Bodhi Schofield is sitting slumped over in an office chair, staring straight ahead. His eyes are glazed over, and he’s drooling out of the corner of his mouth. According to his mother, Susan, who is filming this for her YouTube channel, it’s nearly 4:30AM, and he hasn’t had his medication yet.
“Do you need any medication? Yes or no?” she yells, filming. “Do you need medication? Tell me ‘cause I don’t know. You tell me. So you tell me: do you need medication? Yes or no? And if so, which medication do you need?”
Bodhi is 11 years old in the video. He has been prescribed a rotating regimen of medications, including Thorazine, clozapine, Geodon, Depakote, Vyvanse, lithium, Seroquel, Zyprexa, Risperdal, and Lyrica throughout most of his young life, as described by Susan over various videos. Most, but not all, are antipsychotics. Sometimes, Bodhi takes them in combination; sometimes he takes them alone.
According to his father, Michael, Bodhi was diagnosed with severe autism when he was six. Susan has been skeptical of the diagnosis from the beginning. She’s certain that, just like his older sister, Jani, he has schizophrenia, and she has found doctors willing to place him on an intense regimen of medications.
In Susan’s YouTube videos, Bodhi is often in a nearly catatonic state, drooling and slurring his words.
Those symptoms haven’t gone overlooked in the heated and skeptical world of YouTube commentary. A community of Schofield skeptics has developed to catalog Susan’s behavior, noting every time they believe Bodhi has a seizure or appears cloudy or overmedicated. Many in the community believe Jani and Bodhi are victims of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a disorder where parents or caretakers feign illness and disease in their children. In many cases, caregivers will often lie to doctors about their child’s symptoms, change the results of tests to make the child appear sicker than they actually are, or even physically harm the child to produce symptoms.
Victims of Munchausen syndrome by proxy are usually smaller children, with caregivers who thrive off the attention they receive from caring for a sick child. In most cases, the attention comes from relatives and the local community. But YouTube commenters theorize that Susan got attention from the platform itself. At its height, Susan’s YouTube channel featured nearly 200 videos, broadcasting the children’s lives to nearly 30,000 subscribers. The family’s audience on YouTube was small in comparison to other channels, but thousands of people across the internet had been following their lives for years through forums, Reddit threads, and reuploads of the videos on YouTube in order to not feed into family’s ad revenue or simply make a profit of their own. The followers varied from younger people who made fun of Susan’s sometimes outrageous behavior to other mothers who were afraid that she might be seriously harming her children through overmedication and misdiagnoses.
In several videos, Susan notes Jani’s adoration for the family vlogging channel, Daily Bumps, which has nearly 4.5 million subscribers. According to SocialBlade, it could bring in at least a six-figure salary for the family.
“Jani, do you realize when you watch Daily Bumps all the time that you’re other people’s Daily Bumps?” Susan says in one video. “Do you realize that, Jani? You are actually other people’s Daily Bumps.”
The Schofields’ first taste of public attention came in 2009 when Jani was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah traveled to California to speak with the then-seven-year-old girl who had been diagnosed with a “rare case of childhood schizophrenia” only a year prior. In the interview, Jani pores over drawings she’s made to describe the characters that come out to play with her when she hallucinates. She has many friends in her world of Calalini, which she tells Oprah is “on the border of my world and your world.” There’s the “bad friend,” 400 the Cat, a little girl named “24 Hours,” and a second cat named Sycamore, among many others.
Jani’s unique case sparked a media blitz. There was a Discovery Life documentary in 2010, the Huffington Post wrote about the family in 2012, and Dr. Phil featured Jani on his daytime show in 2013, just as her parents were identifying similar behaviors in her younger brother Bodhi. That same year, Michael published the family’s first book January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her.
Their time in the limelight proved profitable. Not only did it offer publicity for Michael’s book, but the family started a nonprofit called The Jani Foundation which attracted thousands of dollars in donations from friends and community members. It’s unclear what services the foundation provides, but its YouTube channel lists videos of small events and holiday parties that it sponsors for the family’s children and others.
As media attention waned, Susan grew more active on YouTube, and her relationship with Michael faltered. They divorced in 2015, and Susan took over as president of The Jani Foundation. Michael moved to Minnesota, remarried, and built a new life more than a thousand miles away from Jani, Bodhi, and Susan.
Schofield Productions’ first video was published in October 2015. It leads with the question “What does schizophrenia look like in the young?” Clips of Jani and Bodhi are captioned with supposed symptoms like “high intelligence,” “incoherent thoughts,” and “extreme agitation.”
In the beginning, the channel featured videos of other children who were also believed to have schizophrenia. Several of those videos mirror the format Susan first used, but with other sick children and their parents discussing their behavior and pharmaceutical regimens.
After the first crop of videos, Susan’s children and their illnesses began to take center stage. She documented tantrums, fits, toilet breaks, showers, and even a video of one child discussing her first period. In 2017, Susan released her own book, which she at first planned to entitle “Jani’s Savior,” but it was released as Born Schizophrenic: A Mother’s Search for Her Family’s Sanity. After publication, she began to publish videos more frequently and tape more intimate moments with her children.
Watching Susan’s behavior, some viewers became concerned about the children’s welfare. When it became clear the family would be making new television appearances, concerned viewers started up a channel called The Schofield Lie, creating montages of clips of the children to show how they were being treated. “We thought that the best way to get the information out there was to set these pages up, and when the episode airs, a lot of interest will come from that,” one member of the Schofield Lie group told me.
In August 2017, a group of skeptics started a thread on Kiwi Farms, a lively forum for deep internet gossip. Users shared doubts about Susan’s behavior and treatment of her children, oftentimes likening it to physical and emotional abuse. They began to document how much medication Susan said her children were taking over time, noting changes and different prescriptions from the slew of doctors Susan took her children to when others would not prescribe the strong antipsychotics she believed her children, especially Bodhi, needed.
“It’s rage-inducing to see these children pathologized for normal child developmental stages,” one user wrote. “I bet the thorazine-wielding psych nurses seem like a model of compassion and kindness after being raised by these parents.”
Some users reached out to the family directly, either seeking more information or to antagonize them for what they saw as exploiting children for YouTube fame. The Kiwi Farms threads on the Schofields run more than 700 pages, often with active rebuttals from Susan and her new husband. Susan argues that she’s simply doing advocacy work for people with mental health disorders. “What you’re up against in the mental health care system is doctors who give blank autism diagnos[es],” Susan said. “That’s all they do and usually there’s a mixture of both or several diagnoses.”
Other forums like r/SchofieldCabanaAbuse on Reddit formed to discuss new updates involving the children, and YouTubers began to put together compilation videos to show that the children’s health and behaviors were only getting worse over the years. As the family put more and more of their lives online, strangers from around the world were able to reconstruct which types of medications the children were taking and in what dosage, just from clips of Susan talking online.
What the forum-goers and YouTubers constructed from Susan’s videos was troubling. They built graphs dedicated to showing Bodhi’s medicine and dosages over the years, starting from when he was just a toddler. Onlookers weren’t only concerned with Bodhi simply taking the medication, but that doctors weren’t conducting the normal amount of oversight. Susan seemed to take him to a different doctor seeking a different prescription for every checkup.
According to attentive forum-goers, Bodhi was on at least 350mg of clozapine, 750mg of Depakote, and 300mg of Thorazine. The exact amount may be in doubt, but on YouTube, Susan had discussed her excitement of finally convincing doctors that Bodhi should be on both Thorazine and clozapine.
According to Jeffrey Hunt director of inpatient and intensive services at Bradley Hospital, that’s an extreme prescription for a patient so young. “For a first medication, we would probably use Risperdal, followed by Zyprexa or Abilify,” Hunt said. “Clozapine is a very effective medication that isn’t often used until the third round of trials, but for someone who’s a teenager and who’s had already two or three trials, using Clozaril is often a good idea.” Hunt told The Verge that it would be “unusual” for someone younger than a late adolescent to be taking medications like Thorazine and Clozaril.
To some observers, Bodhi’s medical issues seemed less like schizophrenia and more like a side effect of overmedication. Chronic use of older-generation antipsychotics like Thorazine can lead to a syndrome called tardive dyskinesia, which manifests as tics that are similar to the symptoms of Tourette syndrome. Overusing antipsychotics like clozapine can also increase a person’s likelihood for seizures and leave them groggy or easily confused, symptoms that some Schofield-watchers believe they’ve spotted in Bodhi’s videos.
Tracking the Schofields on social media, the children’s health and behaviors seemed to be steadily declining. Bodhi, who once appeared lively and social, started to become nonverbal. Jani’s left eye began to wander, and, despite being tested with a 146 IQ, she was unable to write in a straight line. Now in high school, she was still being taught basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
Michael took note of his children’s decline from afar. He was alarmed by what was happening and his inability to do anything about it. He decided to call up Dr. Phil again, seeking an intervention.
The show aired in March, and, aside from the children’s health, it was all about YouTube.
“She’s filmed Bodhi in the shower. She’s filmed Bodhi on the toilet. She claims that she’s doing these videos as an advocate for mental health, but I don’t think she’s actually teaching anyone anything,” Michael said on the show. “I think that the purpose of these is for her to get attention and for her to make money because she makes money off the ad revenue.”
Susan disagreed, saying that she wasn’t exploiting her children, but “exploiting the mental health care system.” She continued, “Adam Lanza was diagnosed with autism and that didn’t work out great. He was clearly psychotic. They made a big mistake.”
Both Dr. Phil and celebrity doctor Charles Sophy agreed to help the family and their children, but only if Susan took down her channel. Dr. Phil agreed with Michael, saying that the channel was exploiting both children. Without its removal, Dr. Phil said he would refuse to offer any help for the children.
Susan didn’t like the idea of taking down the channel — she initially scoffed at Dr. Phil’s request — but after an off-stage conversation with her husband, she agreed. The channel was brought down shortly after the show was filmed and has yet to be reactivated, although Susan has suggested she would continue her “documentary” once the children received Dr. Phil’s help. Not long after the show aired, the rest of Susan’s social media presence went dark, too. There were no status updates of her children, no videos, just news articles shared on her Facebook page for weeks.
The eerie silence wasn’t just because of Dr. Phil. According to Michael, the LA County Children’s Court had placed a gag order on both parents as part of an ongoing case. After years of growing concerns, the authorities had finally gotten involved.
The children were removed from Susan’s custody the week of March 10th, 2019, although the community isn’t sure where they are now. In Facebook messages with Patheos, Michael said, “As far as I know right now, they are in a shelter,” he wrote. Michael was at home in Minnesota with his wife who was delivering a child the night his other children were taken away. “I knew it was going to happen, yes. They just did it earlier than I expected,” he said.
It’s unclear who or what exactly drove authorities to remove the children from Susan’s custody, but it occurred shortly after the latest Dr. Phil video aired. “They believe that Susan was exaggerating Bodhi’s symptoms because she believes he has schizophrenia,” Michael wrote. “As for why they took Jani too, I was told it was because she was giving Jani Thorazine and because of her negative influence on Jani.”
When prompted for further details, Michael told The Verge that he is operating under a gag order from a Los Angeles County Children’s Court judge. The current status of the case is unclear. Neither Dr. Phil nor The Jani Foundation responded to requests for comment. Dr. Sophy was unable to comment.
With the accounts dark, the Schofields’ story will probably disappear from YouTube. But YouTube’s broader problems with family channels are hard to escape. For years, the FamilyOFive channel found both success and controversy from its outlandish videos, which sometimes seemed to show the parents physically harming their children. The channel was terminated last July, and two children were removed from the parents’ custody. Last month, the host of the Fantastic Adventures channel was accused of physical abuse after allegedly forcing her seven children to take ice baths and, in a separate incident, allegedly pepper-spraying their genitals. Unlike the Schofields, the host’s alleged abuse occurred off-camera.
Taken together, those incidents paint a troubling picture of family vlogging, which was once seen as the most advertiser-friendly kind of content on the platform. In each case, something about the intense competition of YouTube and the immediate rewards for shocking content seem to have pushed parents to do the unthinkable.
In a statement to The Verge, a spokesperson for YouTube said, “We work closely with leading child safety organizations and others in our industry to protect young people. Additionally, we have robust privacy guidelines to protect the privacy of all our users. In the event a parent or legal guardian feels the privacy of a child has been violated, they can file a privacy complaint and we will quickly remove content which violates our guidelines.”
There is no course of action for children whose parents are the ones violating their privacy, and children with disabilities, like Bodhi, are far more vulnerable to this form of abuse.
For now, the Schofields seem to have escaped that cycle. Neither Susan nor Michael have been charged with any crimes, and it’s unclear where Jani and Bodhi are living as of publication. Susan’s channel is gone, and many of the Schofield Lie montages have been delisted out of concern for the family’s privacy. Since the children were removed, they no longer serve a purpose.
Updated 4/2/2019: Updated to clarify Dr. Hunt’s affiliation
Updated 4/3/2019 4:05PM: Updated to clarify amount of money the Jani Foundation brought in.