Contra Costa County Probation Chief
Q: Tell me how long you've been working with juveniles...
Starr: I started working with juveniles [since] right out of college. My first
job after I graduated was at a juvenile hall in San Diego. And I think like a
lot of people in this field, I just wandered into it. I mean, I really had no
intention of sticking with it. I actually thought I was going to be a
stockbroker, make a lot of money. But I found out I was good at it and I liked
it and so I stuck with it.
Q: Why do you like working with juveniles?
Starr: Well, it's different every day. I think it's
something that you either like and you're good at, or you don't like and you're
not good at. I'm really patient with people. I'm not patient with things, and
I've always kind of particularly liked working with kids, just because I think
there are so many times when there is one person that makes a difference in a
kid's life. I get, every once in awhile, letters or calls from people. I got
a call a couple of weeks ago from a kid that I had honestly forgotten I'd
worked with 25 years ago, and he was writing a paper in his college
class on what affected his life. He sent me a copy of it; I had no idea. But
I was there at a time when, you know, he was really having a tough time. He
had no father, and the whole business. So I mean, that was 20, 25
years ago. So, there are some rewards for that.
Q: Have kids changed over the years that you have been dealing with them?
And if so, how?
Starr: I think everything has just changed so much, it's
almost impossible to relate to even 30 years ago. When I started out it
was really very rare to find youngsters who had committed real acts of
violence. I mean, in San Diego Juvenile Hall the first few years I was there,
I don't ever recall a kid on a murder charge. When I left there in 1990, we
had 18 or 19 kids awaiting murder charges down in San Diego
Juvenile Hall, so they've changed dramatically. And drugs have changed the
world. We're losing a whole generation of kids to methamphetamines and some of
these other crazy drugs and then,
I think the whole family thing has changed, to the point where we now have
people who take no responsibility and don't even think about any responsibility
before they make decisions about kids. I mean, maybe the decision is made for
them in a moment of passion, but once that decision is made, there
are an awful lot of people who still don't take any responsibility. So, yeah,
I think things have changed dramatically, and not necessarily for the better,
Q: What's the youngest kid that you've dealt with prior to this case?
Starr: I think I had a kid who was 7 in San Diego who was an
arsonist. He was an interesting kid--when he'd get mad at his mother, he
would set fire to all of her clothes, and they lived in an apartment house, so
he set fire to this closet, and almost burned the apartment house up, so the
other tenants were not amused. And then he had burned up his mother's
boyfriend's Cadillac convertible, so the mother's boyfriend wasn't amused. And
I think we had him for a few months because he was real tough to place because
he was really active as a fire setter. But usually we don't see kids until
they're about 12, quite frankly. That's usually as soon as we see them.
Q: So this case of the 6-year-old was totally unique in your
Terry Starr: I think it was. It was unique because of the
young age and it was unique because I think we treated it differently than we
might have treated it five or ten years ago. I mean, I think we've become a
little more legalistic. We've become a little more concerned with holding even
young kids accountable for the things they do. So it was a unique experience
and one I don't want to repeat.
Q: Why is that?
Starr: Well, my experience with this thing has been that this
whole thing got cranked up, and kind of had a life of its own because of the
media attention to it. I mean, we had media from all over the world here,
focusing in on this. And you know, it's not a good thing. I think it
diverted the focus from what was best for this kid for a period of time.
On the other hand, I think some real positives came out of this, particularly
for this youngster. Because his stay at [juvenile] hall, I think, was a
productive one in terms of giving him some structure, allowing him to see that
there are rules. He learned to get along with other kids. He bonded with some
staff members. I mean, he was on a regular routine, maybe for the first time
in his life. And I think that that really has gone a long way in helping him
adjust to the setting he's in now, where I understand he's doing quite well.
Q: I just want to back up a little bit. Can you tell me how you first
heard about this case, and what your reaction was?
Starr: I don't know whether I heard about it first from the news media,
or whether I got a call from the Richmond Police Department. But when I first
really did get involved, it was a call from the Richmond Police Department.
They suggested that they were going to have a press conference that afternoon
to discuss this and thought I might want to be there since the boy was going to
be in juvenile hall and since we were going to have some responsibility for
him. So I did go, and I was filled in on what the details were. And
then they went from there.
Q: When you were filled in about the details of what happened, what was
Starr: Well, I mean you're always shocked, when something
like this occurs, and I was really concerned at first that there
not be some kind of a community backlash. I was really very much concerned
about what might happen in the community based on the feelings that were there.
And then I was concerned about what in the world we were going to do with this
youngster. I mean, at age 6, it presented some really unique problems for
the juvenile hall staff.
But I felt that the court made the very right decision of keeping the youngster
here because I was concerned also about his welfare and safety. I mean, I had
some bizarre calls during those first few days from people who were asking me
questions like, "You know, why can't we just do to him what he did to this
little kid?" I don't know, dumb questions. And it shows you there's a whole
range of strange people out there, some of whom, they're probably not
dangerous, but who knows?
So I was concerned about him. And then, as the thing went on, it became
obvious that the juvenile hall staff were going to be able to cope with this,
and did very well. And that it wasn't going to cause a big problem for the
other kids in the hall, for this youngster, or for the juvenile hall staff.
Q: You mentioned, though, that it did create a problem for you and your
staff. Can you tell me what those problems were? Or what you feared the
problems might be at the outset? What were your concerns about suddenly having
a 6-year-old in juvenile hall?
Starr: The first thing you think about is protecting him from
other kids and one thing and another, but he was a real feisty little guy and
[the] staff and he developed a relationship right away. And the one nice thing
about a juvenile hall setting is that we have the responsibility of
totally supervising kids 24 hours a day. So I wasn't really worried ...
about him getting hurt. I was more worried about something
from the outside happening. And that, I think, was primarily because of the
media frenzy that was involved. I had 35 calls from the media one day. And
some of them were legit calls and some of them were people that asked moronic
questions. I had one reporter ask me, "What did he have for breakfast this
morning?" And so I told her, "We gave him bread and water, like we
always do." She actually believed me for a couple minutes. Fortunately, I
think the biggest thing that occurred that soothed the waters out there, was
the way the family of the victim responded to this. I mean, right away, they
were concerned about this little kid, and said, "We don't want anything to
happen to him." And so I think that took a lot of the anger out, just the way
they responded to it. They were very classy, I thought.
Q: Can you tell me about the unit that he was placed in--how many other
kids were there, how old they were?
Starr: He was in a unit with 19 other kids. He had his own room.
Kids ranged in age from 12 to 15. They were, and are lightweight
kids. They weren't kids that had violence offenses. They were kids
who were in for a variety of things that generally have to do with property
offenses. And we put him right next to the counseling station, and we were
always very aware of where he was. The school put in a special program for
him, which you would expect, since he's a kindergartner, first grader. And so
that all went fairly well.
And one thing about a juvenile hall setting is the program goes 24
hours a day and you can leave here and come back in ten years and the same
thing is going to be happening at the same time. So it isn't as though we had
to make a lot of adjustments on that basis, because we didn't.
It was mostly making sure that we knew where he was, and [that] he had
some needs that other kids didn't have. The first day he was here, he and the
twins both wanted to know where the toys were. So, it was maybe
making adjustments that way. But the kids, actually, were real good with him.
We never had a concern for his safety here. Some of the kids acted like big
brothers to him, and certainly the staff took to him right away. He's a very
engaging little kid, really.
Q: Can you tell me, did he ever show any signs of violence or temper when
he was there?
Starr: Well, I mean, he's real active. And I think that he's got a
temper. He's used to defending himself. He is used to settling things a
different way, maybe, than the average 6-year-old was. But, because he was
so much younger here, there really wasn't an issue with that. And, again, you
know, staff were always aware of everything that was going on with him. He had
a couple staff members that he really did bond with and whenever you saw them,
you saw him. So it wasn't ... that really never was an issue for us.
Q: Did you like him? And why?
Starr: Did I like him? Yeah. Because for us, I mean, any
kid that walks in here, you may not like what they've done. But
generally what you find out is, they're just kids. And they act like kids and
they've got senses of humors and tempers and some things about them are
likeable and some aren't. I mean, to me, he was just a little kid. And I'm
sorry all that happened. I think it's a tragedy for everybody concerned.
On the other hand, I think some positives did come out of it, particularly for
him. Because I think from an educational standpoint, everybody has a much
better view of where this young man is right now. And I still think that we
probably were able to intervene at a time in his life, where there are some
positives that are still possible. And based on what I know, I would have been
very concerned about the way things were going.
So, he was a friendly, likeable little kid, and I don't know how much intent a
kid that age can form. I don't know what was going through his mind in terms
of how wrong this was. I mean, he obviously knows it's wrong, but whether he
thinks about it or, has a very highly developed conscience about it, I'll never
know. But he was likeable. He's a likeable little kid.
Q: In our interviews everybody finds him to be quite a charming, winning
kind of personality, with a great smile and a sense of humor, so it's kind of
hard to square it with the act that he is charged with, isn't it?
Starr: Well, he's 6 and I think that's part of the defense.
I've dealt with kids that I did not like. I've dealt with kids that I
thought were really, really dangerous, who I think would cut your throat as
well as look at you. And I've also dealt with kids who murder people and were
very charming. But circumstances being what they are here, we kind of leave
the charges outside. Because if you don't, it makes you a little crazy.
It's not that we don't consider it, particularly with the older kids. If we've
got somebody that we know is dangerous physically, obviously that's something
that we keep track of. But for a little kid like this and for a lot of these
other kids, they can be charming kids and I think that's one of the reasons I
stayed in juvenile hall. Because I always liked working with the kids. You
know there's a certain kind of an honesty in a juvenile hall setting.
It's really hard to lie to people in a juvenile hall setting, and some
kids respond to that real well.
It's interesting to me, because all the years that I have been doing this, I
have never yet met a kid on the street who wasn't happy to see me. And I think
that just has to do with the way we deal with kids. I mean, the people here
really deal well with kids. It isn't that you don't hold them
accountable, but they can deal with issues of being reined in and directed and
one thing and another if it's fair. Obviously, we lock the doors, but they
know what the rules are and accept that as long as you're fair with them.
Q: There were some people, and actually this is kind of interesting, that
were critical of the 6-year-old being in juvenile hall. I was thinking
chiefly of the DA, who said that it wasn't so much that ... he
was badly treated here. But his concern was that he was too well-treated here,
and that he was getting too used to things, and that his stay here actually
wouldn't provide him with any kind of deterrent, but, in fact, might be an
incentive, to him later on to come back. Did you have any of those kind of
Starr: No. You know why? I've heard this over the years,
because he was ready to go. On two or three occasions I heard him ask when he
was going home. I was concerned for his safety to start with. I thought he
needed to be here for his safety. Did I want him here? No. And I am still a
little, you know, I'm unhappy that he was here as long as he was, but it took
that long for the process to work. And it took that long for everybody to be
comfortable that we knew enough about this kid to know what was best for him.
But I don't buy that.
No matter what, you're still in custody. You've still got somebody
telling you when to go to bed, when to go to the bathroom, when to eat, how to
eat, when to talk, when to be quiet, when to go to school. I think he needed
that. I think it was a positive thing for him. But I don't think he will be
breaking down our door to get back in here because he had such a good time, at
least I don't think he will. It's not been my experience.
Q: All right. An experience of bonding with some of the staff members is I
mean, maybe it's the first time he ever had that in his life with a male.
Starr: I don't know. He really did. It was pretty obvious to
me every time I was here that he had favorites on every shift and that he
waited for them to come on and that they really liked him. So, I
think it was a good thing. Again, he's 6, and it's a whole different world,
6 to 12 even. I mean, a lot of the 12-year-olds, they don't want
anything to do with you, they're already kind of set in their way. But the
6-year-old, I think there were some positives, some real positives that came
out of it. I really do.
Q: Why didn't you want him here anyway?
Starr: Well, that age disparity just causes you lots of problems, and
originally, I thought it would be much more disruptive than it was. I really
have to give the staff at this juvenile hall a lot of credit for jumping right
into this thing and making this thing work. They started every day
figuring out how they were going to deal with these issues and they did, and I
think, for some of them, they were kind of sorry to see him go, because they
did get close to him.
But initially, we didn't know how this thing was going to play out. We were
very unhappy with all the media attention. We had people gathering out here.
I didn't know who they were necessarily and there were all kinds of
opposing views on this situation and we were kind of caught in the middle of
it. And we had no control over it really. Once the youngster was ordered
detained, that was our charge and we had no control, and so we had no idea how
long it would last.
But most of the fears I had really didn't come to fruition. It was not the kind
of experience I thought we might have. I don't think it upset the unit and I
don't think it upset him. I think it was, basically, in the long run,
good for him.
Q: There was one psychiatrist who examined this boy, actually, and after
spending an hour with him came away and said he was a psychopath in the making,
a natural born killer. What's your reaction to that kind of diagnosis?
Starr: Over the thirty years I've been doing this I think
I've worked with some really, really good clinician, good psychologists and
real good psychiatrists. They sometimes disagree with each other and I really
don't know. But, in a way, I think our job was to try and pick up
wherever he is and work with him. I didn't work with him directly, so it's
hard for me to personally say, and I don't know what's going to happen with
him. I mean, I don't know maybe at 15, he'll be a normal
15-year-old, doing normal 15-year-old things, maybe he won't be. But
our charge was to work with him whatever the circumstances were.
Q: So what does your gut tell you about his future?
Starr: Well, I'd be less than candid, if I didn't tell you I was
really, really concerned. A lot of these kids kind of raise
themselves and for those of us who have children, you know how many
hours you spend with your kids. And you know how many variables there are that
you can't even control. But you're at least giving your kids a direction to
go, a road map and all the support and all the bonding that goes with it. A
lot of these kids don't get that. Sure. I mean, it really does concern you.
I know kids who are really, really dangerous kids. I've seen kids who I worked
with in juvenile halls, who are in state prisons now and will probably never
get out of state prisons. For some, violence is a way of life. They
respond to certain things by automatically becoming violent. Is it true with
this little guy? I don't know. I really don't know. Would it have been true
if we hadn't had some intervention with him? Yeah, I think it absolutely would
have. Will he grow now and develop? You know, that's all you can hope. But
it's tough. And somebody asked Sigmund Freud once what the two most important
years of a person's life were, and he said, "The first two." Because that's
when you bond. And this little guy may have bonded. I don't know. I don't
know much about his early life. Is it true to say he's got some serious,
ongoing problems? You bet. So, I mean, I think the system will be involved
with him for a lot of years, many years.
Q: But should a 6-year-old even be in the criminal justice system in your
Starr: It's a matter of opinion, I guess.
Q: And what's yours?
Starr: Mine is not. No, I think there is a time when kids really do
understand what they've done, and he knows the difference between right and
wrong, but I don't know how deep it goes. And I think the same thing was going
to happen either way, and I think the concern should have been, and was, what
was best for him in the long run.
Nobody's interested in tagging this kid with any kind of charges or with
anything that'll follow him, but something had to happen, clearly. And I think
the same thing would have happened either way. It just would not have
generated all the publicity. Is it good? I don't know. I mean, maybe some
lessons are learned out of this, that we wouldn't otherwise be looking at. But
he's settled and what appears to be a good, overall long-term situation for him
is in place.
Q: Ultimately, the system decided to treat him as a victim, rather than an
offender. Do you agree with that?
Starr: Yeah. If you go out and look at a lot of kids that I see, they
really don't have much going for them. We know, for instance, that the vast
majority of kids are going to do all right, they're going to live their lives
and grow up and be part of the system. But those kids are kids that generally
have had the wisdom to choose their parents wisely. For those kids that don't
choose their parents wisely and don't have any of the things that we all take
for granted, I mean, what do we expect is going to happen to them? Yeah, I
think they're victims.
It doesn't mean you don't have to protect yourself from them. No, it doesn't
mean that at all. But I think you do need to understand that everybody doesn't
have the same shot in life, and I know people that have the world pretty much
the way they want it. They're family-oriented--and this and that and the
other--and they think the world is that way. The world isn't that way.
There are a lot of people who struggle every day who don't have any of the
things that the rest of us take for granted. This is one of them.
Q: Have we lost--are we actually losing compassion for kids like this, we
want to see them as offenders and want to lock them up rather than care for
Starr: I think there's a certain amount of that. In
California, the juvenile justice system became sort of adversarial about 25 or
30 years ago. We didn't used to have DAs in the court room. Defendants
generally wrote the petitions and presented the cases and everything else. And
I think at that particular point it was not adversarial, so it wasn't a
question of being so legalistic. We've certainly got away from that and now
there are a lot of other players in this scenario.
But on the other hand, I think there is a real awakening, that regardless of
how you see this stuff, if we can't help deal with real small kids, real young
kids, before they get into these circumstances, then we lose them. And we
don't do a very good job of it. So I think there's an energy to try and do
some preventative stuff. We're trying to put some things into the world that
might give kids like this a better shot at the world. Like Head Start and some
of those programs, which over the years have really shown that they
dramatically help some kids adjust to the world and give them some skills they
wouldn't otherwise have.
So for me, it really points out the need to try and get ahead of this thing.
This state spends more on prisons than we do on higher education. I
wonder how much of that money we could save, if we had some money upfront? Not
a lot of money, but some money upfront. I think there's a
realization of that now. How long it's going to take? I think it's a political
issue, isn't it?
I love these quick fixes, where we say, we wouldn't have any problem
if we locked all these people up and left them locked up forever. Well, that
doesn't take into account that there is this whole new group of people being
born, and they're coming up every day right? Do we get to a point where we're
locking up everybody? We have 130,000 prisoners in
California now. They're talking 275,000 people locked
up in the next 20 years. Does it make sense to me? I'd rather start at
the other end and see if we can keep some of those people out of the system.