In the summer of 2018, Laurel Austin told her ex-husband, Brad, that she had started their two youngest sons, Joshua and Jeremy, on a new protocol. The protocol required Joshua, 30, and Jeremy, 28, to take a shot of liquid every few hours and according to Laurel, it was working wonders. Like their two older siblings, Joshua and Jeremy are autistic and both have severe behavioral challenges. Jeremy is nonverbal and Joshua has the mental development of an elementary school-aged boy. But the protocol, Laurel says, had altered both of her sons’ behavior for the better.
Brad was used to Laurel’s protocols and he didn’t usually object. The boys live with Laurel in Lenexa, Kansas, and when they visited their father, he’d follow whatever new plan Laurel had laid out. Over the years, she has given her sons different treatments to flush out parasites, bacteria, and toxins that she believes lurk in their bodies, lingering and poisoning them ever since they were vaccinated. There was the GAPS diet, an elimination diet conceived by a woman who believes in a direct link between learning disabilities and food intake. The diet consists of raw egg yolks, fermented vegetables, and homemade yogurt, broths, and soups. Laurel says she had “some success” with GAPS but “it didn’t clear up the candida,” a yeast infection GAPS followers believe is exacerbated by heavy metal toxicity. There was also Risperdal, an antipsychotic medicine; spirulina, a superfood; and antidepressants. Brad never thought any of these were particularly dangerous. He figured that if Laurel wanted to help make life better for the kids, he wasn’t going to stand in her way. But this new protocol was different.
On January 4, 2019, Joshua visited his father and brought a water bottle. That evening, Joshua walked upstairs from his bedroom into the kitchen every few hours and drank about a shot glass worth of the liquid inside the water bottle. According to his stepmother Karrie, the liquid was a sickly yellow color. He had brought the protocol on previous visits, but this was the first time Karrie became suspicious. She is often bedridden with scleroderma, an autoimmune disease, but she was feeling alert that weekend. Karrie says she watched a now-removed video on Laurel’s YouTube channel that showed Laurel giving Jeremy something called Miracle Mineral Solution (Laurel says the video only mentioned that Jeremy was starting “a new journey”). After some Googling, Karrie discovered Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS) is the brand name of a home remedy of sodium chlorite, distilled water, and acid. Together, they comprise the ingredients for chlorine dioxide, a chemical found in bleach and disinfecting agents.
Karrie snuck into the kitchen, unscrewed the bottle cap, and smelled its contents. “It was like sniffing Clorox,” she remembers. She summoned Brad to take a whiff. He did and then called the police.
Ever since then, Brad and Laurel have been locked in a messy fight that has morphed into battles over custody, money, and what it means to be a loving parent. Brad doesn’t refer to Laurel by name, just “my ex-wife.” He’s been alienated from Joshua since that weekend in January. (He hasn’t had contact with Jeremy in over a decade, following one of Jeremy’s violent outbursts.)
Brad wants Laurel to face legal consequences for giving Joshua and Jeremy MMS, comparing the protocol to poison. Laurel says it’s ludicrous that anyone would accuse her of feeding her children bleach. She wonders how MMS could even be considered bleach when she claims it has helped Jeremy speak 15 words, give hugs, and once retrieve something she dropped in the kitchen.
On Laurel’s YouTube channel, where she has over 4,800 subscribers, she said in September that MMS “has completely wiped” out Jeremy’s seizures. When I ask Laurel if these changes were perhaps the result of Jeremy’s residential programs, she responds, “[Why] would day service get him to start talking? It’s the MMS.” Laurel clearly believes in the power of MMS even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers in August 2019 not to drink the concoction, which they attributed to “recent rise in reported health issues” such as severe vomiting, diarrhea, and acute liver failure. The agency, which regulates how MMS is marketed but not used, called MMS dangerous, not proven to be safe or effective, and says it’s equivalent to drinking bleach. Despite the warnings, MMS and other chlorine dioxide remedies remain largely unregulated.
But for parents like Laurel, MMS isn’t dangerous and its benefits are obvious. Brad, however, sees his children ingesting bleach and has nearly exhausted his legal options to stop his ex-wife from administering MMS to Joshua and Jeremy. Brad filed a report with the police department in Lenexa; he also filed a report with Adult Protective Services. In response, Laurel petitioned for a restraining order against Brad, which wasn’t granted. When Brad found out a local doctor had signed off on a treatment plan for Jeremy that included drops of MMS, he contacted a hospital ethics committee. Brent, Brad’s brother, filed a complaint against the doctor with a licensing and regulatory board.
Laurel and Brad’s domestic fight soon migrated online. They both started GoFundMe pages for legal assistance. Karrie reached out to the media, which Laurel considered harassment. In her restraining order petition, Laurel described Karrie’s efforts to get in touch with a national NBC journalist as a “witch hunt.” In September, Brad and Laurel appeared on a local FOX4 story, which they both took issue with after it aired: Brad thought Laurel was portrayed in a sympathetic light, and Laurel thought Brad lied. In the segment, Brad said his children’s autism was caused by genetics, but Laurel claims Brad knows the kids had genetic testing done for celiac, Fragile X Syndrome, and Prader-Willi, and that the results came back negative. (According to the latest research, autism has multiple genetic and nongenetic causes.) In a video on YouTube following the FOX4 story, Laurel reiterated her belief that the boys’ autism was caused by vaccines, saying to a camera in her bedroom that they’ve had “lab work... showing heavy metal toxicity. These are the same heavy metals that are in vaccines.”
In November 2019, Laurel went on Israeli News Live, an anti-vax site that claims to examine “world events from a prophetic out look [sic],” to refute Brad and Karrie. The site is hosted by Steven Ben-Nun (spelled Ben DeNoon on his Facebook page) and his wife Jana, both friends of Laurel’s. During Laurel’s segment, Steven told his viewers that Brad and Karrie “got involved in trying to shut down one of the most beautiful success stories we have ever seen.”
Even before Brad and Laurel began fighting over MMS, the two had a rocky relationship. They met on Thanksgiving Day 1984, at the annual holiday light show in Kansas City when they were both seniors in high school. As a young woman, Laurel had dark fluffy hair that hung halfway down her back, and bangs cut across her forehead in classic ’80s fashion. They married the following July, right after graduation, and shortly after Laurel’s 18th birthday.
Four days later, Brad enlisted in the Air Force. In February 1992, the year after the last of their four children was born, he was stationed in Korea for a year. Laurel, at home in her mid-20s with four special needs children, two still in diapers, felt financially strapped for gas, groceries, and insurance. Plus, there were rumors that Brad was unfaithful. Laurel filed for divorce in April of that year and was engaged to her second husband in August.
Brad wanted to fight the divorce and Laurel’s plan to take the kids to Texas, where her second husband was based in the Air Force. He says he didn’t have the money, however, and decided not to. Eventually, Laurel moved her family back to Kansas and married her current husband in 1997. Still, Brad and Laurel shared joint legal custody. He says he took the kids every other weekend, adding that “if there were scheduling conflicts, we’d notify each other of those conflicts and reschedule.” But Laurel claims he sometimes showed up on random days to take them. During visits, Karrie and Brad had Jeremy sleep at the foot of their bed in a sleeping bag. One December in the early aughts, Brad and Karrie threw a first birthday for one of their own four children. When no one was looking, Jeremy walked out their front door, without shoes or a jacket, into a foot of snow. After a frantic search, Brad found him across the street at the mayor’s house. They learned over time that they needed to watch Jeremy 24/7. He ate crayons and candles. He wasn’t toilet trained until age 14 and would smear feces on the walls and carpet. They put alarms on the doors. “He was definitely the more difficult one,” says Karrie. “But he was still Jer Bear.”
Karrie went along with Laurel’s treatments out of fear that if she didn’t, Laurel wouldn’t let the kids visit. She unwillingly administered shots of Lupron, a hormone suppression drug, to Jeremy (Laurel says the Lupron was Karrie and Brad’s idea). Jeremy became violent as a young teen and is prone to self-harm. His forearms are swollen from biting, puffed like he’s been stung by a thousand bees. He slaps himself and screams. He spent seven years in various assisted living facilities until Laurel pulled him out in June 2018, around the time she began the MMS treatment. Laurel attributes his aggressive behavior to the booster shot he received for diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus.
Today, Laurel is the primary caretaker for both Joshua and Jeremy. Money is still tight for Brad, who works in information technology and construction as the supervisor for a service desk. Laurel gained guardianship when the boys turned 18. She showers Jeremy, brushes his teeth, and cleans his hair as if he’s a small child. She’s a headshot and pageant photographer, but with the coronavirus lockdown, she’s spending more time at home. Her house is decorated with fat leather couches, dark bookcases, family photo collages, and creeping plants in various nooks.
Brad hasn’t seen Jeremy in over a decade. He used to visit the assisted living facility, but his son’s outbursts frightened him. He wasn’t sure whether his presence was a trigger and he figured he’d remove himself altogether rather than cause his son pain. To Brad, it was a loving gesture, but to Laurel, it was a heartless excuse.
Miracle Mineral Solution was originally concocted in 1996 by a man named Jim Humble while on a gold mining expedition in South America. On his website, Humble writes, “I want to tell you about a breakthrough that can save your life, or the life of a loved one.” He claims MMS is a cure-all for every illness and disease one might ever endure in a lifetime: Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer, all three types of hepatitis, malaria, obesity, tumors, cysts, aches, pains, allergies, urinary tract infections, high cholesterol, eye disease, acid reflux, skin problems, and erectile dysfunction. He has also claimed that MMS can kill viruses, including coronavirus and Ebola, as well as boost the immune system. The claims are, of course, baseless. Joe Schwarcz, the Director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, says Humble is “a scientific nobody.” But still, MMS has made inroads into the mainstream. In April, it made headlines when President Donald Trump alluded to the curative potential of injecting disinfectant into the body.
Humble’s most prominent follower is Kerri Rivera, an ally of Laurel’s who hawks chlorine dioxide under the name Kerri Rivera Autism Protocol. Like Laurel, Rivera believes her son was born “neurotypical,” but then at age two, regressed back to baby-like behavior. He squealed, flapped around, wouldn’t make eye contact, possessed a far-off look in his eye, and drooled excessively. She tried diet supplements and hyperbaric oxygen treatments before being introduced to MMS by a doctor in Guadalajara who referred to MMS as “detoxification drops.” Rivera, who has no medical degree, claims MMS revived her son’s speech. She proselytized its supposed marvel at the 2012 AutismOne conference, an anti-vaccination event in Chicago.
In 2015, the Illinois Attorney General barred Rivera from speaking about and selling chlorine dioxide in the state. Recently, Amazon banned her book Healing the Symptoms Known as Autism and YouTube kicked her off their platform. Still, she continues to preach on the messaging platform Telegram, in her group CDAutism, a reference to chlorine dioxide.
Rivera’s group is small but dedicated. The 131 members ask her questions about her protocol and take Rivera’s conspiratorial warnings seriously. In a pinned message on Telegram, Rivera warns members: “There are trolls. Answer no one in a private message. They like to destroy families and send in CPS. Sick individuals. Be careful. Social media is full of sickos.” One member asked Rivera whether they can clean a cut with chlorine dioxide and if anyone has recovered from coronavirus with chlorine dioxide, to which she answered, “Jim has,” presumably referring to Humble. Parents talk about giving their children enemas. Rivera shares information on her son’s progress, including socializing at school (“mind blown!”) and doles out unsubstantiated advice: “There should be no vomiting of [sic] if you divide a drop into 16 parts,” she told one member. One woman, in a plea for help, asked about her daughter who “got to 9 drops” but she was still suffering from stiff joints, nausea, and aches. Rivera replied, “Not from cd. Did she have Chinese food with msg?”
Rivera did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment.
The day after Karrie put a name to Laurel’s new protocol, Brad drove Joshua to the Lenexa Police Department. He and Karrie had swapped the chlorine dioxide in Joshua’s water bottle for actual water and transferred the MMS to a different container. At the department, Officer Tyler Mantz unscrewed the cap containing the MMS and “could smell the overwhelming odor of bleach,” according to the police report provided to Jezebel.
Brad dealt with the police for several hours. The plan, he told me, was that the officers would go to Laurel’s house, take Jeremy into custody, and make arrangements for him. The night before, officer Christine Reglin had made a welfare check to Laurel’s house. When Laurel answered the door, she explained she’d been treating Jeremy and Joshua with a mixture of hydrochloric acid—which can also be used to make chlorine dioxide—and water and had seen behavioral improvements. She remembers saying to the police, “If you show me this is harmful or detrimental, I’ll stop.” But, she adds, authorities “never did show me it was detrimental.”
Back at the department, Mantz inspected Joshua. He observed that Joshua “appeared to be in good spirits” and that Joshua told him “the solution does not taste bad or make him throw-up.” Mantz suggested Brad take him to the Shawnee Medical Hospital to check for symptoms; Brad did and said Joshua’s blood test came back normal. Once ingested, however, acid in the stomach decomposes MMS and detection usually has to be symptomatic, like difficulty breathing. “Very often the people who resort to MMS are also people who are very sick,” said Schwarcz, the director at McGill. “So you don’t know what kills them.”
MMS defenders point to the lack of recorded deaths as evidence of its safety, but that’s part of the problem. “The fact that there haven’t been deaths may be part of the reason it’s not much of an issue,” said Chris Wiant, the chair of an advisory group to the American Chemistry Council. “Which is a sad commentary. You don’t want to wait until you have a bunch of bodies lined up.”
Detectives Jacob Guthier and Shannon Murphy were assigned to the case. There was already another open investigation into Laurel by the Kansas Department of Adult Protective Services, separate from Brad’s complaint. Options Day Services, where Jeremy was enrolled before Laurel removed him, refused to give Jeremy MMS. An employee observed Laurel giving Jeremy a dose in the parking lot and filed a complaint. The social worker assigned to the case told Murphy that Options had tested the solution. The results indicated four parts per million of chlorine, enough for a pool. When the caseworker visited Laurel and saw that Jeremy wasn’t experiencing negative side effects, they decided that the situation did not meet the threshold for removal.
Voicemails left with Options’ owner were not returned, but under a one-star Google review of Options left by Laurel, the owner responded:
I’m sorry you are unhappy that we contacted the police as directed to by Poison Control for forcing your son to drink bleach. You yourself said the doctor would not be willing to provide any further assistance when we had questions about side effects when he was throwing it up and the smell was so strong it was making our employees sick. What you force your son to do on your time is most certainly your business but we will not be put in a position of contributing harm to anyone. We were told we had to report it to the police so we did.
Murphy reached out to Dr. Sarita Singh, Jeremy’s physician at the University of Kansas Medicine West. In June 2018, Singh signed a treatment plan Laurel has for Jeremy titled “Jeremy Austin’s Daily List of Supplements,” which included 16 doses of MMS a day every hour. Later, Singh told Murphy that one drop of hydrochloric acid would not be harmful, but that she wouldn’t advise someone to consume it in general. She also wasn’t sure how the protocol was being administered to Jeremy. Laurel visited Singh again during the investigation and the doctor presented a letter to the police that said the MMS protocol combined with water was benign and nontoxic. Laurel wouldn’t disclose to me how many drops Jeremy and Joshua were consuming, but that it was somewhere between one and 50. Singh did not respond to request for comment; The University of Kansas’s ethics committee declined to comment citing federal laws and “other complications.”
Brent, Brad’s brother, filed a complaint against Singh to the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts, a licensing and regulatory board for health professionals. He empathized with Laurel—his own daughter has Down syndrome and a doctor once advised him and his first wife to cure her by feeding her almonds—and wasn’t angry with her but rather at the very fact that MMS is legal. In October 2019, Brent received a letter stating the investigation was pending. By March, he hadn’t heard anything further. In an email to me, Carah Emory, the investigator assigned to the complaint, said she could neither confirm nor discuss an investigation. On January 29, 2019, the police closed the case due to insufficient evidence establishing a criminal offense. Danny Chavez, the public information officer, told me they came to the conclusion because Singh hadn’t deemed MMS to be dangerous.
At times during the reporting of this story, I felt like a mediator, particularly between Karrie and Laurel. Laurel accused Karrie of being jealous and stalking her online. Karrie claimed Laurel bad-mouthed her to Brad’s friends. They each told different sides of the same stories, without my prompting, as if they wanted to keep one step ahead of the other. There’s the debate over the nature of Karrie’s former Yahoo group for stepparents of children with autism. Laurel says Karrie posted personal information about the kids; Karrie says that isn’t true, but that Laurel infiltrated the group with an alias. Either way, Laurel’s lawyer sent Karrie a cease-and-desist letter.
More seriously, there’s the allegation that Karrie abused Jeremy, which she denies. Karrie told me that between 1997 and 2001 Laurel twice filed complaints against her with Child Protective Services. The first was after Karrie says she “swatted [Jeremy] on the butt through a diaper” when he was biting her arm to try to make him let go. In the second allegation, Laurel claims that Karrie pried Jeremy’s mouth open with a spoon when he refused to eat his chili. Karrie says she has a rule in her house that everyone must take a bite of everything on their plate.
Like many family feuds, the stories Karrie, Brad, and Laurel tell are inconsistent and messy. Karrie says she was interviewed by CPS but that she doesn’t have any paperwork because the incident happened two decades ago and questioned whether documentation even existed anymore. Laurel couldn’t recall whether she had filed any complaints or not. When I asked Brad about a CPS complaint, he described a totally different incident. He didn’t know anything about the other abuse allegations and also questioned whether the agency kept records that long.
In late April, the FDA issued a warning to MMS creator Humble and a court injunction against Genesis II Church of Health and Healing, a self-described “loose-knit” group of Humble’s devotees, including Rivera. Despite the news, Brad was angry and despondent that no one would hold Laurel accountable.
Karrie was more optimistic, though. Before the pandemic, she was trying to convince Brad to let her travel to the AutismOne conference in May to protest. After the conference went virtual, she and Brad signed up for Laurel’s talk on how Rivera’s protocol has helped Jeremy and Joshua. Karrie continues to monitor Laurel online. She keeps a Google doc with screenshots of Laurel’s Facebook, Xeroxed excerpts from Rivera’s book, images of supposed rope worms extracted by MMS that Karrie says are “obviously intestinal lining coming out of these kids.” She doesn’t believe Jeremy is saying words because there’s been no YouTube video evidence. Laurel says she could probably capture Jeremy on video if she tried. Maybe, she added, that would be her coronavirus quarantine project.
Laurel cares for Joshua and Jeremy. Brad’s sister is Jeremy’s standby guardian and Laurel’s mother, who visits the house every week, is Joshua’s. Laurel cooks for the boys, continuing to feed them food reminiscent of the GAPS diet. Joshua and Jeremy are still on a protocol. She wouldn’t confirm whether it was MMS, though she speaks about administering MMS in the present tense (“We’ve kept a really, really low dosage... we’re not at 50 drops.”).
On the phone one afternoon, Laurel asked me if I could hear screaming in the background. I said I couldn’t. She told me that Jeremy was in the room with her, being very calm and quiet.
“His body is in the state of healing,” she says.
Britta Lokting is a journalist in New York. Her features have appeared in The New York Times, Oxford American, MIT Technology Review, and elsewhere.