People around Oak Park and River Forest were stunned in August, 2014 at the news of Sheila Mack’s death while vacationing in Bali. Many of those people knew of problems between Sheila and her volatile daughter, Heather. But few thought it would end so tragically.

Unfortunately, the case is far from being a one-off; tens of thousands of families in Illinois experience adolescents and young adults physically abusing, threatening and exploiting their parents.

In their 2017 paper, “Adolescent-to-Parent Violence: Translating Research into Effective Practice,” Karey L. O’Hara, Jennifer E. Duchschere, Connie J.A. Beck and Erika Lawrence write that “documented prevalence rates range between 5 and 22% of the population; however, researchers speculate that this is a gross underestimate.”

Society fully intervened in Sheila and Heather’s case only after the fact. By the time it is all finally resolved, many hundreds of thousands of dollars will have been spent. Meanwhile, an innocent woman is dead, two young lives are destroyed, and family and friends suffered a painful loss.

We must learn to intervene more immediately and effectively. To do that, we have to be willing to discuss the issue more fully. As I and my co-author, Rasul Freelain, have conducted research for a book on the Sheila Mack case, we’ve repeatedly run into people who knew Sheila or Heather and either declined to talk about it or talk on the record. While that’s understandable, it’s also reflective of a deeper problem.

Judge Matthew Kennelly addresses Heather Mack during a recent court appearance.

As a society, we are loathe to delve into its more painful and uglier aspects. And Sheila Mack’s case is both painful and ugly. But it needs to be known and understood so we can learn how to avoid it in the future.

The phenomenon of children battering their parents was first noted in clinical literature in May 1979. Massachusetts doctors H.T. Harbin and D.J. Madden presented a paper at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Chicago. “Battered Parents – a new syndrome,” published 35 years before Sheila Mack’s death, is in line with what is known today about the phenomenon. A key conclusion by Harbin and Madden was that “this subtype of family violence is distinct from child and spouse abuse,” and requires specific, focused treatment.

Numerous studies have been published in the intervening 44 years, and the phenomenon has come to be known in clinical circles as “Child on Parent Violence and Abuse” (CPVA). But the general public remains largely unaware of the issue.

Families in such daunting circumstances usually retreat into denial, Harbin and Madden noted, “to maintain an illusion, a myth of family harmony.” The alternative is to acknowledge the painful truth: that the family structure is crumbling and that the parent or parents cannot control their own children.

The sad fact is that numerous people knew that Heather was a growing threat, and they feared for Sheila. One neighbor I spoke with who saw Sheila in late 2012 or early 2013 described her as “a wreck.”

Police knew, at least two local mental health organizations knew, some school officials knew, juvenile court officials knew, and friends and neighbors knew. But those trying to help were limited by a system that does not effectively address the specific realities of minors battering parents.

CPVA is not something most people can deal with on their own. It is a toxic dynamic that needs purposeful, focused intervention by professionals, and that requires cooperation among lawmakers, clinicians, academics, mental health professionals, medical personnel, educators, law enforcement and the courts.

Change occurs when clinical awareness develops into more formal understanding, and the issue is brought to the general public through the media. Although researchers had been aware of child abuse since the late 1800s, it did not fully capture the attention of a large number of professionals until 1962, when Dr. C. Henry Kempe’s paper, “The Battered Child Syndrome,” described its symptoms and argued that child abuse was medically diagnosable.   

Elizabeth Elmer, a social worker and pioneer in the study of child abuse, noted in 1963 that “the amount of systematic research on the problem of abuse and neglect is conspicuously scant.”

After publication of “The Battered Child Syndrome,” Prof. John E.B. Myers wrote, “a trickle of writing became a torrent that continues to this day, with myriad news stories and journal articles published.”

Like child abuse, spousal abuse, drunk driving and homophobia, when awareness reaches critical mass, societal transformation can occur and substantive improvements can be made

It is past time for society to address this dark reality, which is damaging so many families who cannot respond effectively on their own. Dr. Kempe put it in direct, if decidedly un-scientific language: “The battered child syndrome isn’t a reportable disease, but it damn well ought to be.”

The same must be said of battered parents and Child on Parent Violence and Abuse.

Bill Dwyer, a freelance journalist who is writing a book, with Rasul Freelain, on the murder of Sheila Mack, is an Oak Park resident.

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