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Parents of Suicide Victim Urge Changes in Insurance

Couple say their son, 12, received good care, just not enough. They seek passage of New York legislation to increase mental health coverage.

June 22, 2003|Michael Hill | Associated Press Writer

ROTTERDAM, N.Y — ROTTERDAM, N.Y. -- Timothy O'Clair's short, troubled life was marked by depression and sudden rages. Finally Tim, 12, hanged himself in his closet.

Tom and Donna O'Clair tried to treat their youngest son's mental illness as best they could. But they repeatedly bumped up against limits in their insurance coverage. Psychiatric visits were parceled out. Timothy's institutional stays could be frustratingly brief. Getting enough help for Timothy could be a struggle.

In a sense, the O'Clairs are still fighting for Timothy two years after his death.

The couple are lobbyists for expanded mental health coverage. Between parenting and their day jobs -- Tom is a mechanic, Donna a nurse's aide -- they shoehorn in talks to lawmakers, TV cameras and public audiences. Churning up painful memories of their lost boy is worth it, they decided, if they can help secure passage in New York of "Timothy's Law."

"This is all therapy for us," Tom said. "I mean, we're dealing with Timothy's loss daily anyway. To deal with his loss and to feel his loss and not do anything about it is beyond me."

Timothy, the third of three boys, was born in 1988 and grew up in a brick home with a big grassy yard near Schenectady in upstate New York. His parents describe a child who fished, chipped golf balls and skinned his knees.

Pictures in Timothy's memory album show a rail-thin boy with dark hair getting on the school bus, smiling on the beach, mugging for the camera and then, jarringly, lying in his coffin, a crown of daisies placed on his head.

Timothy's slide from typical to troubled started becoming apparent in third grade. He would become easily frustrated and quick to anger. The episodes were like dark clouds in a sunny sky. A look or a laugh could set him off.

He kicked his mother's shins black and blue, threw rags in the furnace and threatened to kill himself. Once, he scrambled up a tree with a rope around his neck.

Why are you so mad, his parents would ask him.

I don't know, he'd reply.

"He has these feelings and sometimes he can't describe them," Tom said. "He can't tell us where they come from. He just has them."

The O'Clairs sought psychiatric help early on. Therapy. Medication. Institutional stays. Timothy was eventually diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression and what psychiatrists call oppositional defiant disorder. He would show a pattern of hostility toward his parents and other adults in authority.

The O'Clairs say Timothy received good care -- the problem was getting enough of it. The family's insurance plan through Tom's employer, the New York State Thruway Authority, limited mental health coverage to 20 days outpatient care and 30 days inpatient, common in the state.

Tom said they had to spread out Timothy's treatment so that he wouldn't use up his 20 visits in three months "and then -- boom! -- nothing for the rest of the year."

Co-pays for repeat care ratcheted up from $10 to $35. Coupled with the cost of uncovered care, the family's money was rapidly being absorbed. As Timothy's condition worsened, the family could not afford the care they thought that he needed.

The answer was a bitter pill they avoided as long as possible. They arranged for full insurance coverage, but it meant placing Timothy in foster care so that he would be eligible for Medicaid.

"That was the hardest thing I had to do," Donna said. "I fought with that idea."

Foster care could be a bumpy ride but a break came in the summer of 2000. Timothy improved markedly over seven months at the Northeast Parent Child Society.

He came home on Jan. 30, 2001. He killed himself six weeks later.

The final decline was so rapid that it caught the O'Clairs by surprise. Tom was working his second job that night. Donnawas grocery shopping with their middle son. Timothy was home with his oldest brother.

Timothy smashed his Little League trophies in one final rage, tied a bathrobe sash around his neck and hanged himself in his closet. It was his "safe place," his father said.

The O'Clairs transitioned from private grief to public lobbying about 18 months later. Tom did volunteer work at Samaritans Suicide Prevention Center, which led to a proposition from mental health advocates: Would the O'Clairs lend Timothy's name to a bill before the state Legislature?

The bill would mandate mental health services be covered at the same level as physical ailments such as cancer or diabetes.

The benefit to mental health advocates is clear. J. David Seay of the state chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill notes that lending a child's name to a bill personalizes policy issues in a way that reasoned speeches cannot.

Bill naming became popular after Megan's Law in the 1990s and continues today. The national Amber Alert for abducted children signed into law this year, for instance, was named for a slain Texas girl.

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