PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- Because November is National Adoption Month, we wanted to take an honest look at the mental health gaps where families who open their homes to take in kids with complex trauma say they aren't getting the help they need. We're talking about the most severe cases, the ones in which kids can become homicidal or suicidal without intense therapy. How often do we see horrific outcomes and ask, "Why didn't they get help as a kid?" We found that Arizona families are begging for help, but there simply aren't enough options.
[WATCH: Arizona family forced to give up boy]
"Half the time, I just want to be in the fetal position, crying," Nicole said. "I'll never be OK. He's my son and I have to spend my lifetime without him."
"NONE OF THIS IS HIS FAULT."
Now 7, he was just 2 years old when he came into their lives after Fathers' Day 2014.
"He's a sweet, caring little guy with … um, a broken heart," Nicole said. "He has survived a lot of horrible things. He's actually very resilient to still be here. And none of this is his fault."
Memories, both sweet and brutal, surround her.
"I can look at any corner of this home, and I can see him. I can hear his voice," she said as she shared a recording of the two of them having a conversation on the couch. He declared her his favorite person in the world.
"Aw, I love you, baby," she says, and his little voice squeaks back, "I love you, too!"
Nicole also has many vivid memories of extraordinarily difficult days that brought them to their knees.
"One time, he was trying to get his brother, who is also special needs, to try to touch our grill that was on," she recalled. "When I asked him 'Why would you do that?' he said, 'I wanted to watch him burn.'"
It got so bad that they had to install motion sensor cameras.
"I was scared for our other children," Nicole said.
Diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and sociopathic tendencies, she says their little man wound up doing three behavioral health intakes at Phoenix Children's Hospital and 16 months in a therapeutic foster home.
Each time he came home, he eventually acted out again.
"MISFIRE OF EMPATHY AND UNDERSTANDING"
"There were incidents with knives a few times; we just started locking up every sharp object," Nicole said.
She says she found some scissors hidden in his pillowcase after he'd cut the throats of his stuffed animals. She said he threatened to do the same thing to his brother and to her while she slept.
"He talked about slitting my throat, and showed me how he would do it in a very kind, sweet voice," she said. "It wasn't in anger."
And that was the truly troubling part, Nicole says. He was never acting out in anger, but rather doing and saying extremely worrisome things, showing no empathy.
"It's a misfire of empathy and understanding," she explained.
She recorded one such incident on her cellphone.
Mom: "What happened?"
Son: "I was going to the bathroom, and I was trying to kill her and choke her."
Mom: "You were trying to kill her and choke her?"
Mom: "Who is 'her?'"
Son: "The cat. "
"He just wanted to watch them not breathe," Nicole said.
POLICE WERE NOT STRANGERS TO THE HOME
Police were called out to the house frequently and were uneasy with what they learned. Nicole remembers a specific comment one police captain made.
"In his 17 years on the force, he said he only had one other person who had given him the chills like this. And this was my 4-year-old at the time!" she said.
There were warnings from officers, too.
"If he harms any of your children, you can lose all of your children," Nicole said she was told.
At the same time, Department of Child Safety caseworkers had their own caveats.
"If you remove him from your home, you can be charged with neglect and abuse," she said she was warned.
Nicole said when they realized he wasn't safe to be in their home anymore, they knew they had to get him help. But they never wanted to not be in his life anymore. They never wanted to not be his family.
"There are zero solutions for families like ours," Nicole said. "It just kept escalating and escalating."
Asking for help landed them in court. The night they called the police to take him in after they found him threatening his little sister, DCS cited them for neglect. Nicole says caseworkers spent hours interviewing the family and their other children, even waking up the little ones in the middle of the night. DCS dropped the neglect case against them because it was against the law to go after them in the first place.
"A parent may not be considered as having abused, neglected or abandoned or charged with abuse, neglect or abandonment of a biological, foster or adoptive child solely for seeking inpatient treatment or an out‑of‑home placement if the child's behavioral health needs pose a risk to the safety and welfare of the family," mandates HB2442, also known as Jacob's Law. It was passed in 2016.
"I don't want to lose him! I just want to get him the help he needs!" Nicole said.
"YOU CAN'T DISCIPLINE IT AWAY."
Experts say complex trauma can't be easily healed. Having the very best intentions doesn't help. Sometimes all the love and prayers and healthy family relationships you surround a child with might not ever be enough. No matter how much you wish it would be.
"You can't love enough. You can't discipline it away," Nicole said.
"I wish we had other options!" Ben said.
Denise Biben with Childhelp says they see this all the time, families who feel stuck without options, desperate for help.
"They do feel stuck and it's hard!" Biben said. "Unfortunately, with kids who've experienced complex trauma, there's about a 25% disruption rate in adoptions."
A nonprofit based here in the Valley, Childhelp runs two residential psychiatric treatment homes out of state. They focus on intense therapy and healing for severe trauma cases. Nicole tried working with DCS to get her son placed in one. It didn't happen.
"This is something [that] if not treated now will go on with them for the rest of their lives," Biben said.
"WE'VE MADE IT VERY, VERY DIFFICULT IN THIS COUNTRY FOR KIDS TO GET THE HELP THAT THEY NEED."
And it could soon get more complicated. Arizona is being forced to comply with a new federal mandate by 2021. The Family First Act pushes prevention to fix the system, capping funding and length of stays at group homes and residential treatment centers.
"It's not easy," Biben said. "We've made it very, very difficult in this country for kids to get the help that they need," Biben said.
Advocates are hopeful there will be exceptions for families with kids who need more intense long-term therapy.
"We can invest in them now, or we can invest in them later," Biben said.
Here in Arizona, DCS says about 60 kids turn 18 and "age out" out the foster care system every month. Some have been through more than 60 different placements. That's more than three a year for a child who came into care at birth. Half of the kids who age out will wind up behind bars within just two years.
"We're literally taking them from the foster care system and placing them now in our prison system!" said Anika Robinson.
STATE LEADERS DON'T ALWAYS HAVE A COMPLETE PICTURE
Robinson teamed up with East Valley foster and adoptive moms to lobby the Legislature to pass Jacob's Law, which requires emergency behavioral health help and access for families and kids in the system.
"I know plenty of parents who've had to give their children back to the state. [They've] had to literally throw their arms up and say, 'If that is the route I have to go to get my kid services, and for our family to be safe, and me not to be covered black and blue in bruises, then I must protect them. I must protect my family,'" Robinson said.
She says one of the biggest problems is parents who do not file complaints and concerns with the DCS ombudsman. When they don't, she says state leaders can't get an accurate gauge of the needs and scope or severity of the problem. That makes it difficult at best to hold the agency accountable.
Robinson says many families don't know the rights she and fellow advocates fought for; they don't know what they can do.
One of the provisions of Jacob's Law, for example, is an option to get private care at a certain point. If a foster or adoptive family has waited more than 21 days to get behavioral health access, they can seek out their own private provider. The provider will then be reimbursed at 130% of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) rate.
"This was a way to impose sanctions basically for the health plan not having enough providers," Robinson said.
A former foster care community liaison at AHCCCS, Robinson has 10 kids in her home right now. And she's had countless others over the years. She is the president of a Valley nonprofit called Advocacy, Support & Assistance Now. It's meant to provide training to families and caseworkers to help them better navigate the system.
"I've met families who have gone bankrupt, who have cleaned out their 401-K trying to get kids services," Robinson said. "They're at their wit's end and simply say, 'I can't do this anymore,' and put their child back into DCS custody."
She hopes that if there's better early access to treatment and intervention, the state can stop these critical emergencies that tear families apart. The goal is that other foster and adoptive parents won't have to go through what Nicole and Ben have endured.
"A child should not be without a family and a family without a child because of severe mental illness," Nicole said.
HOW MANY MORE FAMILIES WILL BE TORN APART?
Republican Rep. Nancy Barto of Phoenix agrees.
"This case just shines a light on the need for another option," she said.
She co-chairs the joint legislative oversight committee for the Department of Child Safety.
"I'm still hearing families are waiting 10 months!" Barto said at the hearing Sept. 26.
She helped pass a new residential treatment facility for adults in last year's budget and says we need more options for kids.
"Supposedly, there's no waitlist, but obviously, there is!" Barto pointed out.
Mike Faust, the new director of DCS, seemed surprised by what many families have expressed to lawmakers and to us.
"If you're hearing those things, please push them to us because the sooner we know, the quicker we can respond," he told the committee.
He says for the first time, his department will be taking over mental health treatments from a third-party provider, treating behavioral health like any other medical appointments. The agency also is getting a new computer system to manage and track all cases.
Barto said all that should give DCS more discretion and she intends to watch the outcome.
Faust wouldn't go on camera with us, but he did release a statement.
"DCS responds to difficult cases every day. Some of the toughest cases involve families who had to make the decision to voluntarily enter their children into DCS care. Every month, Arizona families contact the Department to make this painstaking decision because they feel it is the only way to help a child in crisis and to protect their family.
"When we receive a report that a parent wants to voluntarily enter a child into DCS care, we perform a thorough family assessment to determine if there are any services or options available to keep a child in the home.
"We collaborate with families, service providers, health care professionals and the court in an attempt to reach the best outcomes for children and their families. Sometimes the best outcome for a child is to reunify with their family. Sometimes the best outcome is the difficult decision to sever ties between a child and their family."
"NOT JUST ANOTHER STATISTIC"
"The work here in this space is never done," Faust told the oversight committee.
"They can take away my legal rights. I can sign them away, but I will never stop fighting until this changes! "Nicole said. "Because (my son) deserves it. He's not just another statistic or number. He's a real, living human being that is so amazing and deserves people to fight for him."
Nicole and Ben loved him enough to get him help outside their home, but now they can never see him again.
"The only solution we had as a family was to shatter our hearts in the hopes of healing his," Nicole said. "He has eight siblings that even though they lived in a war zone at times of trauma, they love him! It's their brother!"
Hurt this deep only comes when you love so strong. Nicole and Ben say yes, they'd do it all again. Nicole says they are praying their pain will have a purpose – perhaps the power to find a better way for kids and families to get the help they desperately need.
"I will never be the same. I will literally never be the same without him," she said of her son. "He's a missing link to our family. You don't move on. You don't get over it."
WHAT'S HAPPENING AT DCS?
The latest report from the auditor general found widespread violations at DCS. Faust says his team is adopting all the recommendations, including following through with Jacob's Law to ensure every family gets a placement packet containing vital information about each child's behavioral health history. Many families weren't getting even a basic baseline background for the children placed in their care. Getting such details is an expectation when you take a dog home from the pound. So, why is it not happening for some of the most vulnerable children in our state? Even when it's the law?
"I personally know someone who wasn't given that information, then something horrible occurred in the home; their child became a victim," Robinson said.
DCS does not track how many kids are removed from homes because they weren't getting the mental health help they needed.
"That fight is over for us," Nicole said. "We can't change that. But we can change it so no other child or family has to go through this."
She says she's made peace with the fact her son can't be in their home anymore. But she doesn't understand why they can't still be his family while he gets help elsewhere.
"We had to sign a piece of paper that asked when he turns 18, can he come looking for you? And I just wept uncontrollably saying, 'He can come look for us now; we're not gone! We're here," Nicole said.
As of July 2019, there were more than 13,400 children in the DCS system.