Kerrigans faced dilemma with adult son

Families often deal with mental, substance-abuse issues alone

By Peter Schworm and Milton Valencia
Globe Staff / January 27, 2010

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STONEHAM - To Daniel Kerrigan’s death Sunday, there is a back story lived out by thousands of families who quietly struggle with agonizing decisions about how to treat and how to cope with adult children afflicted with deep behavioral problems, mental health professionals say.

Many face daily questions, often without help, that force them to choose between the parental impulse to punish wrong deeds and their deepest obligations to care for and protect their children, no matter their age.

“We hear it all the time,’’ said Julie Totten, president of Families for Depression Awareness. “It’s a painful dilemma, and a lot of times families are at a loss as to what to do.’’

In the Kerrigan case, Mark Kerrigan, 45, brother of Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan, had been in trouble with the law for drugs, excessive drinking, and violence over at least two decades, court records show.

Time and again, the Kerrigan family had come to his aid, paying some legal costs, caring for his pets, even mowing his lawn. They also later sued to force him to pay for some of those expen ses. When he recently came out of prison, they allowed him to stay at their home.

“Clearly, this is a family that in spite of all his troubles loved him and wanted to do what is best for him,’’ said Marylou Sudders, president of Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Sudders, echoing other specialists, pointed to Kerrigan’s history of substance abuse as a probable contributor to his violent behavior. Research has shown that people with mental illness are not more prone to violence “unless addiction is a factor,’’ she said.

Police say Kerrigan was drunk and combative when they encountered him in the basement of his parents’ home after his 70-year-old father was found bleeding and unconscious on the kitchen floor.

In a domestic incident in 2005, Mark Kerrigan’s wife at the time said her husband had threatened to kill himself, either by himself or by having police shoot him, after a drinking binge. She said that while he did not drink often, he was “uncontrollable and unpredictable’’ when he did, according to a police report of the incident.

In a 2006 incident, Kerrigan punched her in the eye and threw her to the ground after drinking a half-pint of vodka first thing in the morning. When his wife asked him why he drank so much so quickly, he said it was how he “dealt with his problems,’’ the report said.

Until this week, Kerrigan’s troubles escaped wide notice and largely remained a family matter. But on Sunday morning, authorities say, Kerrigan assaulted his father in an argument over using the phone. Daniel Kerrigan died a short time after the attack, and Mark Kerrigan could be charged in connection with the death.

On Monday, the younger Kerrigan, who has bounced in and out of prison over the past five years and has attempted suicide on multiple occasions, was sent to a state psychiatric facility for evaluation. In court, his lawyer said Kerrigan was on medication for post-traumatic stress syndrome and was seeing a psychiatrist.

Richard Gelles, dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “The Violent Home,’’ said violence against parents is typically confined to teenagers and young adults. The accusations against Kerrigan suggest deep-seated mental illness, Gelles said. “It’s a sign of a much more troubled individual and a much more treatment-resistant individual,’’ he said.

Totten said many families run up against a system ill-equipped to handle severe mental illness.

“There’s no medical system to back them up,’’ she said. “All the rights are with the patients. But we have to change our attitude. When someone is ill, we need to understand they might not be able to take care of themselves.’’

In Wilmington, where Kerrigan lived with his wife Janet before his most recent prison stint, neighbors said he was frequently disruptive and that police paid regular visits.

In one incident in 2005, police arrived to see a computer smashed in the street. Officers spotted Kerrigan walking down a nearby road with his dog, a large Rottweiler. When an officer approached, police said, Kerrigan walked quickly toward him, screaming and cursing at him. He then told the dog to “sic-em.’’

About a year later, in March 2006, Janet Kerrigan came to the Wilmington police station telling police Kerrigan had punched her in the eye and thrown her to the ground. She said he had quickly downed a half-pint of vodka before attacking her. Police arrested Kerrigan, who broke a fire sprinkler head in his jail cell. The couple divorced in fall 2007.

In Stoneham, neighbors said they saw few signs of trouble.

“Everything was nice and peaceful over here,’’ said Pauline Theriault, whose daughter went to high school with Kerrigan.