I’ve been following the unfolding of events around the death of 4-year-old Rebecca Riley, above, at the hands of her parents, Michael and Carolyn Riley, who were indicted this morning for first degree murder. The parents are accused of intentionally overdosing Rebecca with medications, both prescription and over-the-counter. Included in the list of medications which Rebecca was given daily was clonidine, prescribed when Rebecca was — unbelievably — diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at 28 months of age. That is not a typo. She was 2 years old when she was diagnosed. The diagnosis was based on her mother’s reports to the psychiatrist about the child’s behavior and on the psychiatrist having observed the child “briefly”, on one occasion. The same psychiatrist, Kayoko Kifuji, also prescribed the antipsychotic drug Seroquel and an anti-seizure medication, Depakote, for Rebecca. Rebecca’s 6-year-old sister and 11-year-old brother had been similarly diagnosed and were being treated with the same medications. Rebecca’s mom, Carolyn Riley, was taking prescription medications to treat depression and anxiety. Rebecca’s father, Michael Riley, said he suffered from bipolar disorder and a “rage disorder,” but he was not taking medications.
Michael Riley was a violent and abusive man. His first run-in with the law occurred in 1998 when he was found guilty of assault and battery. Several years later, in 2005, he was charged with rape, indecent assault and battery, and with giving pornography to a minor. His victim? Caroline’s — his wife’s, Rebecca’s mom’s — 13-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, whom she had given up for adoption in an open adoption process when the girl was two years old. In 2006, Michael Riley had slammed Rebecca’s older brother’s head into the back of a truck. At that point, Caroline took out a restraining order against her husband, but a few weeks later, she allowed it to lapse. After the rape charge, Michael was not supposed to be living with Caroline and the children, but he was there frequently, and two weeks prior to Rebecca’s death, he had moved back in.
By every account I read, Michael Riley is an abuser, a man who terrorized his wife and his children, demanding that the children be medicated whenever they “acted up.” One investigator who questioned Riley after Rebecca’s death described the older two children quietly playing a game of buying and selling toys with play money, and Michael repeatedly screaming at them, becoming agitated and demanding that they be medicated. Another investigator noted that Michael Riley began hitting the wall at one point during questioning and had to be asked to stop.
At the time of Rebecca’s death, the family was living on welfare and Social Security disability payments to which the children were entitled because their psychiatric diagnoses constituted “disabilities.” The family shared a home with the wife’s brother and his girlfriend, who, based on what they are quoted as having said, knew the children were in trouble, and occasionally comforted and cared for them, but never sought outside help. A couple of days before Rebecca died, when the wife’s brother could see how sick Rebecca was, he picked a fight with Rebecca’s dad in an attempt to force him to get help for her, but that’s as far as his intervention went.
Rebecca Riley died a slow and painful death. According to an affidavit filed in the case against her parents, the drug overdoses meant her heart and major organs would slowly shut down, her lungs would fill with fluid, and she would suffocate. Before she died, teachers and staff at her preschool were concerned because she seemed weak, tired, lethargic, appeared to be “out of it.” When they called her parents, her mother said she was ill or had just had trouble sleeping. The wife’s brother and girlfriend said the children slept most of the time when they were home, waking to eat, and then going back to sleep. When they “acted up,” the father demanded that they be drugged.
The day before Rebecca died, her dad insisted she accompany him to the Social Security office for an appointment. She was coughing and having trouble breathing. At the Social Security office, she vomited, then vomited again on the way home in the car, and her father raged at her and her mother over how embarrassing and messy her vomiting was. The night before she died, Rebecca was desperately ill. At one point, she went to her mother’s bedroom door, softly saying, “Mommy.” But “Daddy” responded, cursed at her, and told her to go back to bed.
In the wee hours of the morning, Rebecca’s uncle heard her vomiting. He brought her to her mom, who took her into bed with her at last, but Rebecca continued to cough. Caroline Riley then laid her on a blanket on the floor. Rebecca quieted down then. In the morning she was dead.
The prosecution’s theory of the case is that the parents intentionally killed Rebecca via a drug overdose because for some reason, she was not entitled to disability payments as her older siblings were. The defense and the grandmothers and family members say this is absurd, that the Rileys loved their children. But the grandmothers do not seem very credible; both also describe Michael Riley as a good father. Both also say the rape charges against him are “untrue” and Caroline Riley’s mother was glad when he moved back into the home because she thought the kids needed him.
The psychiatrist who prescribed the medications is on paid administrative leave pending an investigation, but her peers have vouched for her and have defended the prescribing of these medications as meeting the standard of care, saying that although it is rare, occasionally toddlers are diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But another therapist who worked with Rebecca, and who reported the family to social services, was concerned because in her mind, Rebecca did not display any evidence of bipolar disorder or ADHD.
Following are my hunches about what actually happened to Rebecca, based on what I’ve read and my experience with battered women, poor women, struggling mothers.
Some of the articles I read about this case have attempted to depict Caroline Riley as neglectful. Over and over, Rebecca is described as wearing “only” a diaper and stud earrings when she died. This doesn’t seem neglectful to me; the stories also say she had been feverish and hot off and on in the hours and days before her death. If she was vomiting, she was probably dehydrated, and hence her temperature rose. When a child is feverish, you remove her clothes and attempt to make her comfortable. A social worker who had investigated the family at one point reported seeing a puddle of urine on the floor which Rebecca’s mother attributed to Rebecca having fallen asleep on the floor and having urinated in her sleep. Some writers make a big deal about this and about the fact that the mother just asked the social worker to watch out for the puddle, but this doesn’t seem neglectful or even significant to me. Little girls fall asleep on the floor, and at 4, or older, they sometimes urinate while they’re asleep. School teachers and staff say Rebecca went to school inappropriately dressed sometimes, wearing shoes that were too big and clothes that weren’t warm enough, and that sometimes she didn’t bring a snack along. I don’t think that means Rebecca was necessarily neglected; I think that means she was poor. Lots of poor kids dress inappropriately and wear shoes that are too big, because that’s all they have, that’s all their parents can afford. Poor kids don’t always have “snacks” to bring along, either.
I see that Rebecca’s mom got her to a special preschool every day. I see that she sought the care of psychologists for what she believed were her children’s “behavior problems”. Over and over the articles I read describe Rebecca’s mom going to Walmart for cold and flu medication, for special children’s fluids which contain electrolytes and which are given to children with fevers, buying Rebecca a Christmas dress, making sure her prescriptions were filled, providing exacting instructions to the grandmothers for how to give the medications when they had Rebecca. I see that her daughter was wearing earrings with “colorful stones” in them, of the type a little girl would like.
I think that Caroline Riley, like so many women, was victimized by the men in her life, first the man who fathered her first daughter, who, as it turns out, was a sexual offender and is in prison, then Michael Riley, a violent abuser who is said to have raped Riley’s daughter and will stand trial for it in May. I’ve wondered what the story was there. According to the articles I’ve read, Caroline Riley became pregnant by a man she lived with fresh out of high school, but split with him, and Michael Riley moved in with her shortly after the split. The child’s paternal grandmother then sought custody, and Caroline Riley, in response, gave the child up for adoption. I wonder whether she was pressured by Michael Riley to give the child up.
I know how battered women think. I believe that once Michael was back in the house, things went from bad to worse. Caroline gave the kids more and more medication to keep them quiet, to placate Michael, to keep him from going off, keep him from, for example, slamming his son’s head into things, choking his son, as he had also been said to do, to keep him from grabbing his kids, cuffing them around, as others said he did. Rebecca had bruises on her legs when she died, and fingerprint bruises on her arms. I’m betting Caroline told herself if she could just keep the kids quiet, everything would be okay. I think when Rebecca coughed and became ill, her mother did believe she had a cold and attempted to treat the cold. I’m betting she feared going to a shelter because she knew Michael wasn’t supposed to be back in the house in the first place and she feared she’d lose her kids. She had a high school education, was unemployed, and had three children to care for whom she believed to be disabled. I think she was in that horrible place battered women know so well, in which they feel completely trapped, completely alone, and in which they believe they cannot survive without their abuser, usually because that’s what he has said to them again and again, often because when they’ve tried to survive without their abusers, their abusers have made their lives a living hell. Battered women and their children learn to make their peace with their situations, however horrible, believing the evil they know is better than the one they don’t. They avoid confrontations and conflicts because their abusers are dangerous and confrontation is too risky. They survive, moment to moment. They try not to make him mad. And often, as with Caroline Riley, they make horrible, horrible decisions which result in harm or death to their children or to themselves. I don’t think Rebecca’s mother knew she was being given too much medicine. She was depressed and anxious; neighbors say she spent a lot of time in bed with migraine headaches.
It will be easy for the public to find Caroline Riley guilty for the death of her daughter. She will be blamed for marrying a violent man, for having kids with him, for having once taken up with someone who turned out to be a sex offender, for having a child with that guy, for not leaving Michael Riley, for letting Riley move back in, for forgiving him one too many times. People figure if anybody should know what’s what, Caroline’s mother should, when in fact, as battered women will and do, Caroline obviously protected her husband (and herself and her kids) and didn’t tell the truth about him, even to her mom. People will read the facts as I’ve outlined them and will conclude differently than I have, will see the oversize shoes and “inappropriate” clothes as part and parcel of the abuse which caused Rebecca’s death. It will be easier for people to blame Caroline for marrying Michael than it will be to blame Michael for his violence and battering. It will be easier to agree with the grandmothers that the rape charges “weren’t true,” than to believe that they were.
I think there are others who should be held accountable for Rebecca Riley’s death, as well, though: the doctor who prescribed these many dangerous drugs and the doctor’s colleagues, who have defended her and who say she did nothing wrong. A “health care” system and welfare system which in recent years has stopped paying for mental health evaluations or non-pharmacologic treatments for disturbed children, so that now parents too often opt for the pharmacologic “quick fix” that doctors are willing to supply. I blame patriarchal medicine and pharmacology for their willingness to diagnose toddlers, for god’s sake, with “ADHD” and “bipolar disorder” in the first place, in but the rarest of occasions, then to pronounce toddlers “disabled” on that basis! It seems clear to me that this psychiatrist, together with her profession and with its blessing, and with the blessing of the government, as well, participated in and enabled what amounts to a violent batterer drugging his kids to keep them out of his hair. It is telling to me that out of all five family members, this man — with his record of violence, assault, charges of rape and pedophilia — is the only person who wasn’t drugged.