Kate Parker moves on after being set free, with her family by her side
By Rachel Fobar
The Medill Justice Project
GRANTS PASS, Ore.–At a long table in the back of the Black Bear Diner, Kate Parker, 48, thuds a heavy Vitamix blender down on the wooden chair near a power outlet. Her 12-year-old son Joshua has ordered a cheeseburger, but because of complications due to a brainstem defect, he can’t swallow solid food anymore. Parker blends the burger then scoops the steaming shake into a white bowl, and Joshua eagerly spoons it into his mouth.
Two years after reuniting with her family, Parker has resettled into her role as mom for her seven kids – making sandwiches in their kitchen for lunch, exchanging rapid-fire inside jokes in the living room with 26-year-old Megan, bragging about how Joshua, Isaac, 14, Sarah, 16, and David, 16, all scored above the 90th percentile for their class on recent standardized tests. The family’s cats, Ivy and Lego, slink around the family room, long accustomed to Parker’s presence. The construction paper chain that once adorned the wall is missing – there’s no longer a need to count down the days to mom’s trial, because mom is home.
In September of 2013, Portland doctors and Multnomah County prosecutors accused Parker of mistreatment of her children and medical child abuse-a controversial term that alleges she subjected her son Joshua, who was born with spina bifida and a neurological defect, to unnecessary treatment, including several surgeries. Parker, who says she had never received so much as a parking ticket, faced 43 criminal charges, including assault, and potentially more than 30 years in prison for allegedly harming Joshua, allegedly neglecting her adopted daughter Bethany, who suffers from juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and allegedly abandoning her other adopted daughter Hannah, who was later placed with another family. She was arrested in April 2014 and spent about six months in jail. When she left jail on bail that October, the conditions of her release required her to stay in Portland and have no contact with her kids, who were nearly 250 miles away in Grants Pass.
In December of 2015, The Medill Justice Project published an in-depth investigation that uncovered medical records where medical professionals described Joshua and Bethany as terminal or in grave condition, documented how many friends, nurses and doctors had witnessed Joshua’s symptoms and questioned how a stay-at-home mom could have manipulated doctors into prescribing unnecessarily strong doses of medication and performing unneeded brain surgeries.
Within weeks, Multnomah prosecutors dropped all of the major charges against Parker. In a February 2016 settlement with prosecutors, Parker pleaded no contest to three misdemeanor charges. She also pleaded no contest to two felonies, but sentencing was deferred for two years with the promise that one of the felonies would be dismissed and the other reduced to a misdemeanor if she complied with the terms of her probation, which includes the condition that she not handle her minor kids’ medical care. Instead, her 52-year-old husband Charley, a server and supervisor at the Black Bear Diner, takes care of the doctors’ appointments.
On Feb. 23, 2016, Parker was released from court supervision, placed on probation and allowed to go home.
After 693 days apart – she counted – Parker and her kids rarely stray far from one another. As they lounge in the front room of the house, Megan, Parker’s oldest daughter, sits on the floor in front of her mom, who is seated on the couch, and Parker absentmindedly runs her fingers through her daughter’s hair. Emily, 18, hovers near her mom, wrapping her arms around her waist. Sarah blushes as she looks on while Parker flips through photos of the sketch of a Welsh springer spaniel Sarah gave her for Christmas.
For Charley, having his wife home is a triumph, knowing “that even through all of this, we are still together, and nobody is going to take that away from us,” he says.
“[L]ife has gone back to some semblance of normal,” Charley says. “I have somebody here to talk to and to hold hands with.” He adds, “It’s not so lonely.”
Periodically, Joshua comes over to the couch and curls up on his mom’s lap. He tells her he loves her. In public, Joshua retreats under the blue hood of his zip-up jacket. But at home, he plays the video game Plants vs. Zombies with his brother David, and he runs around outside, throwing a ball for the family’s German shepherds Loki and Kyla to retrieve. He says his mom takes him for walks to Riverside Elementary School, where he skateboards. He reminds Parker she owes him a trip to Portland, Oregon – all his older siblings got to go, but he could not. For the first eight months Parker was home, she wasn’t allowed to have unsupervised contact with Joshua.
In 2016, when Parker returned home to a jubilant family, the first day was a blur of hugs and happy chatter as she remarked on how tall Isaac had grown and met her granddaughter Olivia for the first time. But as the excitement died down, Parker’s kids began to confide in her, unloading “too much pain at once,” she says. Around the time of her arrest, the kids who were under 18 years old were temporarily sent to foster care “to assure [their] safety,” according to an ongoing safety plan from the Oregon Department of Human Services.
“If the kids had been home with Dad the whole time [I was away], it would’ve been fine,” Parker says. “I mean, yeah, of course I would have missed them, but I would’ve known that they were safe and they were being taken care of and they were loved.”
When Parker came back, she says one of her kids told her she had been offered drugs, another of them had seen porn for the first time, another was called names and mocked.
“I came home and I had six kids who needed their mom,” Parker says. “And it wasn’t for a little heartache, it wasn’t for a little problem. They had these big, painful wounds that they wanted me to help heal.”
She adds, “I imagine that it’s how people who survive a tornado feel when they walk out of their basement and they see their entire life destroyed. And they go, ‘Where do you start?'”
Parker says she used to know everything about her kids – their favorite foods, their friends’ names, what they were afraid of. When she came home, everything was different. “They were my kids, but I didn’t know them anymore,” she says. “[T]hey weren’t the same people.”
The last few years stole her kids’ innocence, Parker says, and she herself has been in counseling for some of these issues since July 2016. On a brick ledge above the wood burning stove in the family room, old photos freeze moments in time – moments when the Parker kids had chubby cheeks and missing baby teeth.
One photo missing from the lineup is 10-year-old Bethany’s, which they took down because it was too painful to see her. Bethany is still quite sick. Last summer, in what Parker calls one of the worst days of her life, she and Charley voluntarily relinquished their parental rights to Bethany to the state of Oregon. Parker says she’s concerned that if Bethany were to die under her care, she could be blamed and Joshua would be taken away permanently. Parker thinks she will likely never see Bethany again. Though she has her other kids, she says, “they’re not interchangeable.”
“I miss my little girl,” Parker says. “There’s this hole, and it’s Bethany-shaped.”
A broken heart
Around Christmas 2016, about 10 months after Parker came home and as the family routine was returning to normal, Parker started having pains in her left shoulder. Emily gave her a massage, thinking she had a knot in the muscle, but the pain only worsened and spread – her right jaw starting aching too. Kneeling on the floor of the family room, Parker collapsed midsentence onto Emily.
“Mom?” Emily asked, confused. Then she screamed.
Isaac called 911 and handed the phone to Emily. David started chest compressions. Emily sent Joshua to his room, not wanting him to see.
For about 15 minutes until the ambulance arrived, David kept his mother’s heart pumping, compressing so hard he broke the cartilage in her chest – he says he remembers the feeling of it cracking. The song “Stayin’ Alive” played in his head while he measured the time between beats, as he’d learned to do two years before when he learned CPR at school. As he did, he says he shouted at his unconscious mother, “You’re not going to die like this,” and “We just got you back.”
From the other room, Isaac says he prayed on his knees: It isn’t her time to die. Please don’t let her die. Make the ambulance come faster.
At the hospital, things didn’t look good. Parker had suffered cardiac arrest, a sudden malfunction of the heart. Less than 10 percent of patients who experience cardiac arrest outside the hospital survive, according to The Institute of Medicine, and if Parker did survive, doctors told Charley, she’d likely have brain damage. Comatose, Parker was put on ice to induce hypothermia, which protects the brain and other organs.
“[The doctors] just did not know what she would be like when she came out of this,” Charley says. He began thinking about what it would be like to return to life without his wife. They’d just gotten her back. “How do I cope with this?” he remembers wondering. “What is the future going to look like?”
Hospital records show Parker’s cardiologist noted that test results could suggest the episode may be attributed to takotsubo syndrome, or broken-heart syndrome, which is usually the result of severe stress.
Though Parker still has trouble with short-term memory – the other day she couldn’t remember the word “oven” – she remained herself, with no brain damage. For the rest of her life, she’ll be taking a beta blocker to protect her heart from stress hormones, and she has a defibrillator in her chest. The size of a cellphone, you can see its outline in her skin, and its job is to shock her heart back to normal if she ever goes into cardiac arrest again.
“How often do you get to say your teenagers saved your life?” Parker asks. From the hospital, she says she thanked David for saving her. He scoffed, “Well, of course.” When his parents offered him a reward, he asked for three boxes of Ritz Bits cheese crackers.
For the first few months after Parker came home from the hospital, Emily wouldn’t let her mom out of her sight. Even today, if Parker goes anywhere and forgets to mention it, Emily panics – her heart racing, her breathing strained. The other day in the car, Parker closed her eyes for a moment while Emily drove. “Mom?” Emily asks. She had to make sure she was only sleeping.
“I’m fine,” Parker says teasingly.
“You know what?” Emily says. “You weren’t.”
“I want to bring some meaning out of this, out of what happened,” Parker says of the last few years – the accusations of abuse, her six-month stint in jail, the separation from her kids and Charley. “I need to know that what my children and my husband and I went through wasn’t for nothing.”
That’s why, in the summer of 2016, Parker enrolled in Rogue Community College. She wants to be a lawyer.
“[M]y goal in law is to be involved with families who have been wrongly incriminated, wrongly accused,” Parker says. “I’m going to use everything that I went through to benefit others … And so, having that experience – it was awful, the worst three years of my life without a doubt, but our whole family, we’re bringing something out of it.”
Parker is finishing her general education to receive an associate’s degree in criminology. She then plans to transfer to Southern Oregon University to continue her studies and earn a bachelor’s degree.
Charley says if everything hadn’t happened, Parker may never have gone back to school.
“It’s changed our life’s direction,” he says. “And not necessarily for the worse.”
Law school is a long way away, but tucked into the front pocket of one of Parker’s class binders is an email from Tiffany Harris, the lawyer who handled her case. When the idea of becoming a lawyer first entered her mind back in June of 2016, Parker asked Harris and Lisa Ludwig, her other attorney, if they thought she could do it.
“You’ll be fierce and astonishingly smart,” Harris replied, then joked: “Promise you’ll never be a prosecutor.”
As Parker flips through her introductory law textbooks, she rolls up her sleeves, revealing the multicolored tattoo designed by Emily on the inside of her left forearm. It’s an image of the EKG right after doctors restarted her heart, the date of her cardiac arrest and Joshua 1:9, a Bible verse that reminds her God is always with her.
Parker says, “It’s a reminder that I survived this, you know, and that after the storm, there’s a rainbow, and good things are coming.”