Denied accompanied tour, family claims discrimination
October 15, 2013
WASHINGTON — On Aug. 30, Marine Master Sgt. Aarond Roloson boarded a plane at Ronald Reagan National Airport for the first leg of a trip to his next assignment on Okinawa. But instead of leaving the Washington area with his wife and children on what they’d thought would be an overseas adventure — an accompanied three-year tour to Okinawa — the 38-year-old Roloson flew alone.
His wife, Christina, and their five children drove back to a motel in Fredericksburg, Va.
Now the family is fighting to reunite after a Navy medical screening board on Okinawa decided Roloson’s two oldest children, Daniel, 16, and Brenna, 13, are “not suitable for service” on Okinawa because of a recent diagnoses including mild autism and anxiety. Because of the Navy finding, the Marine Corps changed Roloson’s orders to an unaccompanied tour.
The decision is potentially life-altering for the family, which will be separated as it deals with the implications of Daniel’s and Brenna’s diagnoses, along with the military’s reaction to them — one the parents say amounts to discrimination.
Minutes before kissing his wife and children goodbye, Roloson spoke with quiet anger to Stars and Stripes about the recommendation that that separates the 16-year military veteran from his family for the next year.
“I accept that there are going to be separations from my family for deployments and training — it’s a part of the job,” he said. “But now we’ll be apart for no reason.”
Navy officials declined to comment specifically on the case, but said such findings often occur when a dependant’s medical needs can’t be met at a duty station because of limited availability of specialty care.
But documents and emails the Rolosons provided to Stars and Stripes raise questions about whether their children truly have needs that the Navy’s medical community on Okinawa — which includes a hospital department focused on special-needs children — would be unable to cope with.
Among the findings:
Military and civilian medical and mental health personnel who recently examined the children said they had no special requirements for treatment or medication. Marine Corps officials found that both children were not eligible for enrollment in the Marine’s Exceptional Family Member Program, which ensures family members with special medical needs receive necessary care. The head of the Okinawa overseas screening board cited a potential for severe problem behavior, but noted no instances where such behavior had occurred. Meanwhile, a number of people who have known the children in the military communities where they have lived for most of their lives deny any behavioral issues. Both children were adopted from foster care more than a decade ago, and Navy medical screening document sent to the Rolosons lists foster status as a mental health condition.Denied
In January, Roloson received orders to report for duty to Okinawa by the end of August., and the overseas screening process that began at Marine Corps Base Quantico seemed to go smoothly. But as the family began preparing to move, an email in late May from a Navy official on Okinawa stopped them in their tracks.
After reviewing medical records sent from Quantico, mental health professionals on the island had determined they could not support Daniel or Brenna’s care because of their combined diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and anxiety. “Even if both dependents are not currently receiving counseling or medication, their medical history and provided medical notes suggest that they have been referred to mental health in the past, and are high risk for needing continued involvement,” wrote retired
Navy Capt. James A. Marron, an ophthalmologist at U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa who directs the overseas screening service, in a May 30 email. “We regret this decision, but feel it is in the best interest of Daniel and Brenna as mental health services for children on Okinawa are not readily available should they need them.”
The mention of past mental health referrals appeared to refer to a psychological evaluation done in November 2012.
That fall, during a wide-ranging conversation with a pediatrician who, like her, was homeschooling her children, Christina Roloson had described flare-ups of pre-teen behavior in then-12-year old Brenna, including defiance and tantrums.
Knowing that both Brenna and Daniel are adopted — the Rolosons brought the biological siblings home in 2001 — and had never been examined by a mental health professional, the pediatrician said a psychologist’s report could be useful.
Christina Roloson said she later learned the doctor had recommended the exam in part because she mistook the children for Eastern European adoptees — a group singled out in the media for a reportedly high rate of developmental problems. Roloson said the mix-up happened because her youngest daughter, also adopted, has the Russian-sounding name Anya. In fact, the Rolosons adopted the children in Southern California.
The results came as a shock, the Rolosons said. Both children were diagnosed with ADHD, while Daniel was on the mild end of the autism spectrum and Brenna was diagnosed with anxiety disorder.
However, the doctor told the parents that beyond support from the family, no special treatment or therapy was required.
“I had this done because I thought I would get insight and information that would help me be a better parent and teacher,” Christina Roloson said. She didn’t know at the time the reports would wind up in the hands of the medical screening board on Okinawa, and the result would be to separate the family.
The Okinawa medical board’s recommendation itself didn’t prevent the family from coming to the island, but a spokesman for the Marine Corps — which lacks a medical branch of its own — said such recommendations are a key part of making assignments.
“Ultimately, [Manpower & Reserve affairs, Headquarters Marine Corps] makes the final decision on issuing/rescinding orders for Marines in these instances, based on the recommendations from Navy Medicine and the commanding officer,” Jeanscott Dodd, deputy public affairs officer for Marine Corps Base Quantico, wrote in an email.
The following month, the Rolosons arranged a flurry of meetings as they followed a suggestion from Marron that they provide updated assessments from a “military child psychiatrist/psychologist/social worker” so the screening board could take another look at the case.
But Marron rejected the reports of a licensed clinical social worker and a licensed professional counselor who evaluated the children in a military medical facility at Fort Belvoir, near Washington.
The social worker found Brenna had no treatment requirements and no history of behavioral problems. The counselor said Daniel “is capable of managing himself in various situations. Any further help he might need, the family has been available to him for support.”
It wasn’t good enough, Marron said.
“Unfortunately, the minimal note provided by Ms. Davis” — a licensed clinical social worker who had evaluated Brenna and seen no symptoms of mental health disorder – “seems to be at odds with the more thorough assessment done last November.”
Later, after the psychologist who had originally diagnosed the children added that her assessment should not prevent the family from moving together to the duty station, Marron rejected that, too.
The fact that the psychologist “chose to modify her original assessment and simply re-date the document without another thorough clinical review is unacceptable,” Marron wrote in an email in early July. “I’m afraid that I have to continue to place faith in the original assessment.”
The Okinawa board also recommended that Brenna — who had earlier been ruled ineligible for enrollment in the Exceptional Family Member Program — now be included. The Rolosons learned of their daughter’s new status in a July 3 letter from the office of the Marine Corps Commandant.
It was an action that could not only have serious implications for Roloson’s career because it potentially limited his duty assignments, but seemed to be out of step with the mental health professionals who had evaluated the children. (Brenna Roloson has since been removed from the program.)
Christina Roloson was starting to take it personally.
“I’m asking myself, ‘Who does this guy think he is?’ ” she said of Marron. “He’s an eye doctor, but he’s overruling psychologists and clinical social workers on mental health questions.”
When contacted by Stars and Stripes, Marron — who is barred from talking about specific cases or patients — declined to discuss how such cases are decided.
But in communications with the Rolosons, he tried to explain what he saw as the potential risks. In a July 9 email, the doctor cited a parent questionnaire the Rolosons had completed as part of Brenna’s psychological assessment the previous November.
In it, her parents said that then 12-year-old Brenna had “huge” tantrums and behaved aggressively. Marron also quoted a section of the psychological assessment in which Christina Roloson had said of Brenna’s behavior that she “thinks it can be dangerous.”
That portion of the assessment, however, referred not to aggression, but to an incident in which Brenna had given a stranger the family’s address while doing online schoolwork. In another incident recorded by the psychologist, Brenna hid from her parents behind a fence at the family home to avoid going on a walk she didn’t want to join. Marron apparently found such incidents extremely troubling.
“ ‘Aggressive, destructive and/or illegal behavior’ are criteria for denial of suitability,” Marron wrote in a July 9 email that the Rolosons shared with Stars and Stripes. In it, he quoted a list of conditions the U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa says are automatic criteria for denial. “The worst scenario that could occur is for your family to have to return to CONUS and you be required to complete the full accompanied [three-year] tour.”
An advocate for disabled children in military families said the decision appeared questionable, given the lack of documented medical needs and an apparent reliance on speculation about worst-case scenarios.
“That’s not how it’s supposed to work,” said Heather Hebdon, director Specialized Training of Military Parents, based in Tacoma, Wash. “They have to have more than just speculation that there could be a problem at some point. And if not, the family would have a right to complain and, I expect, file a discrimination complaint.”
There are legitimate reasons for denying command sponsorship for medical reasons — including for people who need frequent or complex medical care that an offshore military hospital might have difficulty delivering, she said.
But Hebdon said she’s been hearing from an increasing number of military parents in recent months who are being told they can’t take their special-needs children with them overseas. Hebdon interprets it as a sign of tightening military budgets.
Hebdon contacted people on her organization’s email list but could find no one willing to discuss problems with overseas moves publicly. Several other families facing similar issues declined talk to Stars and Stripes because of fear of career-damaging effects.
“It’s been happening more and more,” she said. “I think it truly is an expense issue, because if they don’t have a service … they can end up having to pay for the service by utilizing the civilian services of host country.”
Christina Roloson said she had also begun to suspect it might be systemic, but that the Navy might have a bias against adopted children. One of the emails from Marron contained a link to the Naval Hospital Okinawa’s online list of conditions that can prevent children being allowed to accompany tours.
In a category titled “mental health/behavioral conditions,” the hospital says any child in foster care within the previous three years would be automatically disapproved, and any child in foster care in the previous five years would likely be disapproved — at the discretion of the board.
The suspicion was strengthened by later emails from Marron, Christina Roloson said, which spell out only why Brenna was considered unsuitable, as if no explanation about Daniel were necessary.
“It’s like they were denied as a package deal — the same way we adopted them,” she said.
An advocate for military families called the document “amazing” in its wrongheadedness. Some children placed in foster homes may have mental health issues, but not all do, said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association.
Screeners should consider children’s cases one at a time, rather than painting them with a broad brush, she said.
“To put that under mental health issues — that sends so many wrong messages about children,” she said. “Foster placement and adoption is not a mental health issue, it is a legal issue.”
Family friends and former youth group leaders who knew the children during Aarond Roloson’s previous assignments scoffed at suggestions Brenna was aggressive, or that Daniel’s mild autism diagnosis should disqualify him.
Susan Wade, leader of a Girl Scout troop at Twentynine Palms, California, said she watched Brenna develop into a helpful figure looked up to by the youngest girls in the troup.
“She was fantastic; she was a real leader,” Wade said.
Wendy Erdly oversaw the Young Marines program at Cherry Point, N.C., where three of the Roloson children, Daniel, Brenna, and biological daughter Chloe, were members in 2009 and 2010.
“I’ve never seen one of their kids misbehave, ever,” Erdly said. “Because of how they’re raised, military children are pretty well-behaved generally. But even compared to other military families, they’re better behaved.”
Alicia Summe, a family friend who works as a therapist for autistic children at Quantico, the Roloson’s most recent posting, said she is trained to closely observe problem behavior in children. But Summe said she seen none in the Roloson kids.
“I let Brenna watch my [16-month-old] son, if that tells you anything about what I think of her behavior,” she said. “There’s just no problem there.”
Summe added that even as a professional therapist, she was surprised when Daniel was diagnosed with autism last year.
Children can have subtle characteristics of autism — such as certain obsessive interests or social awkwardness — but still fit in well.
“He’s just a nice, friendly kid, and the diagnosis doesn’t change that at all,” Summe said.
On a sunny early-September day at a park in Fredericksburg, Va., while the five Roloson children played happily, Christina Roloson said she felt like her life was suspended animation.
Her husband had left five days earlier, and she was trying to decide where her family would be living in coming weeks. They had standing offers from friends and family, including one of an empty condo in Florida. Settling down soon, even temporarily, would allow her to stop paying nightly hotel bills and get her children’s homeschooling back on track.
“Florida will be good when it starts getting colder, because we don’t have any winter clothes,” she said with a laugh. For now, the family is living out of suitcases, after shipping most household goods in June to Okinawa — not the wisest choice in given the medical board’s objection, she admits.
“It just shows we really thought we would be able to solve this, and we couldn’t.”
Nearby, Daniel and 6-year-old Nicholas lobbed horseshoes across the grass, whooping with triumph when the older boy pitched a ringer. Nicholas’ biological sister, Anya — the Rolosons adopted the two in 2010 as a pair, just as they had adopted Daniel and Brenna in 2001 — skipped and sprinted through a picnic pavilion, drawing a word of warning from her mother when she started climbing across tables. Nicholas pulled Brenna away from a picnic table where she and her sister Chloe had been engaged in some quiet, teen girl activities, persuading her to kick a soccer ball as he played goalie.
“I would like [Marron] to see how they really are, instead of how he imagines them.”
Her enthusiasm to move to Okinawa is long gone, she said, but she and her husband are still fighting to reunite the family there. They’ve written to the two senators from their home state of Florida, and attempted to file complaints with Marine Corps and Navy inspectors general. They’ve written to newspapers and taken to Facebook as well to complain.
In a nine-page letter to Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, Christina Roloson wrote of her suspicion of bias against adopted children, and asked him to clarify whether such children are allowed or not on overseas assignments.
Throughout the fight, she said, there have been suggestions from officials and family members of other Marines that she should stay quiet and accept the military’s decision.
“My duty as a parent is to teach my children,” she said. “I’m teaching them that if someone pushes you down, you get back up. And we’re showing them by our actions the people saying these things about them are wrong, and that they’re worth fighting for.”
Carroll.firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_