talk to you after all.”
    So here I sit with bloggers blaming me – to the point that some feel that I should be punished or even killed. That somehow this must be the parents fault – he must have been abused, or treated poorly. I will agree, he was treated poorly but not by us but by those that should have ensured that he got help, instead they either looked at us and thought, oh good family they can take care of it or in Dr Jensen’s case a complete lack of ethics and an attempt to profit instead of making sure treatment was provided.
    So go ahead and blame me. I have to live this this the rest of my life wondering if only I had done….. I have to live with this guilt the rest of my days, not only for the loss of these women and the pain to their families but I have to see what all of this has done to my own son. I too grieve, and I grieve for all of them. This was a preventable tragedy – this should not have happened. If it makes you feel better to blame me then fine, but if that is all we do what happens with the next Mike sitting there waiting to get help, with parents trying and no one listening. While blaming me may make you feel better – it does nothing to try to solve the real problem and with that we are doomed to repeat it.

  5. Dear Kathleen, I wrote this piece specifically to draw attention to our nation’s poor effort to manage our children’s mental health crisis.

    My heart goes out to you and know that I have encountered these circumstances again and again as a county guardian ad-litem. The same terrible story of being denied help from insurance, from county workers, from any source.

    Anything that I can do to be clearer in the language I wrote I will do. Please appreciate that only by talking and writing about this terrible condition can we build support for mental health services in our communities that others may not have to suffer.

    As I have reread my original blog this morning, & I find no sign of any reference to child abuse…and it was not written with any intent of that. Please correct me if I am wrong.

    Most sincerely,

    Mike Tikkanen

  6. Mr Tikkanen:

    I responded to your inital posting because I felt from what I read that here was a blog where people may understand. I stated that Michael was not abused not because of anything you stated, but because many of the items on your website are regarding abused children and I did not want anyone inferring that this must mean that he too falls into this category. He is simply very ill and has been from a young age. I felt that this was a place that I could tell the story – to clarify the many times he could and should have received help. His attorney told us that he felt Michael did not get the help he needed simply because he scored low in the family risk category. People need to understand that kids like him exist – that come from good families, have great support systems but are sick. Mental illness can affect and does affect many families, not just broken or dysfunctional ones.
    When I referred to the bloggers, I was referring to the ones that have commented on this story in the news – as I said I had been doing research and had just read a bunch blogs that have some pretty horrible things to say about Mike and us as parents.
    I also sent you my information in your contact us section. I would like to work with a place that does talk and write about these issues – to raise awareness. I can’t help Mike – but maybe I can help someone else. Maybe this story will help others understand that there is a huge problem and we have to stop ignoring it.

  7. Hello Mr. Tikkanen,
    What I have to say here is critical of your position (or perhaps I should say “the common position”), but it isn’t meant to be harsh or unkind, and hopefully will give you food for thought. I’m speaking as the adult survivor of severe child abuse by my sadistic mother. She was a nurse, and currently works in public health. She knew how to abuse without leaving evidence, and is someone to whom vulnerable people such as Mrs. Swanson are sent for assistance.

    Mrs. Swanson’s distress here is horrible to witness, and my heart goes out to her for everything she’s been through with her son, from the ‘caring’ professionals (I assume people like my mother were sometimes involved in her son’s care), and from the unkind and unhelpful comments of some of the public.

    I believe that incorrect terminology blurs our perception and knowledge of things in life that are difficult to look at straight on. Euphamisms, unfortunately, serve to lessen the impact, but also help to obscure hard truths. I believe that, in most of the cases you write about, the term ‘mental illness’ is a euphamism which serves to obfuscate and confuse serious issues which need untangling, and erroneously conflates issues which are ill-served by being lumped together.

    Using common vernacular, as opposed to dictionary definitions, if you develop Type 1 diabetes, or lymphoma, or measles, you are considered to have an illness. However, if someone in their right mind comes up to you and intentionally breaks your arm you have an INJURY, and you have been the victim of a CRIME. For the latter what you, and society, need is both medical care and JUSTICE. Even if the medical system doesn’t diagnose you properly, or because of how they regard you decides not to treat you, you still don’t have an illness, you have an untreated injury. If the untreated injury gets complications (say, for instance, it becomes septic) you may end up with an illness, but at that point you then have both an illness AND an injury. The person who injured you, on the other hand, should be a SUSPECT, and then hopefully a CRIMINAL. By referring to child abuse survivors as having mental ‘illness’ you belittle and disempower them, and assist society in its efforts to hide from the truth. The vast majority who really need to see justice done, and whose healing would be greatly assisted thereby, are purposefully made invisible when they are only seen at the point they are considered mentally ‘ill’. This also helps to make their abusers, whether sane like my mother or theoretically insane like Michael Swanson, invisible and unaccountable as well.

    Of course, this gets more complicated because experiences of abuse greatly exacerbate any tendancy towards what we classicly view as mental ‘illness’: schizophrenia, bipolar, etc… But just because overeating and lack of exercise increase your suseptibility to cancer or diabetes doesn’t mean that they are the same thing, and need to be dealt with separately. Just as abuse/trauma and schizophrenia and bipolar and psychosis are different issues that need to be dealt with each according to their own criteria.

    By artificially lumping together the abuse victims you write about with unfortunate people like Mr. Swanson who truly suffers from an organic illness, and people like my mother who are sane but intentional (even though undetected) criminals, you end up, despite your good intentions, ill-serving everyone involved. This leads to the type of common misunderstanding whereby Mrs. Swanson is senselessly and needlessly pilloried for having abused her child, and a great many sane but intentionally sadistic abusers are treated as victims, while their true victims are viewed as deficient human beings and left to rot.

    They all need medical care, it’s true. But the way to reduce traumatic brain injury is to introduce and enforce helmet and seatbelt laws, speed limits, and ‘look before you dive’ education programs. The way to reduce infectious disease spread is by proper sanitation, appropriate patient isolation, and correct antibiotic use.

    Taking a public policy approach whereby the needs of the Michael Swansons of this world are lumped in with the needs of injured but sane child abuse victims, and with those who, abuse survivors or not, choose to inflict pain on others, makes no more sense than trying to reduce MRSA by enforcing speed limits.

    Calling abuse victims mentally ‘ill’, and dealing with even the most horrific abusers primarily and overwhelmingly through the social services and mental health systems instead of the criminal justice system, is really saying that their injuries are not criminal and is, in my opinion, just another version of victim-blaming. It also ties up the mental-health system with what should be criminal matters, making services unobtainable for the Michael Swansons of this world.

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