It was chilly on the evening of Dec. 4 - even for Atlanta - when Diana Elliott drove to the hospital with her nonverbal special-needs teenager.
The 37-year-old mother's ombre turquoise and purple braids splayed across her white puffer jacket. Her face was slightly covered by a red hat and the hood over her head. She walked hand in hand with her 14-year-old son.
The pair wandered the hallways of the hospital without checking in or speaking to anyone for an hour, police say. Elliott and her son eventually walked outside together - but she left the Grady Memorial Hospital's property alone in a red minivan, according to police.
A nurse on her break went outside and noticed the disoriented, cold and hungry boy by himself, Lt. Jeff Baxter said in a Tuesday news conference. A social worker at the hospital contacted police. The teen was carrying a bag with a few items, but there was nothing to help police determine who he was, Baxter told reporters.
He wasn't able to communicate with the officers, according to the incident report, and his fingerprints weren't on file.
After five days, police turned to the public to help identify the teen and the person who left him there. They were hoping that whomever dropped the child off would come back to get him, Baxter said.
Police say tips came flooding in, which eventually led law enforcement to a DeKalb County hotel room Elliott was sharing with her three other children, Baxter said in a Thursday news conference.
Elliott told police she left her son at the hospital because she was overwhelmed.
"She indicated that there were a lot of things going on in her life that were making it hard for her to support her family," Baxter said. "She just kind of felt like she could no longer care for her kids."
Baxter called the development sad but said Elliott leaving her nonverbal son alone in downtown Atlanta's cold without notifying any hospital staff on site were factors that led to her charge of child cruelty.
"When you take on the responsibility of becoming a parent and raising children, there's certain things that go along with that," he said. He also said he personally couldn't imagine how much harder it is to parent a special-needs child.
Elliott was released Thursday afternoon, after an Atlanta judge granted her bond with nothing more than her signature, WXIA's Kaitlyn Ross reported. Other moms who saw Elliott's story came to the courthouse and rallied around the single mother to support her.
"Diana turned around and gasped when she saw them in the courtroom," Ross reported on Facebook. "She had never met any one of these women and started crying when she realized they were there to support her."
About 23 percent of U.S. households with children have at least one child with special health-care needs, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration. As the prevalence of children with special needs has increased over the decades, resources and support for parents has continued to lag, according to scholars and experts.
Research suggests that parents or guardians of children with special needs are burdened on different levels, said Joseph Grzywacz, associate dean of research and graduate studies at Florida State University.
Grzywacz, who has studied the health and well-being of middle-aged parents of children with special needs, said parents who have children with more than one condition seem to be more weighed down with responsibility because their child requires more attention and services.
Grzywacz, the father of an adopted daughter who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, said society does not provide enough support for parents with special needs.
"There's no safety net to help parents," he said. "It's an omission in the scientific and policy space."
Parenting a child with special needs can become more difficult as they become older, stronger and less easy to manage, according to Ana Maria Brannan, an associated professor of special education at Indiana University at Bloomington.
Some parents can depend on schools as a source of child supervision while they work, Brannan told The Washington Post. But schools aren't all equipped to handle special-needs students, causing emotional and financial strain, she said.
"You get a cyclical diminishing of resources, and it just spirals until many folks don't know what else to do," she said, speculating that Elliott might've been trying to care better for her other three children while thinking the hospital was a better place for her special-needs son.
Brannan, who has studied stress levels of parents who have children with mental-health needs, said many parents end up quitting their jobs or getting fired while trying to parent and work. Respite services, which entail a sitter coming to a home to relieve caregivers, would be helpful for people like Elliott, she said. However, it's a hard sell to consider giving parents with special-needs children a break when most people want a break themselves, she said.
Minnesotan parents and disability advocates Julie and Don McNeil have two children who require constant care and supervision. They decided Julie would stay home and care for their 30-year-old daughter, who has Williams syndrome, and their 22-year-old son, who has severe autism with self-harming behaviors.
Don runs a Twitter account to offer tips to parents who might also have children with neurological or behavioral needs. He and his wife refer to people like Elliott as "members of the club" who don't pass judgment on one another.
"You cannot judge somebody who's found themselves at a breaking pitch like that," Don told The Post, emphasizing that marriage has made parenting two lifelong-dependent children less difficult.
Their middle son, who was born without any special needs, is a co-guardian of his siblings. The differences in raising him were stark, they both said.
"When they're going through their teen years, you can pick up the phone and call any of your neighbors or family members," Julie said. "When you have a child with disabilities, your support system gets so narrow there's hardly anyone you can pick up and say, 'What do you do when they bang their heads against the wall?'"
Elliott's attorney, Brian Jarrad, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Her son is still being cared for at Grady Memorial Hospital and her other children are being evaluated by the Georgia Department of Family and Children's Services.