WASHINGTON (AP) — Ben Barnhard had reason to be optimistic this summer: The 13-year-old shed more than 100 pounds at a rigorous weight-loss academy, a proud achievement for a boy who had endured classmates’ taunts about his obesity and who had sought solace in the quiet of his bedroom, with his pet black cat and the intricate origami designs he created.

But one month before school was to start, his mother, psychiatrist Margaret Jensvold, shot him in the head, then killed
herself. Officers found their bodies Tuesday in the bedrooms of their home in Kensington, Md., an upper-middle class Washington suburb. They also found a note.

“School — can’t deal with school system,” the letter began, Jensvold’s sister, Susan Slaughter, told The Associated Press.
And later: “Debt is bleeding me. Strangled by debt.”

Although family members said they were stunned by the killings, they also said Jensvold had become increasingly strained by financial pressure and by anguished fights with the county public school system over the special-needs education of her son, who had an autism spectrum disorder. They said the school district — apparently believing it could adequately educate Ben — had refused to cover tuition costs for the boy to attend a private school for special-needs students. Jensvold didn’t have the money herself and didn’t want to return her son to public school, where relatives
said she felt harshly judged and marginalized and where Ben had struggled.

“It was a huge stress,” Slaughter said. “It’s very hard being a single parent under any circumstances, but to have a high-needs child is overwhelming. And then to have him inappropriately placed in the school, and have the school fighting with her, was really traumatic.”

Jensvold also offered an explanation for taking her son’s life.

“She did mention in the note that she knows people whose parents committed suicide when they were children and how difficult and traumatizing that was, and she didn’t want to do that to Ben,” Slaughter said.

“It is very true,” she added. “I can’t imagine Ben ever recovering from the loss of his mother.”

Special needs education is an emotionally freighted issue, perhaps especially so in Montgomery County — an affluent region where parents tend to be actively engaged in education and where schools are consistently rated among the country’s best.

School district spokeswoman Lesli Maxwell said that privacy laws prevented her from discussing the particulars of Barnhard’s case, but that the district offered vast options for its 17,000 special-education students and will refer students for private schooling when it can’t meet their needs.

Jensvold, a Johns Hopkins-educated psychiatrist specializing in women’s health, was passionate and determined. She made news in 1990 by filing a gender discrimination lawsuit against the National Institute of Mental Health, where she was a medical staff fellow.

A judge ultimately ruled against her, calling her version of events an “illusion.” She later had her own private practice but most recently was working at Kaiser Permanente.

She also was a protective mother, constantly fighting with Montgomery County schools over how best to accommodate her son. He was her world, said her divorce lawyer, Robert Baum.

“She came with an album of pictures of her in a very warm and endearing type of situation,” he said. “Her arms around him playing outside, amusement parks, all the types of things you’d love to see of parents dealing with their kids.”

Ben was an active infant — his family nicknamed him “ATB,” or All-Terrain Baby — but became increasingly withdrawn and isolated, and relatives said as a child he developed an autoimmune disease that’s sometimes triggered by strep.

A divorce court filing lists 18 specialists involved in Ben’s care, and Jensvold’s own suicide note hints at some of the child’s difficulties: “writing problems, migraines, hearing things” — and “a bit paranoid.”

He had a small group of friends and enjoyed computers, origami, animals and picking tomatoes with his grandmother, his father said.

But school was difficult for him, and his weight — topping 275 before his weight loss-program — made him a target for teasing. He found comfort with even more food.

“He used to say, `Mom and Dad, I don’t want to go to school. I don’t want to deal with those people. They’re mean to me and they hurt me,”‘ recalled Jamie Barnhard, Ben’s father and Jensvold’s ex-husband. “It broke both of our hearts.”

The couple placed their son in the county’s special education program, but Barnhard said his son struggled in the system.

He spent about nine months at Wellspring Academies, a weight-loss boarding school in North Carolina, returning in May more than 100 pounds slimmer and more confident.

“He wanted to ride his bike. He wanted to be a kid again,” Barnhard said. “He wanted to go out and have fun. He wanted to fly airplanes with his dad. He wanted to just do anything.”

But there were still concerns about where to send Ben to school.

Jensvold appeared consumed by his education at her father’s memorial service last spring, Slaughter said. She confided that she was having trouble paying the roughly $50,000 tuition for Ben to attend Wellspring. She presented a binder about five-inches thick detailing his academic needs, along with a chart showing how his IQ had fallen over the years.

At the end of June, Slaughter wrote her sister to say their mother would pay for Ben’s education for the coming year.

Jensvold had planned to enroll her son in the Ivymount School, a Rockville, Md., private school specializing in autism and other learning disabilities. Tuition there ranges based on a child’s needs, but can be more than $60,000, the school said Monday. Her mother said she’d send a check.

In her final months, Jensvold only sporadically communicated with her family, as she had for years, Slaughter said.

Emails frequently went unreturned, mail sometimes unopened.

Ben spent July 4 with his divorced parents aboard his dad’s restored boat, treading past the Washington Monument with a picnic dinner of barbecue and pineapple. It was a final moment of serenity.

He died a month later. One day after his body was found –co-workers hadn’t heard from Jensvold for days and newspapers had accumulated outside the house — a $10,000 check from Jensvold’s mother arrived, Slaughter said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Comments (21)
  1. Kay says:

    This is a very sad story. It is a shame she thought the only way out was death. My prayers go out to her family.

    1. Danielle Avent says:

      I agree…smh. So sad.

  2. est 1988 says:

    My god this story just gets worst.Suicide and murder due to financial crisis is really becoming a problem today.I feel so bad for the family.I just could never imagine being in the position where death is my only hope.Smh its just soo sad.Once again my prayers are definetely with this family.

  3. Leonard says:

    Unbelievable, I can only imagine the anguish it must have taken for her to feel there was no other option than to do this. I’m sure there was some way to relief from her finacial bind, bankruptcy, anything. This story makes me wish someone would have reached out to her or maybe she would have been able to reach out to someone who could have helped. There are few things sadder than someone giving up hope.

  4. Laine says:

    The public school systems are not always a students friend. If it costs them money to send your child to another facility because they can’t meet his needs, then they fight tooth and nail against doing it…even if deep down the staff knows they can’t help them. See, if a public school can’t teach your child, then the public school system has to pay for the different school setting. I know. I work for a public school system in Maryland and have seen this same situation on a daily basis.

  5. Amy says:

    When dealing with a child with special needs life can be overwhelming. I’ve been there myself, every day can be a battle. Having to fight constantly with hospitals, schools, and the system to make sure your childs needs are met can often feel like a fulltime job! Serious changes are needed in order to get the help these families need. My thoughts and prayers go out to this family!

  6. michelle says:

    this is so sad.. 2 beautiful lives down the drain. before dad refurnished his boat he should have considered the strain his mom and son were going through…

    1. Travis says:

      Maybe the courts that give children to murdering monthers such as this one, should reconsider the “woman always gets the child” mentality. Clearly he was the better choice and option as a parent.

  7. WH says:

    How does a Hopkins-educated psychiatrist not have the money for private school? To the point where the debt is overwhelming? And why do we make excuses for a killer when it’s a woman? She murdered her son, plain and simple.

    1. Amy says:

      Taking care of special needs children is extremely expensive. There is the cost of doctors (usually several different types), hospitals and medication, etc. Not to mention she was divorced and if she made more money its possible that she had to pay alimony. I do not agree with what she did.

    2. Travis says:

      Agreed. If this was the father, the hateful comments we’d see. But as always, women get the free pass.

  8. T says:

    As a single parent, this story alarms me.

    We all are under financial strains, but there is something more here. I’m curious as to why the boys father wasn’t tapped as a resource for his sons school tuition. I’m also curious where the funds came from to send him out of state for weight loss, but there weren’t any funds for the education.

    As indicated here, she clearly had other options for financial support in regard to her sons education, which most (including me) don’t have. She had family who told her they were willing to help pay for whatever her son needed and she did this anyway. Sadly, this appears to be much more than just a financially strained parent. This appears to be more of a case of a mentally/emotionally ill parent. Such a shame.

  9. countyrez says:

    I feel saddened when people feel that the only way out from their problems is death…but am I wrong because the only person I feel sorry for is the child. It sounds like she may have suffered from depression for a while and it just got worse. With the world being the way it is now, we should reach out to each other. I wonder if things woulda been any different if she had any close friends to talk to or check in on her. I also wonder if homeschool would have been an option for her son?

  10. randy says:

    Public schools really aren’t equipped to deal with certain types of special needs students. However, I am against my tax money being used to send someone elses child to private school. It is a tough situation, but murder /suicide wasn’t the answer.

    1. Jane Bisco says:

      So if public schools can’t meet a child’s special education needs and the oparents can’s afford a school that can, who should pay for that child’s education, Randy?

      1. Travis says:

        So Jane, accourding to you if someone can’t afford something, the rest of us should incur the cost?

  11. Steppin' razor says:

    You know, there have been times when I felt like our financial situation was getting out of control and we had no way out of it (no credit cards, just a mortgage we were able to afford with no problem 5 years ago, and a car payment + g/e and phone), but murdering my children and taking my life? Never. Not ever. Not ever in a million years. She was maybe estranged from her husband, but she clearly has family that could have helped.

    This isn’t rational, and she should have known to get help before she did anything so drastic. No, I have to agree with T…there is something else going on, like a mental health issue or foul play that has been down-played publicly. No way a smart woman does this out of desperation to escape debt.

    By the way, I’m not heartless, I feel for the people that loved them, but something just seems fishy.

  12. Joana F. Joasil says:

    a horrible, horrible story! Was home-schooling not an option? Just when the little boy “found himself” again, his life is cut short by his mom, a psychiatrist no less!!! Too many questions left unanswered…if the grandmother was willing to pay for the boy’s schooling, why resort to such measures????

    Just sad and my heart hurts for her, him and the rest of the family left to pick up the pieces…….

  13. Jeana Anderson says:

    This story is sad and so tragic. I feel bad for the child family and the Mom. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Condolences to the family and friends. Smh

  14. Travis says:

    Lost in all this was how cruel the children were that went to school with this young man. Why do we constantly allow children to belittle others when they don’t look a certain way? I feel for that kid, such a short life, tortured at school, and give to an idiot of mother by the legalized sexism of the divorce courts, it makes you wonder if any of his problems were related to his emotional torture, not his special needs.

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