The Third Question After A Mass Shooting: Where Were The Parents?


(3-2-18) From My Files Friday:  Whenever a mass shooting committed by a young person happens, the third question asked is about his parents. (The first two are generally about whether the shooter had a mental illness and talk about gun control.)

Alleged Parkland, Florida, school shooter, Nikolas Cruz, and his younger brother were adopted by Roger and Lynda Cruz. Roger died when the boys were young, leaving Lynda to rear her boys as a single mother. She first called the police about Cruz when he was 10 years old. It was one of dozens of calls during the next decade. Lynda died last November.

I’ve read articles blaming her. They are similar to comments after other mass murders, especially those that involve a young shooter with a mental illness. Surely the parents knew. They could have done something. They are to blame.

I don’t know enough about Nikolas Cruz to speak specifically about his childhood, but complaints about his mother reminded me of an Op Ed that I wrote for USA Today in 2011 after Jared Loughner shot U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen others in a Tucson suburb. In that case, Loughner had a mental illness and there were warning signs.

Don’t Blame Jared Loughner’s Parents, published in USA TODAY, 1-14-11

By Pete Earley
What’s wrong with Jared Loughner’s parents? Why didn’t they do something? They must have known. Just look at the photograph of the Tucson shooting suspect. That grin. They should have raised him better.

These are comments I’ve heard and read on the Internet about Randy and Amy Loughner, whose son has been charged with shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and 12 others, and killing six bystanders.

It’s unlikely the parent’s  statement — that they “don’t understand why this happened”— will soothe the criticism and public anger aimed at them. But as the parent of an adult son with a severe mental illness who has been arrested, I can sympathize with the Loughners and testify that there are reasons why a parent can be caught off guard.

Many mental disorders, especially schizophrenia, emerge in late adolescence, when children often are rebelling and separating from their parents by pushing the limits to find their identities. Before my son’s first breakdown, he told me that President George W. Bush was behind the 911 attacks. He mentioned other conspiracy theories.

Signs aren’t always obvious

Should those comments have caused me to think he had a mental disorder? I certainly didn’t.

Parents often suspect their adult children are abusing drugs or alcohol if they begin acting strangely, not realizing that substance abuse can be an attempt at self-medicating and a warning sign of an underlying mental disorder.

While it’s obvious after a madness-fueled rampage that someone is dangerous, most people with mental illnesses are not violent and are more likely to be victims of crimes than to commit them. Few parents suspect their children are capable of mass murder.

Persons who are sick can also mask their illnesses. Judge Steven Leifman in Miami tells a story about parents who told him their adult son was severely ill, but when he appeared in court, he was polite, articulate and charming. Only when the defendant spotted his parents and became upset, claiming they were strangers spying on him, did Leifman get a glimpse into his confused thoughts.

News reports said college officials warned the Loughners their son couldn’t return to school until he had had a mental health evaluation. He was scaring other students. Obviously, that was a huge red flag — if it happened. Federal privacy laws limit how much information colleges can share with parents. Adult children are exactly that: adults. When my son and I visited a psychologist, my son turned his chair so that his back was facing the therapist and refused to speak. He didn’t think he was sick.

Why don’t parents call the police when their child refuses to cooperate? I did just that. They arrived and shot my son twice with a Taser when he resisted being handcuffed. He had not broken a law and to this day remains bitter about me calling them. I’m lucky. A friend’s son was fatally shot by police.

Having a mental illness is not illegal. Nor can anyone, even a parent, force another person into treatment arbitrarily. All states require a person be dangerous to himself or others. What makes Arizona’s law more liberal is it also allows a person to be forced into treatment if he is “persistently or acutely disabled” or “gravely disabled.”

Would Loughner have met those criteria?

I doubt it, based on my experience, given a police officer stopped him the morning of the shooting and let him go without noticing anything alarming about his behavior. Saying you are concerned about shrines with skulls in the backyard or strange writings is simply not enough in most courts.

Problems with committing someone

Even if parents get their children involuntarily committed, they often don’t get help. Adults can refuse treatment, even when forced into hospitals. You also have to have somewhere to send them. A 2009 study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that Arizona’s mental health services were grossly inadequate. The report was riddled with complaints such as, “When I first tried to get help after attempting suicide, I was told that I wasn’t sick enough to qualify,” and, “There is a six to eight week wait to see (a psychiatrist) as a new patient.” Most states are plagued by long waiting lines because legislators have closed state hospitals and stripped treatment funds to balance budgets.

Perhaps the most hurtful comment leveled at parents is that they should have done a better job raising their child. Would you attack a parent’s child-rearing skills if his son or daughter had cancer. Serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, are just that: illnesses with genetic and environmental influences.

Blaming parents is easy, but before you throw that first stone, try walking in our shoes.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.