February 20, 2008
What kind of society rips a 17-year-old autistic boy from his loving home and places him in a state-run mental institution, where he is given heavy doses of drugs, kept physically restrained, kept away from his family, deprived of books and other mental stimulation and is left alone to rot?
Certainly not a free or humane one.
Yet that’s exactly what has happened to Nate Tseglin, after a teacher called Child Protective Services, the county agency charged with protecting children from many forms of abuse and given power to remove children from their family homes in certain circumstances. The teacher reported seeing self-inflicted scratches on Nate’s body and complained about the doctor-approved arm restraints his parents used to keep Nate from hurting himself. Nate remains in Fairview Developmental Center (formerly Fairview State Hospital) in Costa Mesa, labeled a danger to himself and others, while his parents fight a lonely battle to bring their son back home.
Isn’t there anyone out there who can help them?
After the complaint, social workers intervened and decided that the judgment of a psychologist who examined Nate’s records but never even met the boy trumped a lifetime of treatment and experiences by his parents, Ilya and Riva Tseglin. Without prior notice, “the San Diego Health and Human Services agency social worker, with the aid of law enforcement, forcibly removed a struggling and terrified autistic boy … from his home, while his mother and father, who are Russian Jewish immigrants, and Nate’s younger brother stood by helplessly,” according to the complaint the parents, who have since moved to Irvine to be near Nate, filed with the court.
The forced removal came after the Tseglins came to loggerheads with the government over Nate’s proper treatment. The parents are opposed to the use of psychotropic drugs and argue that Nate has had strong negative reactions to them. They point to success they’ve had with an alternative, holistic approach that focuses on diet and psychiatric counseling. The government disagreed, so it took the boy away from home and initially placed him in a group home – where he had the same negative reaction to the drugs that his parents predicted would happen.
Of course, once social workers are involved in a family, they are reluctant to relinquish their power – something I’ve found in every Child Protective Services case I’ve written about. And even though the court determined “the evidence is clear that the parents have always stood by and tried to help their son,” the court sided with the government. That’s another common theme from these closed family-court proceedings – the social workers’ words are taken as gospel, and the parents are treated like enemies and given little chance to defend themselves.
The details are complicated and discouraging. But, essentially, the parents were cut out of any decision-making regarding their son. They were given only short visits with him. After he ran away from the group home, the government transferred Nate to a mental hospital. The Tseglins say the drugs the hospital gave Nate caused him to have a “grand mal” seizure, and his health has continued to deteriorate while he languishes in a government mental facility. When they visited him over the summer, they found his face swollen. He faded in and out of consciousness and was suffering from convulsions. They believe he has been beaten and are worried about sexual abuse, given that he is housed with the criminally insane.
The Tseglins claim Child Protective Services has told them they have the “wrong set of beliefs” and even threatened to force them to undergo court-ordered psychological evaluation. The agency at one point suspended the parents’ visitations as a way “to assist them in coming to grips regarding their son.” The Tseglins, as former citizens of the Soviet Union, have good reason to be fearful of the authorities. But they tell me that they experienced nothing of this sort in the former communist nation. If their descriptions are correct, then the Soviets weren’t the only ones who know how to create a totalitarian bureaucracy.
The family’s legal argument is persuasive:
“Riva and her husband have cared for Nate, in their home, for his entire life, until he was dragged kicking and screaming away from his parents. … The court found that it was very impressive that the parents ‘were able to maintain Nate in the home for the better part of a decade when he was having some severe behavioral difficulties.’ … The court found further that when the parents put Nate on a ‘more holistic approach’ and ignored the professional opinions, that ‘for a period of time, Nate responded very well to that.’ Even though Nate subsequently deteriorated, the court found that he fared no differently using the more traditional medical approach.’ …
“In short, this case turns on value judgments, such as whether it is preferable for Nate to be maintained in his own home, subject to occasional physical restraint, surrounded by the love and devotion of his parents and brother, or whether Nate should be placed in a locked facility, subject to occasional physical restraint and constant chemical restraint, surrounded by strangers and a burden to the California taxpayer. … The real issue in this case is that the agency and some medical personnel believe their opinions regarding Nate’s treatment are better than the parents’ choices, and have sought the judicial intervention to override the parents’ decisions regarding their son.”
In a free society, individuals and families get to make those judgments and decisions. As the Tseglins argue, “Riva has a right to raise her child, Nate, free from government interference, as long as he is not at risk of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, neglect or exploitation.”
Sure, the state can and does intervene when parents are accused of abusing or neglecting their children. There are many problems and injustices even in those cases, but at least it’s understandable when the government intervenes to protect a potentially threatened child. But in this case, the state is simply saying that it knows best, that no matter how diligently a boy’s parents have worked to provide the best-possible care for him, that officials get the final say. And the government’s choice of mandatory incarceration seems harsh and cruel, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the basic nature of government.
At last check, autism is not a crime. It’s time to free Nate Tseglin and return him to the love and care of his parents.