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San Diego Union Tribune
Oct. 19, 2013
Adopted son has ‘difficulty controlling his anger’ because of fetal alcohol syndrome
EAST COUNTY — Jan. 16, 2012. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Three boys were enjoying a day off from school in East County when playtime turned to tragedy. They were playing in a mobile home park, teaming up for a mock battle with Nerf swords, when one of the kids was left without a partner.
He was angry and ran to tell his 10-year-old playmate’s mother, Julie, who was in the living room of her house. She was close enough to hear the children playing, but not so close to see them.
When the boy reached her front door, she sent him home to defuse the conflict. He retreated down the driveway.
Julie, the adoptive mother of a boy who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, at an gym in El Cajon where she and her son enjoyed working out. — Earnie Grafton
Ryan Carter, 12, was stabbed to death at his friend’s home on Royal Road in El Cajon. The 10-year-old friend is accused in the killing.
Her own son passed the other boy as he left. Julie scolded her son gently, saying it sounded like he wasn’t playing nice. That was all it took to set off his anger, she said, recalling the incident. She had taken the other boy’s side.
In a matter of seconds, her son was in the kitchen and had grabbed a steak knife.
“I saw that he had it in his hand,” Julie said.
Ryan Carter, a 12-year-old who had been playing with the other two boys, was standing nearby. Julie told him to get to other side of the wrought-iron gate that enclosed her property. She tried to corner her son near the garage, but he slipped past her over the side fence.
She chased after him, caught him by the shirt and he dropped the knife.
“I thought we were done. I thought we were good,” Julie said.
She followed her son back into the house, but he picked up a second knife and sprinted for the open front gate.
Ryan stepped in front of him, Julie said. She figured he was trying to stop her son from getting out of the yard and getting into more trouble. Suddenly, she heard Ryan say, “I’m hit.”
He ran into the house and collapsed on the couch. She called 911, then pulled Ryan to the floor to start administering CPR.
“At the time, he had a heartbeat,” said Julie, who has emergency medical training. “I had my thumb over the wound. It was just a little thumb-sized wound.”
Ryan died at a hospital. Later that week, Julie’s son was charged with murder. He was one of the youngest defendants ever charged in San Diego County, and for the year and a half he spent in Juvenile Hall, the youngest in county custody.
Until now, she hasn’t spoken to the news media about the stabbing and how it shattered the lives of two families. Julie talked to U-T San Diego but asked that her last name not be used to protect the identity of her son, who still faces charges in Juvenile Court.
Trouble controlling anger
A day after the stabbing, Glen and Lisa Carter spoke publicly about losing their only child, a straight-A student who liked to build rockets and play with his pet tortoise, Tut. The couple sold their house in La Mesa when Ryan was born and moved to the mobile home park in unincorporated El Cajon to save for his education. They had tried for a decade to conceive him.
Julie’s home shares a fence line with the Knolls Mobile Estates on Royal Road.
“He was a great kid,” she said, adding that Ryan would spend the night at her house a couple of times a month. “He had a big heart. He had a lot of patience.”
Julie, a 52-year-old single mother and special education teacher, said she spoke with the Carters about a week after the stabbing but not since.
For months, she declined to give interviews about what she witnessed at her home but changed her mind recently — after her son, whom she adopted when he was 5 months old, was found mentally incompetent to stand trial.
“Part of me wanted to just let everything die. Just let it go,” she said. “But part of me wants people to know that things didn’t happen the way they think they happened.”
She has also become active in promoting awareness about the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, which her son suffers from (his birth mother drank excessively during her pregnancy). The condition can cause a host of problems, including mental retardation, learning disorders and behavioral problems.
Although she described her son as “sweet” and “very loving” most of the time, Julie said he can be prone to fits of anger, a problem that got worse when he was prescribed a new anti-anxiety medication about a month before Ryan’s stabbing.
“Under normal circumstances, he would have swore, he would have cussed, he might have thrown a ball (at his playmate). … I never even thought he would go get a knife,” she said.
Special needs baby
As a second-grader, Julie stood on a piano bench in her family’s living room and declared she would never give birth because too many children in the world needed families.
At 39, she made a decision.
“God hadn’t sent me a husband yet,” she said with a chuckle. “I don’t want to grow old alone. I kinda want to leave a legacy.”
She consulted a social worker, filled out an application, and completed the required screenings and classes. Nearly a year later, she was matched with her son.
She learned he was one of four siblings, all of whom had been in foster care, and that he was born to a mother who used drugs and alcohol while she was pregnant.
When she saw his photo, she noticed his small, wide-set eyes, thin upper lip and “flat mid-face.” She remembered thinking: “Wow, he’s kinda peculiar looking, but cute.”
What she didn’t know then was that his features were indicators of fetal alcohol syndrome, which can cause physical deformities.
In August 2001, Julie went to meet the baby at a foster home in Chula Vista. Over the next few days, she held him, fed him, bathed him and walked him in his stroller. On the third day, she took him to lunch so her family could meet him. When she dropped him off again, she cried all the way home.
“It just hurt so much to leave him,” Julie said, choking up at the memory. “The next morning, I picked him up for good.”
Julie went back to work later that summer. Family members helped with child care and emotional support, including her mother, sister and sister-in-law. A teacher came to the house to help with her son’s educational needs. He was lagging developmentally, but no one suspected cognitive impairment.
But Julie knew her boy was different.
The light and noise of a shopping mall or grocery store could trigger “meltdowns,” when he would collapse and cry. He refused to sleep anywhere but his own bed and couldn’t go anywhere without a blanket to comfort him.
“If he didn’t have a blankie, he wouldn’t stop crying and it was a scream cry. It was painful. … As he got older, I baby-proofed the house, but I didn’t need to because he wouldn’t explore. He wouldn’t leave me,” Julie said.
He threw tantrums at school, kicking his shoes off and hiding under tables. He stopped speaking entirely in preschool, and then in kindergarten would speak only in one-word sentences.
He had been evaluated at Children’s Hospital when he was 6 months old, an appointment set up by the foster family. Julie took him back when he was 6.
“I didn’t know what to do,” the mother said. “He was out of control, and (the doctor) couldn’t get us out of her office fast enough.”
But Julie never gave up on him. “He’s my child,” she said. “Even now, that’s not an option. He’s my son.”
Fetal alcohol syndrome
After the stabbing, an attorney arranged for Julie’s son to be seen by Dr. Kenneth Lyons Jones, a renowned pediatrician and researcher who identified fetal alcohol syndrome with Dr. David W. Smith in 1973. In Juvenile Hall, he diagnosed the boy with the condition.
Jones is now a professor at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine and chief of its Division of Dysmorphology/Teratology, which focuses on birth defects. He urges women to stop drinking alcohol entirely while they are pregnant, but recognizes that some resist that idea.
“I really do not think that there is any study that has ever shown that there is a safe amount of alcohol for a woman to take during pregnancy,” Jones said.
He said fetal alcohol spectrum disorders affect one percent of the U.S. population.
Dr. Edward Riley, a San Diego State University professor who studies alcohol-related birth defects, said children exposed to alcohol in the womb tend to have smaller brains and trouble with communication and social interaction. Their behavioral problems are often misinterpreted as the result of bad parenting.
“This is a brain-based disorder and we need to think about it in those terms,” Riley said.
Julie said her son has had teachers, coaches and trainers who were good at dealing with his behavior issues. But her eyes welled with tears when she recalled disapproving looks she got at football games, tae kwon do practices or her son’s only boxing exhibition.
At 9 years old, he entered the ring with a much larger boy, who kneed him in the groin.
“What your average kid would do is go after the kid harder,” Julie said. “(My son) stopped fighting, started screaming, cussed and ran out of the ring.”
She said people called her son a brat under their breath, which she believed was unfair. Some adults didn’t understand or agree with her parenting style, calling her too accommodating, too lenient with her son.
“We always used to say to each other, ‘People don’t get us, but that’s OK. We get each other,’ ” she said.
A ‘misfire’ in the brain
Ryan “got” her son, Julie said. The sixth-grader was one of her boy’s closest friends.
Ryan has been described as a bright and well-liked preteen, with an eagerness to help others, especially those less fortunate than himself. It was what he had been taught by his parents.
“It’s the saddest time in our lives,” said Glen Carter, of losing his son to violence.
He spoke during a brief telephone conversation but declined a longer interview because one of Ryan’s grandparents had recently died. But as he and his wife have done several times since their son’s death, Carter offered a few words of compassion for Julie and her son.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with them,” he said.
Julie said Ryan was among many neighborhood children who would come to her house to play video games or jump on the trampolines in the yard. Older children tended to understand her boy better. They adapted to his rules.
“I always had to be close because he would get upset and he would try to hit somebody, and I would try to intervene,” Julie said. “I could hear him. He had a war cry.”
Her son started causing damage around the house at age 7 or 8, the mother said. He kicked in the doors of her car and busted out the wooden lattice on their patio with a basketball. About a month and a half before the stabbing, he started taking an antidepressant called Anaphranil, and his personality changed, she said.
“He got much more aggressive. … He punched me in the face twice,” Julie said. “He’d never done that before. He bit my arms and left big marks. So that’s when I started emailing the doctor, going, ‘This isn’t right. This is very wrong.’ ”
But he had never gone after anyone with a knife, she said. Julie insists the stabbing was an accident, caused by a misfire in her son’s brain.
The District Attorney’s Office charged the 10-year-old with murder and assault with a deadly weapon. After months of court hearings, a judge ruled in August 2012 that the child would be sent to a residential treatment facility until his competency is restored.
Ryan’s mother told U-T San Diego last year that she was relieved to hear that the boy would receive psychiatric care in a place where he would have regular access to his mother. The location has not been disclosed.
“We’re thankful that he will get help,” Lisa Carter said at the time. “The only way this tragedy could be made worse is if (Julie) were going through what we’re going through.”
She said she hoped the boy would someday lead a normal life.
Since the stabbing, Julie has become vice president of the local chapter of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. She has been sharing her story with parents, doctors and people working in juvenile justice.
She said she hopes that someday her son, now 12, will be able to leave the facility, where he’s been since June. But she’s also realistic.
It is possible that her boy may never be deemed competent for trial, which would mean that he understood the court proceedings and could assist in his own defense. The Juvenile Court system would lose jurisdiction over him at age 21.
“He doesn’t understand why he can’t come home, but he has difficulty controlling his anger and he does need to be there,” Julie said. “If you took this all away, he would still need to be there.”