Unique treatment facility shaping children and saving families

Three children have graduated from The Great Lakes Center. They are now doing well at home with their families.

When Benzie County mother Kelli Stapleton was accused in an attempted murder-suicide in September, it sent shock waves across Northern Michigan. The mother of a child with severe autism, Stapleton petitioned lawmakers to make treatment for her daughter more accessible. She reached out to local media outlets and she chronicled her struggles on her blog.

Now Stapleton is accused of trying to kill herself and her daughter, Issy, It's a story that has drawn a lot of attention to the possible desperation of families as they struggle to get the help they need.

At one point, Stapleton found that help at The Great Lakes Center for Autism Treatment and Research in Portage. It's the only residential facility in the state that treats children with autism with violent tendencies. Since it opened in 2012, twelve children have attended and three have graduated.

John Anthony Macaulay was the Great Lakes Center's first client.

"He is so much larger than his siblings that when he got violent, they got hurt," John Anthony's father, Allan said. "It was destroying our home."

John Anthony was admitted to the psychiatric unit at Marquette General Hospital four times. He would get medication adjustments that would work temporarily. But eventually, it would always stop working. That's when John Anthony's doctor heard about the Great Lakes Center.

"I remember dropping him off and feeling so hopeless," John Anthony's mother, Jessica said. "You feel guilty because you brought them here".

Scott, Schrum, the center's CEO, says he sees that initial hopelessness in families every day.

"I think many of them are dealing with PTSD just like a soldier," Schrum said. "We had a meeting with the families a month ago, and learned that every one of the moms had contemplated suicide".

The center uses Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA. According to the National Autism Center, it's the only evidence-based practices proven effective in treating children with Autism. At its core, ABA is about finding out what causes the child to act out, and what the child finds rewarding.

"It's stuff you would never think would be a reward, and you have to get creative and use those things to teach them," Carly Piacentini, Interim Assistant Director of Outpatient Services said. "It's a different approach to teaching."

Many people, however, find ABA to be a last resort. Critics say it focuses on rewards that are natural to the real world.

ABA treatment is very expensive, and it's not covered by private insurance. For local Community Mental Health agencies, it's often a last resort. The Center's Assistant Director of Inpatient Services, Calvin Gage, says the problem is two-fold.

"There's this philosophy that is specific to our state that a family needs to stay together," Gage said. "What [CMH] doesn't understand..for these small percentage of kids with Autism...keeping them in the home isn't preserving the family, it's destroying it."

Gage added that Community Mental Health Agencies are under a lot of financial stress, and it's hard for them to be far-sighted.

"We cost a lot up front, but we save the system much in the long run," Gage said. "It's like, you can take a pill for the rest of your life to get rid of the pain, or you can go to physical therapy for six weeks and it's treated for life."

That's how it was for the Macaulays. After what they call a battle with their local CMH system, the state psychologist got involved, and John Anthony was admitted to The Great Lakes Center.

"It was amazing," Jessica said. "We came back after two weeks and he is doing things I never thought he'd be able to do."

Today, John Anthony is home with his family.

"He is manageable now, and The Great Lakes Center gave us the tools to help manage him," Jessica said. "I hope a lot of other success stories come out of this place, and I'm pretty sure they will."