Seventy-one; that is how many days Martha and Paul Stringer of Bucks County had gone without speaking to their daughter. Kim Stringer, 28, was diagnosed with Bipolar NOS, Borderline Personality Disorder with antisocial traits in high school. Once she turned 18 she stopped taking her prescribed medication and began to refuse treatment. As a parent of a child with a social, emotional, behavioral, or mental health challenge you know that you would do anything to get your child the treatment that they need and deserve, and that is exactly what Martha and Paul have been doing. The power of a parent's love for their child(ren) is unmatched and the Stringer's are a testament that when a system fails a child; a loving family often has to be there to pick up the slack. They have never and will never stop advocating for Kim, and they refuse to accept the way that a failed system has treated their daughter. Kim's story is far from over and the Stringer's are still on an uphill battle to protect their own daughter and all of the son's and daughters after her, however, we wanted to highlight how these parents have brought eyes, ears, and hearts to the issue of mental health and the Pennsylvania justice system.
We at PA Parent and Family Alliance first learned of the Stringer's story in an article entitled "She’s breaking down’: Inmates at Bucks County jail decry treatment of suicidal woman with severe mental illness" written by Brett Sholtis of WITF. This harrowing article details the story of how Kim ended up in the Bucks County Correctional Facility. April 13th was the last day that Martha has seen her daughter face to face and as we have noted in numerous blog articles and tip sheets in the past, you know your child better than anybody else does. Martha and Paul could see that their daughter was"deteriorating" and knew that something would happen, and the next day on April 14th Kim's neighbors called the police on her. Instead of being taken to a hospital, she was incarcerated and bail was set. The Stringers could have paid the bail but they knew their daughter needed to go to the hospital, a step that they assumed would come immediately after the arrest. This sadly did not happen.
While this is a story of how a flawed system has failed Kim Stringer, it is also a story of courageous individuals stepping up to do what's right. Sholtis wrote the first part of Kim's story almost a year ago in July 2019. Once a fellow inmate's mother found the article online three inmates risked their own safety to express their concerns about how Kim was being treated at Bucks County Correctional Facility. Although they could potentially face backlash for speaking out they all felt that it was necessary to speak up. Sholtis with those courageous inmates and gathered the following details about how her treatment;
"They say Kimberly has been confined to a bare cell, “completely naked,” in full view of male and female guards, with only a soiled blanket and a smock given to patients who are on suicide watch, which she rarely wears.
“She’s breaking down,” said inmate Courtney Lowe. The 30-year-old, who lives with opioid addiction and is in jail for drug possession and related charges, said she fears repercussions for speaking out, but believes that Kim can’t go on like this much longer."'
A change.org petition started by Martha already has over 5,000 signatures. Click the quote below to sign and be a part of the change: "People suffering with mental illness should not be incarcerated yet jails have become the place where the mentally ill end up and fall through the cracks. Often they are mistreated and/or not treated at all for their condition. Families are often excluded from participating in or knowing about their care. The trend is to close mental health facilities and send people to jail. We need to reverse that trend."
These details are heartbreaking, to say the least. If you are a parent you can imagine the emotions that Martha and Paul experienced upon hearing about their daughter's treatment. Martha mentioned, "her treatment while incarcerated makes me physically ill." As if not having any communication with their daughter was not enraging enough, upon hearing of this blatant mistreatment of their child they were outraged and deeply saddened. Sholtis goes on to explain that the Stringers were very angry that despite their two months of email interactions with the correctional facility they were unaware of their daughter's heinous treatment.
Everyone that Martha has reached out to blamed Covid-19 for the reason why her daughter was not able to move from Bucks County Correctional Facility to Norristown State Hospital. According to Bucks County Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia's emails back and forth with the Stringers, Norristown was not accepting any new patients because of the virus. When we sat down with Martha she explained that later she found out that the local hospital had never stopped admitting people so there was no reason that her daughter could not have been transferred.
Kim is not the only individual who has suffered due to a lack of knowledge and resources attributed to those with mental health challenges in the justice system. Advocating for your child can seem like you are fighting an uphill battle, but it is made that much more difficult when your child is over the age of 18. We know that once your child turns 18 you don't stop parenting. The truth is you never stop parenting. While you may not look at your child differently when they turn 18, the state does and it becomes significantly harder to advocate for them. Martha's advice for how parents can protect their adult children is:
"Even if hospitals, doctors, etc. can’t tell you anything about your adult child (like release information about admittance, condition, etc. without a formal release) you, as a parent, can still communicate with them. Let them know what’s going on, the history, or important information that you would want them to have. Also document everything! Have a phone call? Take notes while you’re talking and as soon as you get off the phone, send a follow-up email about your conversation. Send emails so you have a paper trail. Save it all. Keep records. They’re important not only for their content but also for the time they were sent. You think you’ll remember but it all runs together and you forget details."
Thankfully, Kim has been moved to a hospital. She is currently non-verbal but she is eating and wearing clothes. Martha and Paul were able to speak to her via a conference call, one that ended with Kim, with help from her doctor, telling her parents that she loves them. The Stringers have been granted emergency guardianship. The doctors have told Martha and Paul that Kim is not ready to address any of the trauma that she experienced in jail yet. Kim's story is far from over and the Stringers hope that it sheds a bright light on the issue of the incarceration of people with mental health challenges. They are trying to show how impactful family input can be on situations like Kim's and they don't want any family to be left in the dark as they have been. It seems like, for now at least, the only thing strong enough to cut through red tape is the love a parent has for their child.
Do you want to help? If you have not already signed Martha's petition click here to sign it.