Potentially Deadly Youngsters Not Common

May 31, 1998

by Bob Keefer of The Register-Guard

His teacher called the boy “reptilian.”

“He was really, truly evil. There was nothing there. He was cold. The lying. He talked about death and killing all the time and would draw graphic pictures of death and dismemberment.”

The Lane County teacher, who reported the child’s behavior to the school administration but didn’t want his name used for this story, was describing a child he once encountered while teaching at a Eugene middle school a seventh grader, barely more than a baby.

A child who had already become frightening to the adults around him.

A potentially lethal child.

In the aftermath of a brutal shooting that left two students and two adults dead, psychologists and social workers last week said such extreme youth violence has little to do with the rough and tumble of day- to-day teen misbehavior.

Instead, they say, it almost always comes from a small group of children whose families are deeply flawed and often in denial about the severity of their problems.

“My sense is these children don’t connect with other humans,” say Tom Owens, head teacher at the Opportunity Center, an alternative school in the Eugene School District. “It’s almost like they lack some kind of basic emotional, psychological connection to other human beings. I don’t know what causes that. It could be deprivation at some early point in their life. It’s like being born without nerves. You can’t relate to other people’s pain, because you can’t feel it.”

The Opportunity Center typically attracts children with much less severe problems, from mild social misfits to kids with learning disabilities. A few of its students, though, are frightening.

“We had a student years ago who would come to school and brag about stomping on cats,” Owens says. “You call the social worker and say, ‘Hey, we have kid here who has a serious problem.'”

One former student from his school, Owens noted with dismay, was Conan Wayne Hale, who was convicted and sentenced to death this month for kidnapping and murdering three teenagers in 1995.

Testimony at Hale’s trial and sentencing hearing showed he had grown up in a household marred by alcoholism and abuse, and had demonstrated many of the attributes of seriously disturbed children, from aggressive behavior to animal abuse.

“He is on the far end of the scale,” Owens said.

Some researchers say such potentially lethal children can not only be identified as early as pre-school, but that they can be successfully treated.

“This kind of kid comes out of a family where the parents are really overwhelmed and unskilled,” says Gerald Patterson, a psychologist at Oregon Social Learning Center in Eugene. “These parents are not effectively supervising the child and the child is winning confrontations with the parents.”

You see such battles played out sometimes in the grocery store, a favorite acting-out ground for all children testing limits.

“The child says he wants something and the mother says ‘No,’ and he starts to scream and stamp his feet and the mother rushes over and gives him what he wants to keep him quiet,” Patterson says. “There is not something deeply pathological about that unless it happens dozens of times a week, hundreds of times a month. Then you have problems.”

Patterson says such flawed parenting cuts across social and economic boundaries, meaning it may be found in upscale, educated households as well as in impoverished ones.

“There are more and more families where the parents are relatively unskilled or misinformed,” Patterson said. “That makes sense in a society where 20 percent of us move every year. We don’t have the extended network of relatives we used to have. There are more and more people who are overwhelmed by the problem of trying to work at two jobs. There is a lot of talk about family values but, in point of fact, very little support for the family itself in our society.”

A Eugene School District social worker endorses Patterson’s view that dangerous children grow from a flawed family background and says that the numbers of such children are increasing.

“Typically they are kids who are pretty angry,” says Mary Jo Templeman, a social worker with 30 years’ experience. “They sometimes come from families that have had a lot of abuse. They view the world as a dangerous place, a hostile place; therefore they feel justified in acting out any way they need to.”

Templeman says her caseload consists entirely of seriously disturbed children. Of her past students, she says, “several are in prison, several are in jail, several are just hanging out doing drugs and alcohol.”

Some have managed to turn their lives around, attend college, hold jobs and get married.

But the worst of the worst the really bad kids, the ones whose problems are apparent early in life “the ones that I saw as kids who were deeply gone with irrational thinking and rage, they’ve all been in serious trouble,” she says. “And some have been very, very dangerous.”

Like Patterson, Templeman says not all dangerously out-of-control youngsters come from obviously damaged backgrounds. While neither was familiar with the Kinkel family 15-year-old Kip Kinkel is charged with the murders of two Thurston High students and his parents both say it is quite possible for the child of two well-liked school teachers such as Bill and Faith Kinkel to be totally out of control. Children from more sophisticated families may be quite polished at concealing their character from other adults in authority.

“There’s what I guess you would call your Kip Kinkel profile not showing their dark side to everyone. We don’t all have the big picture. Parts of (Kinkel’s) dark side were shown to some folk, but it’s very, very hard to pick up on these kids. Usually they’re brighter, show people what they want to show them and conceal what they want to,” Templeman says.

Research by Patterson and others at OSLC has found that even seriously aggressive children can be controlled through a tightly scripted program of retraining parents working in such fine detail that interactions with their children are videotaped and then analyzed word by word to show what went wrong.

Unfortunately, even when parents are willing to seek such help, the program is expensive and not often covered by insurance. Training behavioral therapists in the OSLC method is time-consuming, he says, and almost guarantees that few trained therapists will be able to make a living.

“It is very difficult working with these families,” Patterson says. “To train even someone who has been clinically involved with families before, say a social worker, it takes two years of careful supervision before they even come close.”

Although 10 years ago he believed that some older children were impossible to treat, Patterson now says there are no hopeless children. Young children up to 6 years of age are easiest to treat, and often require no more than about 20 hours’ total therapy. An adolescent with chronic problems requires many more hours of help.

Templeman agrees that help is available. What is lacking, she says, is society’s determination to offer it when and where it’s needed.

“We do know what makes a difference,” she says. “What we need is to get together and work to set up our priorities. When children are killing other children, there is something seriously wrong with our culture.”

Warning Signs Start at Age 2

Here are warning signs that could indicate a child will have serious problems with violence, according to Gerald Patterson at Oregon Social Learning Center in Eugene.

Patterson cautions that these stages describe a progression; many of the behaviors, by themselves, occur in all children. What distinguishes violent children is the degree to which these acts take over their lives.

Age 2-3: A child who is extremely noncompliant, well beyond traditional “terrible 2” tantrums.

“Three-fourths of the time he just doesn’t do what you ask him to do. And there are frequent temper tantrums, several a day, where he goes until people back off and give in to whatever he is demanding.”

Age 4-6: Physical attacks on other children using a weapon, such as a pencil or pair of scissors. These incidents go well beyond normal preschool roughhousing or even fist fights: “Attacks that are frightening to adults who watch them.”

Other problems might include lying and stealing. “It’s hard to accuse a 4- or 5-year-old of stealing,” Patterson says. “But he’s taking things he’s not supposed to.” A few children at the upper end of this age range will set fires or torture or kill animals.

Age 6 and above: An acceleration of these problems, so that by fourth grade, teachers, counselors, and schoolmates all recognize the child as seriously aggressive.

Many of these children will end up being arrested on criminal charges by age 14, Patterson says. Three-fourths of those kids will go on and become chronic offenders. And about half of those, he says, will commit serious violent crime at some point in their lives.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright 1998, The Register-Guard, www.registerguard.com.