By Sanne Specht
Desperate, despondent and once again on the run from her demons, the struggling teen made a permanent decision. One she can never take back, her family says.
“She was in a fight with her boyfriend,” said her father, John Piatkin. “She spent the whole day looking for him, and at some point between midnight and 7 in the morning, she hung herself.”
Seventeen-year-old Mariah Piatkin’s Friday suicide in Albany reflects on the adults who failed to protect her and on a system that made it virtually impossible to properly address her addiction and mental health issues, said Piatkin and Kevin Lamson, executive director of Hearts with a Mission, Medford’s only teen homeless shelter.
“She wrote on her note that no one cared,” Lamson said. “People cared. Maybe the problem is no one cared enough. That’s what I struggle with.”
Piatkin described his daughter as fiercely independent, highly intelligent and suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity and bipolar disorders. Mariah always thought she could handle herself, Piatkin said. But the teen simply hadn’t had enough experiences in life to understand she didn’t have good coping skills, he said.
Desperate for help, Piatkin reached out to Lamson and brought Mariah to the shelter on Jan. 11, 2010. Youths can stay for up to 72 hours without parental consent and up to 120 days with consent, said Lamson. No drugs, alcohol, weapons, sex or smoking are allowed. Teens are offered three meals a day and a safe place to stay, he said.
Lamson promised to help Mariah three years ago. But when he made that promise, Lamson did not understand the level of care Mariah would need, he said. Mariah could light up a room. Or she could turn out the lights, Lamson said.
Sometimes Mariah, then 14, would sing and dance. At other times she would curl up in a fetal position. Sometimes she would verbally erupt. Her arms had bloody sores, wounds she inflicted upon herself dragging a pencil eraser back and forth across her skin, Lamson said.
“I asked her, Why do you do that, Mariah?’” Lamson said. “She said, It’s a pain I can control. And I can’t control the pain that’s going on in my life.’”
Eventually, after several frustrating court hearings, Piatkin and Lamson were able to persuade a local judge to have Mariah placed in residential care. The Portland facility where she was placed was supposed to help children with mental health challenges, Piatkin said. But Mariah ran away during a birthday outing with staffers in June 2010, Piatkin said, adding he’d feared this was not the right environment for his troubled teen.
“I wanted them to put her in a residential treatment facility that was appropriate for her age and her conditions,” Piatkin said.
Mariah continued to spiral out of control. She would sometimes show up at Piatkin’s home. Sometimes she would show up at the shelter. Sooner or later, she would always run, the men said.
Lamson said Mariah showed up a couple months ago needing something to eat. Earlier she had shown up with another teen in tow.
“That girl ended up staying with us,” Lamson said. “We were able to reunite her with her parents, and she’s still there. I was able to explain to her that (Mariah) was leading her down the road to destruction.”
But Lamson said the “saving grace” of helping another troubled teen does not erase the pain of not being able to help Mariah.
“We’ll continue to fight,” Lamson said. “We’ve been so busy. We’ve never had so many kids in the shelter. But it doesn’t make the pain of Mariah being gone go away.”
Piatkin last saw his daughter three weeks ago, he said.
“She stayed here a couple weeks. And then she ran again,” he said. “All I could do was be there for her. But I told her, This revolving door, this needs to stop. You need to get in a treatment program and more schooling.’ “
Both men knew Mariah was in danger on the streets. Piatkin had tracked Mariah across the state, from Portland to St. Helens to Ashland. He had dragged her out of dangerous situations and stood guard over her through sleepless nights in hospital rooms.
“I had to smuggle her out of California awhile back,” Piatkin said, adding that Mariah told him she was being sexually trafficked.
“She told me a fellow was selling drugs on the run. And that he was selling her,” Piatkin said.
Much of Mariah’s pain can be traced to her parents’ bad choices, said Piatkin. He had drinking and gambling issues. Her mom had drug issues. His daughter suffered from parental neglect. She may have been sexually abused by a family member, Piatkin said.
Wracked with guilt, Piatkin said he wishes he’d had better communication with his daughter.
“Everybody wants to fix everybody with the best of intentions,” Piatkin said. “But maybe if we, as parents, would shut up and listen a little more. We need to listen to our children.”
As with all health conditions, officials say, the keys to successful recovery include early diagnosis, intervention and treatment. Serious mental health problems, whether biologically or genetically based, can affect any child and family — regardless of age, gender, race or economic status. Problems also can be triggered by traumatic childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect or exposure to other stressful conditions in the child’s environment.
National studies show 1 in 5 young people suffer from mental health problems. That means thousands of Oregon’s children and their families face daunting challenges every day, Lamson said. The lack of proper residential facilities, the chronic lack of mental health care funding, and the public’s general lack of understanding for the complexity of the situation is causing poor outcomes for children like Mariah. They need long-term solutions, not short-term responses, he said.
“I knew when (Piatkin) called that he would tell me she was dead,” Lamson said. “Why is that OK? How do we justify that in our minds? What’s a life worth? I get so sick of living in a world of outcomes. Here’s one life that’s now gone at 17. And we move on? What’s wrong with society that it doesn’t hurt? I guess when you hear enough stories like Mariah’s, you just get numb.”
Piatkin is hoping for a big turnout for the celebration of Mariah’s life, slated for 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 9, at the Bear Creek Skate Park. There will be hot dogs and Peace Tea, and stories of her life, he said.
“I want to prove her wrong,” Piatkin said. “I want Mariah to know, in those last moments, that she was wrong. I want her to look down and smile.”
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.