That viral Portland intruder story has a deeper meaning no one is talking about
The world has seen — and questioned — medical mama Kelsey Smith for her calm reaction to a strange woman in her son's bed... and how she caught it on video
This is a story that has everything: Fear, intrigue, humor, mystery, outrage, courtroom drama, and — two of my favorite things — a debate over disability policy and a healthy dose of media criticism.
This is the story of how my friend Kelsey Smith became a viral story overnight thanks to some odd circumstances she caught on video. She was on all of our local news channels, and as far away as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the national news, and even in the United Kingdom. The headlines and repackaging of her story bordered on the absurd, with The Daily Mail calling her husband a “trickster” and Fox News’ headline screaming that she was “outraged” at “Dem-run” Portland, Oregon, which she actually loves and has lived in all her life. (The headline has since been changed with no correction issued.)
Here’s what really happened: about 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 12, a woman named Terri Zinser simply walked up to Kelsey’s front door and let herself in. Zinser has a pattern of doing this and a history of mental health needs. She soon found a king bed belonging to Kelsey’s 10-year-old son and curled up behind a pile of clean, unfolded laundry. Hilariously, Kelsey’s tiny chihuahua barked relentlessly at the intruder while Kelsey’s big Labrador just hopped up on the bed to make friends with the lady.
Zinser lay there for just a few seconds before Kelsey — who was on the phone with her son’s physical therapist — walked into the room to figure out what her chihuahua was barking at. At first, she thought it was her husband (who is a pretty stoic guy and not much of a trickster) curled up for a nap and exclaimed: “Oh my God, Justin!” But then Kelsey moved in for a closer look.
She told her friend on the phone that she needed help because a “homeless man” was in her son’s bed. Zinser, who was completely unbothered up to that point, then got up and threw a small ottoman at Kelsey. Kelsey yelled “Go!” and corralled her towards the front door. Zinser left… Riley trailing along behind her, tail wagging, still hoping to make a friend.
Most of the news stories add something about how the District Attorney in Portland (actually, its county, Multnomah) declined to press charges against Zinser. She had reportedly peed on Kelsey’s neighbor’s property and tried to enter another’s house. In fact, the District Attorney is now pressing charges due to the pattern of this behavior, the lack of alternative solutions… and the pressure from the viral storm of media coverage.
Most news stories stop there. Everyone picks a side. Everyone laughs or gets angry and moves on.
I was never very good at stopping there. I always wanted to know the deeper story.
Kelsey says the three questions commenters have asked thousands of times across platforms are: How did she stay so calm? Why does she have a camera in her child’s bedroom? And why didn’t she shoot the intruder?
The answer to all three of those have to do with Kelsey’s life as a medical mama.
Kelsey is a pretty open book. She shares a lot on social media, so it was natural for her to share the Ring camera footage of this bizarre incident as soon as she realized she had it.
Most of her sharing is about her kids. Kelsey is the mother of four as well as a foster parent. She knew not to freak out but calmly and firmly give direction because she’s had children with mental health disorders in her house. As for why she has a camera in her son’s bedroom, Taran (who was at school that day) is medically fragile and needs constant monitoring.
Finally, why didn’t she shoot the intruder? Because Kelsey understands that mental health disorders should not be a death sentence.
“I mean, I’m glad in a way that she picked my house because I have a medically fragile child and I’ve had my share of stressful situations,” she told News Nation. “You know, being a parent to a child with disabilities as well as a foster parent, I’m acutely aware of the repercussions of the gaps in services to these communities.”
Kelsey was not outraged that the D.A. didn’t lock up the intruder and throw away the key. She is outraged that the system has so clearly failed Terri and that the conversations around this incident have fallen into the same old tired patterns.
“It’s easy to look at this person and see someone who’s ‘crazy’ or ‘drug-fueled’ but we have to look at the bigger picture,” she said. “Our support systems have visibly failed her. And while I don’t even pretend to guess what her childhood or early adulthood entailed, as a mother of a child with disabilities, I can speak to the importance of stabilizing and providing adequate mental health supports to families experiencing disability — whether it’s physical, mental or behavioral.”
Now, nearly two weeks later, she is just hopeful that something good will come from this. She is directing people to the advocacy group we are both a part of: Advocates for Disability Supports and using her 15 minutes of fame to try to elevate the conversation.
“The mental health crisis is at the bottom of all of these issues,” she told me.
It’s not about Portland versus the rest of the county, Democrat versus Republican, spending more on social supports versus spending less. It’s about properly supporting disabled people and their families.
“If she and her family had had the right supports from the beginning, this could have had a completely different outcome,” Kelsey said. “She could have been sleeping in her own bed.”
Medical Motherhood’s news round up
Snippets of news and opinion from outlets around the world. Click the links for the full story.
• From New York Times Magazine: “What a High-Risk Pregnancy Looks Like After Dobbs”
[…]Everything changed on the day of the Dobbs decision, June 24. By the end of that Friday, a three-year-old law had been triggered into effect, a so-called “heartbeat bill” that made it a felony to terminate a pregnancy after a fetal heartbeat has been detected. A heartbeat can generally be detected at around six gestational weeks, before many women know they are pregnant; previously abortions were permitted, with restrictions, until 22 gestational weeks. All of a sudden, most of the termination procedures scheduled a week earlier by the Cleveland Clinic were now crimes. Only three exceptions allowed for abortions after the new cutoff: to prevent the mother’s death; to forestall a “serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman”; and to respond to ectopic pregnancies, in which a fertilized egg implants itself outside the uterus.
The uncertainties about how to interpret and deliver care in response to those exceptions meant the Cleveland Clinic personnel had to continue doing their jobs in unclear legal circumstances. How do you know if a mother’s life is at risk? How do you predict, then prove, that the mother faces potentially irreversible bodily damage? “As physicians, we literally take an oath to take care of patients,” says Dr. Stacey Ehrenberg, who specializes in high-risk pregnancies at the Cleveland Clinic. “And we now have our hands tied.”
Once the heartbeat bill became law, routine procedures for treating miscarriage — which is how at least one in 10 pregnancies ends — could be considered abortions. The most effective drugs used in cases of miscarriage, mifepristone and misoprostol, are the same ones used to induce abortion by medication; the surgical evacuation of the uterus is another procedure used with miscarriages that is also an abortion method. The new law means that most patients admitted to the Cleveland Clinic Emergency Department while miscarrying are supposed to wait for 24 hours before receiving treatment — treatment given earlier than that could be considered an illegal abortion. […]
• From Disability Scoop: “In First, Feds Issue National Strategy To Support Family Caregivers”
Federal health officials are putting forth a national strategy to address the needs of family caregivers, acknowledging the challenges faced by millions who care for people with developmental disabilities and other issues.
The first-of-its-kind plan details 345 actions that 15 government agencies will take in the next three years as well as over 150 actions that can be undertaken by states, communities and other stakeholders.
“Supporting family caregivers is an urgent public health issue, exacerbated by the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra. “This national strategy recognizes the critical role family caregivers play in a loved one’s life.”
There are estimated to be some 53 million family caregivers in the U.S. supporting those with developmental disabilities, individuals who are aging and others. They “provide the overwhelming majority of long-term care” in this country and, if replaced by paid caregivers, their services would cost an estimated $470 billion annually, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Without support, family caregivers can compromise their own health, wellbeing and quality of life, officials note. In addition, caregiving responsibilities result in an estimated $522 billion annually in lost income for families. […]
• From People magazine: “Rosie O'Donnell Opens Up About Her Daughter with Autism in Emotional Essay: 'She's a Gift'"
[…] Getting the diagnosis felt like I was punched in the stomach. I had to give myself a moment to go, "Okay, we're going to figure out how to get through it."
You can read as much as possible, but they say when you meet one person with autism, you've met one person with autism. It's a spectrum. For me — it's like an angel fell into my life. One who doesn't function by societal standards. I'm not taking away from the pain and hardship that this diagnosis brings to families. All of a sudden, there's a child with a lot of needs and you spend a lot of time trying to connect on their level. It's not easy — but it's necessary to let them know they are seen.
[…]Dakota's autism forces me to see the world from a completely different place. She's a gift from another dimension. The things she knows — about sea anemones and tide pools. I got to 60 not knowing about the Mariana Trench. Now I know all about it! Her ability to absorb information is unparalleled. I can imagine her winning on Jeopardy! someday. She teaches me. To be able to see the world as she does — for me, it's been a wonderfully magical experience. I'm so glad we have each other.
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