Describing herself as “strangled by debt” and “unable to deal with [the] school system” that had provided education for her special-needs son, psychiatrist Margaret Jensvold, MD, recently killed her 13-year-old son and then committed suicide.
Jensvold, 54, was employed as a psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Maryland, according to news reports, but when coworkers were unable to reach her for several days, they alerted the Montgomery County (Maryland) Police Department (MCPD).
On August 2, officers went to Jensvold’s home in Kensington, Maryland, and found Jensvold’s body and that of her son, Benjamin H. Barnhard, in their bedrooms. In a press statement, the MCPD said the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner had ruled Barnhard’s death a homicide and Jensvold’s, a suicide, with the cause of death being gunshot wounds.
Susan Slaughter, Jensvold’s sister, told the Associated Press that Jensvold had left a suicide note in which she referred to the increasing financial strains, her fights with the Montgomery County Public School System (MCPS) and her feeling “unable to meet Ben’s needs.” He reportedly suffered from migraines, writing problems and Jensvold’s suicide note described him as “hearing things” and “being a bit paranoid.”
“It’s very hard being a single parent under any circumstances, but to have a high-needs child is overwhelming,” Slaughter told AP. “And then to have him inappropriately placed in the school and have the school fighting with her was really traumatic.”
In some court documents, psychiatrist Joyce Braak, MD, Ben’s godmother, wrote that Ben “could not have a more superb mother than Margaret Jensvold,” according to a Washington Post article. Bob Baum, an attorney who represented Jensvold, also said the part of her commitment was how strongly she delved into her son’s medical problems .
In the suicide note, Slaughter said, Jensvold explained that she took her son’s life because she knew 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.
Diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, Ben had completed the sixth grade in a special education program at Herbert Hoover Middle School in 2010. According to Jamie Barnhard, kids at the school taunted his son Ben because of his obesity (275 pounds). Ben then attended Wellspring Academy, a private weight-loss boarding school, where he lost more than 100 pounds.
According to press reports, Jensvold wanted the Montgomery County Public School System to cover the tuition costs for Ben at a Maryland private school specializing in autism and other learning disabilities. Lesli Maxwell, an MCPS spokesperson, told Psychiatric Times that federal privacy laws prevented her from specifically discussing the case.
“It’s a terribly sad situation, and our hearts go out to the family,” she said.
Maxwell said the MCPS provides special education to 17,300 students annually out of a population of 145,000 students (pre-kindergarten to 12th grade).She added the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires an individualized education program (IEP) plan be prepared for any student who receives special education and related services. Parents have the right to participate in IEP meetings regarding their child. When an IEP team determines that the county can’t adequately educate the child with special needs, some placements in private schools are made. In the school year ending in June of 2011, between 500 and 600 private placements were made costing MCPS some $34.6 million, Maxwell said.
As a psychiatrist, Jensvold had specialized in women’s health, particularly premenstrual syndrome. After attending Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, she received 2 years of her residency training at the University of Pittsburgh. From 1987 to 1989, she worked as a medical staff fellow in the Biological Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH ).
While at NIMH, she filed Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) discrimination and retaliation complaints in 1988 and 1989, and a Title VII Civil Rights lawsuit in 1990. Among other issues, she contended that at NIMH she was denied mentoring and the opportunity to work on important biological psychiatric studies. After years of litigation, a US District Court in Maryland in 1996 ruled that her claims lacked substance.
Jensvold co-edited a book, Psychopharmacology and Women, Sex, Gender and Hormones, published by the American Psychiatric Association in 1996, and co-wrote Psychopharmacology From a Feminist Perspective in 1995.