SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

Killer kids: Are they curable?

By Salon Staff

Published April 29, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Baby Ignacio lies in intensive care in a Contra Costa County, Calif. hospital, in critical condition a week after a six-year-old boy allegedly threw him out of the bassinet, hitting the baby again and again with his fists, feet and a stick. The baby has a fractured skull; the best that can be hoped for him is that he survives with permanent brain damage. The boy, charged with attempted murder, may be the youngest to face such a serious charge in American history. Younger than the two 10-year-old Liverpool boys who kidnapped a two-year old from a shopping center and murdered him; and younger than the 10-year-old Chicago boy who dropped a five-year-old to his death from a 14th floor tenement. We talked to Dr. Herb Schreier, chief psychiatrist at Children's Hospital in Oakland, Cailf., who has seen plenty of juvenile violence in his17 years as a child psychiatrist in the inner-city.

How do you treat a six-year-old?

This kid needs very careful evaluation. He'll be in juvenile hall until he's 18, but he'll get a lot more treatment than the average kid because of the notoriety of the case. Still, it's going to be a long road for him therapeutically. There are kids for whom there's not much you can do.
We know young kids commit violent crimes, but a six-year-old trying to kill a baby -- did that surprise you?

No, I've seen plenty of kids who bash other kids, so the fact that a kid bashes a baby doesn't surprise me. In fact, I'm surprised you don't see more of it.

Is this a trend -- younger and younger kids committing ever more heinous acts?

Got your tape recorder ready? According to the Justice Department, between 1982 and 1993, the rate of homicides committed by juveniles, aged 14-17 went up 165 percent. If you look at kids who kill, aged 12-17, while 100 percent of them had psychiatric conditions, no more than 17 percent had been treated. These are pretty disturbed kids. At my clinic, we're turning away a lot of kids who are in desperate need of psychiatric help.

Why are you turning them away?

Because we don't have enough people to take care of them. Because the counties have pulled out support for mental health services for kids. People are calling and begging me: could you please evaluate for a psychiatric condition. I do the best I can, but I can't do anymore. I have a huge caseload.

What is wrong with these kids?

If you look at the kids in juvenile detention, close to 30 percent are suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, usually brought about by physical or sexual abuse. That is one kind of predictor of violence among kids who have been in some sort of trouble before -- being abused or coming from abusing households. The other predictor is psychiatric, like paranoid disorders, depression, organic brain damage, impulsivity problems, Attention Deficit Disorder, especially with kids who are perceived to be "mean." If a kid coming out of juvenile hall has predictors in both areas, the chances of him committing a major crime like murder or rape is almost 100 percent. Kids in juvenile hall with multiple factors are time bombs that are going to go off.

Are these kids treatable?

It depends on the condition. Hyperactivity, manic-depressive illness, temporal lobe epilepsy and other organic factors can be treated by medication. Post-traumatic stress disorders are treated by psychotherapy of a particular kind. It's not like we're in the dark ages. In fact we're far from the dark ages, but there aren't enough child psychiatrists. And a lot of these kids tend to be from poor families, so they really tend not to be seen.

Why aren't there enough child psychiatrists?

It's the one field of medicine that's in short supply. Psychiatry in general has gone down in popularity, partly because it's such a biological field right now. I just know that we're being overwhelmed. And I'm not seeing the worst of these kids. The worst are down at juvenile hall, which is the last place you want them -- these kids need treatment. You want to talk more about prevention?


The British have shown if you provide after-school programs, institute anti-bullying policies in schools, if your schools are run well, then you reduce the amount of crime that the kids in those places produce. Absolutely. There was a teachers strike in Oakland, so they gave the teachers a raise; and you know what the school district did? They cut the counselors by a third. It's really stupid, cutting things like after-school programs. You know when most juvenile crimes are committed? Between 3 and 6 PM.

Netscape on line one


The race to make the Web all things to all people took a leap and a twist Monday as Netscape announced the availability of a new beta-test version of its Navigator 3.0 browser -- with Net phone capability built in.

Net phone products -- software that lets you use a properly equipped computer to hold telephone-style conversations across the Internet -- have been around for some time. But incorporating this function directly into the Netscape browser will mean a gigantic leap in the number of people using it -- assuming it actually works, and assuming that heavy usage doesn't overload the Net and cause a bandwidth crisis.

Netscape's "CoolTalk" announcement promises full-duplex operation, which means that -- unlike some earlier versions of the Net phone -- you'll be able to talk and listen at the same time. To make it all work you'll need a Windows or Unix PC with microphone, speakers and sound board -- or any Mac, except the Mac version of the software won't be available for a while.

Quote of the day
Alive and wiggling

"There is not even a shred of evidence that there was any change in semen parameters over 21 years. We ought not to give up the vigilance that environmental toxicants might be affecting human health. But there is no substantial data set in this country, to say the least, to show that there are declining sperm counts."

-- Dr. Richard Sherins, director of male-infertility research at the Genetics and IVF Institute, Fairfax, Viriginia, on two new studies, published in the May issue of Fertility and Sterility, refuting stories that male sperm count among American men had declined dramatically over the past two decades.

Salon Staff

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