"It's not his fault. He can't help that he's starving," his mother Michelle Christian tells PEOPLE of her son's condition

By Cathy Free
Updated December 24, 2015 11:20 AM
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Credit: Courtesy Michelle Christian

Late on a November night last year, Tyler Jarvis, then 19, slipped out of his house in Pismo Beach, California, and set out on a 10-mile journey in search of food.

Insatiably hungry, he first broke into the homes of two neighbors to steal frozen burritos and vanilla ice cream from their freezers, then walked until dawn, ending up in a stranger’s kitchen in Arroyo Grande. When the homeowner saw Jarvis, he chased him away with a shovel, then called the police, who arrested him for burglary.

Last week, Tyler, 20, who has Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare and complex genetic disorder leaving him constantly hungry and with the developmental capacity of a 7-year-old, was sentenced to three years of probation, requiring him to check in periodically with a judge, pay restitution and carry identification with him at all times. He could have been sent to prison on three felony counts of residential burglary, but pled guilty to misdemeanor charges instead.

Tyler’s mother, Michelle Christian, is fighting the probation ruling, afraid that if her son steals food again, he’ll end up doing time in jail. A judge has scheduled a restitution hearing for March 17.

“It’s ridiculous – it’s like punishing him for having the syndrome,” the 45-year-old hair stylist tells PEOPLE. “It’s not his fault. He can’t help that he’s starving. Sometime after the holidays, I’m moving him into a group home, and although it’s a safe place, I’m still worried. Tyler doesn’t fully understand the implications of his actions. Jail is not the place for a person with Prader-Willi.”

Diagnosed with the syndrome as an infant, Tyler grew up trying to eat anything he could, including dog food and garbage from dumpsters, says Christian, a single mom with one other grown child. Tyler was 8 the first time he sneaked out of his house and broke into a neighbor’s home for food, she says, adding that she now keeps her fridge and cupboards double-padlocked.

“We can never leave him alone,” Christian tells PEOPLE. “But still, he has managed to get out on occasion. That first time, I was cleaning his room and found empty packages for ice cream and cookies, so I drove him through the neighborhood and had him show where he’d taken it. He’d broken into a house in the middle of the night, while the family was sleeping.”

Although she went to great extremes to prevent a repeat occurrence, installing double-sided deadbolt locks on the doors and windows and hiring a caregiver to help watch her son at night, Tyler sneaked out again last month. After he was arrested, he spent a week in solitary confinement in the San Luis Obispo County Jail.

“It was frightening – I wasn’t able to talk to him and he didn’t get to shower for a week,” says Christian. “Finally, they let him out with an ankle monitor. It was extremely upsetting.”

“The criminal system is not adept or prepared to deal with individuals like Tyler,” adds the family’s attorney, Raymond Allen of San Luis Obispo. “He lives with a medical condition that makes him perpetually hungry and impacts his ability to make solid, mature choices. What we need to evolve to is a triage system that asks not is this conduct a crime, but, if this conduct is true, then what does this person need?”

Tyler, who is 5’1 and weighs 160 pounds, is a sweet and loving boy who enjoys riding his three-wheeled bicycle and walking his dogs, Charley, Marley and Baxter, every day, says Christian, who is preparing to send her son to a supervised group home this week, where he will live with three other people who have Prader-Willi syndrome.

“I’m going to miss him like crazy, but I’ll visit as often as possible and we’ll do FaceTime on our iPads every day,” she says. “It will be a huge adjustment for both of us, but it’s time for it to happen. This is a big move for Tyler, but he’s excited about it. It’s time for him to take that next step in life.”