Nature vs. Nurture
Summerville, Georgia (Senate District 52)
Eight-year-old Aubrey Walker has autism, which was diagnosed at four years of age, along with anxiety and disruptive mood disregulation disorder (DMDD), diagnosed at six. More than anything, Aubrey’s emotional outbursts have made their lives extremely challenging. She’s on so many medications that it’s a wonder she can still walk and talk, yet she’s often awake in the middle of the night, getting into mischief.
Michele Walker and her husband, David, are not Aubrey’s birth parents. Michele is her grandmother; David, her step-grandfather. These days, Aubrey and her birth mother see each other a couple times a month. Her mother lives in Chickamauga, about 40 minutes away and has another daughter, three years old, who is beginning to show symptoms like Aubrey. Aubrey knows she’s adopted, though sometimes it’s confusing to her. Because Michele and David used private adoption, meaning Aubrey never went through the Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFACS), they were under the impression that they were not eligible for services or supports such as Medicaid. This fact has been very burdensome to her parents as they struggle now to pay for all her care. “Sometimes it feels like we shot ourselves in the foot by doing the private adoption,” says David. “If she’d had Medicaid, they would have paid for all her therapies and all that, where private insurance won’t pay crap.” Aubrey was hospitalized three times last year due to aggressive outbursts and self-harming.
“This is an area very devoid of any support or services,” Michele bemoans. They have to drive to Rome (30 minutes), Dalton, and Chattanooga (both upwards of 1 hour) to meet with psychiatrists and psychologists. Of great frustration, after driving all that way, sometimes they will meet with a practitioner who says s/he can do nothing for Aubrey. With the hospitalizations last year, Aubrey wound up two hours away in Atlanta at Laurel Heights Hospital, a psychiatric autism treatment facility. It was very difficult because the staff wanted her parents there several times per week as part of her treatment, but they work full time. (Story continues below after slideshow.)
David and Michele are both nurses. Because of that, they always believed in nurture over nature. One of the reasons they wanted to take Aubrey in is that they felt her mother’s emotional problems had to do with trauma and instability from the first five years because of Michele’s first marriage, before David came into the picture. Now that they’ve provided Aubrey with a stable, loving home all these years and witnessed her violent outbursts, they’re starting to see that sometimes biology does have a say in the matter. Does Aubrey remember why she went to the hospital? “I’ve been kicking walls.” She shows the holes in the walls of her room she’s either kicked or punched her way through. Does Aubrey remember why she was so mad? “No, I just get mad sometimes.”
If given the chance to speak to a legislator, Michele and David would talk about the need to support families who choose private adoption. Grandparent adoption is often conducted privately because of the nature of the relationship. They also talk about the ridiculousness of the fact that health insurance will not pay for psychiatric care or treatment. “This is a child we’re talking about,” says David, “I mean for goodness sakes.” Another support they desperately need is respite care. They have a reliable babysitter they utterly depend on, but because she knows she’s the only one who can really work with Aubrey, she charges them double that of other sitters in the area. “She’s got us over a barrel, and she knows it,” says David. They tried having Aubrey at the Boys & Girls Club, but after two weeks, she was expelled, permanently. There was a time when Michele could only work part-time because she was fielding calls from the school so often.
Aubrey is a child in a house full of love, but in danger of being forgotten by a system that could support her family better. How different would their lives be without having to worry about mounting medical debt if she needs to go to the hospital again? If there were supports more readily available, more affordable, and closer to home? For the little girl on the swing set who is always five minutes away from an explosion, one hopes that the holes in her bedroom wall don’t represent the holes in the system through which she’s about to fall.
Writer: Shannon Turner, Photographer: Haylee Fucini-Lenkey