Ben Barnhard finally had reason to be optimistic this summer: The 13-year-old shed more than 45kg 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.
However, one month before school was to start for the special-needs teen, his mother, psychiatrist Margaret Jensvold, shot him in the head, then killed herself. Officers found their bodies on Aug. 2 in the bedrooms of their home in Kensington, Maryland, 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 reporters. “Debt is bleeding me. Strangled by debt.”
Although family 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 highly regarded nationwide.
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 would 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 was also 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[self] 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.”