NewsNewsChannel 5 InvestigatesBroken


Broken: Parents crying out for help, threatened with jail themselves

Posted: 4:26 PM, Jan 31, 2020
Updated: 2020-02-17 09:39:51-05
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — When tragedy involving juvenile crime strikes, there are usually tears for the victims.

Yet, for countless families, the tears sometimes come before the tragedy - as parents repeatedly turn to police to help them control seemingly uncontrollable children.

In some cases, instead of getting help, those parents are faced with threats that they could face criminal prosecution.

Mothers like Melissa O'Neal fear the worst for their sons.

"My biggest fear," O'Neal said, as tears welled up in her eyes, "is that he's going to be killed. That is my biggest fear, that I'm going to have to bury my child."

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Sons whose mothers say they were neglected by DCS

For years, O'Neal has struggled with her 16-year-old son's behavioral issues.

"If I can't force him to go to school, then they want to arrest me," she said.

"That's why I'm saying I need help because they don't want to punish him, but I can't whoop him. If I whoop him, I'm going to go to jail."

O'Neal said her son has been involved in 23 separate encounters with police.

"He's getting assault charges, assault on police officers, trying to burn the house down, fighting at school."

At one point, he got so out of control, assaulting his sister and an officer, that police had to Taze him.

They took him to juvenile detention, where officials turned around and called his mom.

"An hour later, 'You need to come get him, he's ready to go.'"

Her response?

"I said no."

That's when, O'Neal said, juvenile authorities threatened, "Well, then we are going to get you for abandonment."

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Melissa O'Neal

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "In other words, they would have you arrested?"


The frustrated mother said she had no choice.

Back home, her son lost control again after he refused to go to school and she took away his phone.

Again, he was arrested for domestic assault.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked O'Neal, "He assaulted you?"

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Crying, she nodded her head.

"And spit on me."

He was taken to juvenile detention, and she was called to come pick him up.

We noted, "So he assaults you, and you are told to... "

"Come get him."

"Or you will face charges?"

"I'm going to jail for abandonment, yeah."

Another mother, who we'll call "Mary," did not want her identity to be made public, but she tells a similar story about her own troubled 14-year-old son.

"I know I've been crying out for help for years," Mary said.

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Phil Williams interviews a mother who turned to DCS for help

Her son has been arrested so many times that she's lost count.

"He was with a babysitter," the mother recalled. "And she told him to pick toys up, and he kicked her downstairs and then proceeded to choke her."

At one point, he lost control at school and was captured on video slinging a teacher.

At age 11, he charged his mother with a butcher knife.

Again, he was arrested.

"Within I would say three or four hours juvenile court called saying to come pick him up," Mary remembered.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "So he had just threatened you with a knife, and you were being told that you have to come pick him up - and if you don't?"

"'You are going to be charged with abandonment and he will go into DCS custody, foster care.'"

We continued, "So you were being threatened with arrest yourself?"


It's the same threat that the mother of 16-year-old Decorrius Wright said she received just days before he was accused of shooting Nashville musician Kyle Yorlets.

Davidson County Juvenile Judge Sheila Calloway said juveniles can be kept locked up only in limited circumstances set out by state law.

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Juvenile Judge Sheila Calloway

A classic example: runaways cannot be locked up - no matter how many times they run.

"If a child keeps running away from home, they get out, they come here," Calloway said, referring to juvenile detention.

"The police pick them up, bring them here, and we have to immediately call the parent to come back and get them. It's like a cycle that, you know, the police can go immediately back to where they picked them up the first time and probably just wait for them to come back because they are probably going to run again.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Doing the same thing over and over and over again, expecting a different result?"

"Absolutely," the judge answered.

We observed, "That's the definition of insanity."

"Absolutely," Calloway agreed.

For two years, Calloway has been asking for a new $130 million juvenile facility with an assessment center where such youth could be kept for evaluation for needed services - including potential help from the state - before they are sent back home.

"It's something that could be a game changer for our community and a game changer for these families that are in crisis," the judge added.

Juvenile Court Clerk Lonnell Matthews says his office hears from plenty of parents who want help, but have nowhere to turn.

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Juvenile Court Clerk Lonnell Matthews

"I do think there is a lack of resources for parents to turn to when they are seeking help or advice or just guidance on parentlng," Matthews said.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "There are lots of groups out there trying to help in this situation, but there's no coordination."

"There's very little coordination," Matthews agreed.

"We do have to do better at creating for parents to admit when they have shortcomings or challenges that they face in a way that they are not afraid to ask for help because some parents won't ask for help simply because they don't want other people judging them."

As for Mary, she observed, "Sometimes you feel like giving up, but then who else is going to be there, who else is going to try to help your kid?"

In both cases, their sons have been diagnosed with mental health issues that sometimes limit the court's options even more.

"I'm tired of it," O'Neal said. "I don't want to go through it. And I don't want another parent to have to go through it."

When Mary's son slung the teacher, he was taken to juvenile detention and immediately released.

"I never got a court date. We never heard anything else about it," the mother insisted.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "So he was arrested and you were not required to come back to court?"


Both moms fear where their sons will one day end up in prison - or dead.

"And I have reached out for help to everybody," O'Neal said.

We asked, "Why do you fear he's going to be killed?"

"Because he doesn't understand that there's consequences for his actions," she said. "He thinks he can do what he wants to do, he can say what he wants to say, because he has not been punished."

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