little criminals


Q: We're talking about predictors of dangerously violent behavior in kids, and I've read in the literature that one of the predictors is what is referred to as the classic triad, which is the kid is a bedwetter and sets fires and displays any sign of cruelty to animals. Do you subscribe to that? To those findings and that triad as being at least three symptoms or predictors of violent behavior in children?

Hyman: The question of predicting violent behavior in children is really a complex one. There certainly are elements of the classic triad signs associated with violence--bedwetting that is age-inappropriate, setting fires, harming animals, have been good indicators of people who subsequently, we've been able to see, have engaged in very violent behavior. The difficulty with even looking at these three factors, however, is that ... what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Are these really indicators of some innate element that indicates that this is basically a violent person, as if that were some characteristic of the person that were inherent. Or is it really telling us, particularly in a child, that this is somebody who is needing attention. Somebody who is needing adequate parenting, adequate guidance. We certainly do have people who, in an age-inappropriate way, wet their beds, hurt animals, set fires, who go on to be very good citizens, who contribute to society and have wonderful families, and do wonderful things. So even these elements are not terribly good predictors. They allow most frequently not prediction of who's going to become violent but allow us after the fact to look at a violent person and say, "Oh yes, he did harm animals." But it doesn't tell us much about the youngsters who harmed animals who don't become violent.

Q: What about lack of empathy for your victim? Your lack of empathy for other people? Is that a characteristic of kids who become violent?

Hyman: When we look at kids who've become violent, we often point to lack of empathy as something that we want to be concerned with. And certainly in adults who have well-formulated patterns of personality, an abjectly poor lack of empathy is something that we see in the psychopathic syndrome, in a real psychopath who engages often in violent and very destructive behavior. Whether that person is a violent criminal or perhaps is even a corporate executive making a decision to employ various toxics or to produce a car that's very injurious to thousands of people.

So we have these psychopaths. But if we look at empathy, certainly in children, often what we're looking at is that when a person was a child, was that person the subject of empathy? Was that person allowed to have sympathetic, understanding, empathetic interactions?

And we observed that quite often--we've done many studies on this--that the incapacity to develop empathy is quite often a social phenomenon in a family where there is no empathy for that child.

We've seen this in our studies of serial murderers. There are certainly patterns in the parenting that indicate that these children were victimized-- quite often the victims of physical and/or sexual abuse, of controlling and dominating parents, or absent and disinterested parents--but parents who, in one way or another, were not terribly good parents. Now again, this is not a universal. There's some indication, for instance, in the case of Jeffery Dahmer, that he had good parents.

Q: Is it possible to diagnose a 6-year old as a psychopath?

Hyman: One element that emerged in this case was the suggestion that a 6-year-old could be diagnosed as a psychopath. And from the perspective of science, this is one of the most ludicrous assertions that we can contend with since there's no basis for understanding this personality syndrome, or for that matter any personality disorder, as being discernable in a 6-year-old.

Quite the opposite. By definition in the system for diagnosing disorders, personality disorders can only be diagnosed in people in the immediate pre-adult, or in the adult stage of life. Most commonly they emerge in young adults.

We do see patterns that persist and thus we consider it a personality disorder or some more enduring aspect of the individual. But the research is quite clear--and all the experts in personality disorders agree --that these are factors that become more stable in early adulthood or in the period immediately approaching it. In some individuals, the latest stages of adolescence.

To talk about the stability of personality or personality disorders, or personality syndromes in a 6-year old child, or in any child around this age, a child who hasn't attained that immediate, pre-adult adolescent stage, is really a vast error.

Q: What about the argument, however, that Ted Bundy and Jeffery Dahmer were once 6-year-olds? And that if a trained psychiatrist had examined them at that age, they would have been able to determine that they were psychopaths in the making or sociopathic personalities?

Hyman: There have been behavioral scientists, psychiatrists, psychologists who've suggested that with Dahmer or with Ted Bundy, that had studies been done of these individuals as children, that we would have been able to discern at that point psychopathic elements of psychopathic syndrome. However, the empirical data contradicts that. We have had serial murders--indeed we had one down in Santa Cruz County--committed by an individual who had been apprehended in youth. As a matter of fact, he had been a youthful offender, and had actually killed his grandparents. And so we did have some data from that period. But we didn't have data sustaining the notion that we have a psychopathic syndrome that's characteristic of a child. We certainly had data that indicated problems. And that's not to say that we don't have problem children. We certainly do have children with serious problems. In this case, obviously, we had a child with a serious problem.

But to take these children and to characterize them as psychopathic, to suggest that perhaps this is simply a problem beyond our capacities to address, and that these children should be cast aside, locked up forever, or otherwise neglected, that there's no attention that we can effectively focus on them, is in and of itself a type of abuse. It's something that we, in the professional community, are dedicated to combating, not to perpetuating.

Q: How would you feel about a professional, a psychiatrist who comes to a diagnosis of a psychopathic disorder--in a 6-year-old child--after only meeting with them for less than an hour?

Hyman: Unfortunately, we have in the forensic profession among forensic psychiatrists, psychologists, certain individuals who believe that after meeting with an individual, particularly a child, for an hour or even two, that they can generate a diagnosis of psychopathy. That what we have here in their opinion is a psychopathic individual.

Not only is this a determination for a child, absolutely forbidden by all the research and contradicted by all the research in development, but forensically, to think that this could be generated by an hour long, or even a two-hour long interview is the height of abuse. And it's precisely this type of defilement of the forensic process that leads many people to be critical of what some forensic psychologists and psychiatrists do. It's precisely because of this that increasingly we have professional organizations in forensics that try to take this type of behavior out of the forensic arena.

Q: What role does genetics play and can we inherit traits from our parents, and what's the difference?

Hyman: The role of genetics in behavior and particularly in violent behavior has become increasingly in recent years an area of interest. But there's a rich tradition of biological determinism in which there have been scientists who've been ideologically attracted to attributing most of behavior to biology and genetics. Not merely in this century, in which it's become increasingly popular at various times, but even prior to that. We've seen it in intellectual areas where my former colleague at Cal, Art Jensen, wanted to tell us that there were very important racial differences in intelligence. And yet, John Hearst, another Berkeley psychologist, revealed in a paper written shortly after Jensen's, that indeed the variance of intellectual differences was very small, at most five percent. And that social factors, educational factors, economic factors, could be called upon to explain the vast latitude of intellectual behavior--95% and perhaps more.

In terms of violent behavior, again, it's become trendy as of late to attribute many of these things to genetics. We're certainly, at certain levels, the product of genetics. And yet again we look at this very complex pattern of the interaction of social factors, broad social factors, familial factors, community factors, biological factors, personality factors, interacting with each other over time, over the development of a child and throughout lifespan of development. So to attribute to any one factor the causal responsibility for violence is simply folly. It's ideology. It's nothing that is based in research.

There are these myriad of factors that interrelate. And people who would like to engage in biological reductionism, in reducing our consideration of this complexity to a single factor are fooling themselves and attempting to fool the rest of us.

Q: So there's no such thing as a natural born killer then?

Hyman: There's simply no evidence available to us in science that there is anything such as a natural born killer. There are many people who would like to assert--a few of them in science, many of them in other religious and political areas--that they're not merely natural born killers, but these youthful super-feral predators. But there's no indication that this is a reality in any systematic research. As a matter of fact, some of our latest research indicates that the tendency for youthful offenders to engage in serious crime is actually decreasing. So policy analysts who would advise us to create ever more punitive dimensions in our social reaction to youthful crime probably are expressing more of their own ideological perspective than a genuine reaction to a social problem.

Q: What role does environment play, and what are the factors in an environmental way?

Hyman: One doesn't want to solely isolate environmental factors. There probably are other intrinsic factors. But there's good indication, despite the fact that environmental factors may not be the sole determinants of violence, that these are certainly the factors that we can influence, and the ones that we can interact with in preventing violence. So the importance of these factors becomes supreme in terms of our ability as forensic experts, as scientists, and as policy advocates, to isolate what it is that we can do about violence in general and about youthful violence.

And as we look at environment, if we want to look, for instance, at the environment in which the 6-year-old emerged, we take a look at Richmond, California, in Contra Costa County. Of the 3,700 counties in the United States, Contra Costa County is in the lowest 20 in terms of their ability to cope with toxic waste. There was a chemical explosion three, four years back, in which a good portion of the Richmond area and the population of Richmond was exposed to toxic chemicals.

If we take a look at education, we see that the Richmond public schools indeed went broke. And they've been reconstituted as the West Contra Costa district. There's some excellent educators there, but a general tendency for finances for education to be very, very sparse in California. In the period of the two-and-a-half decades that I've been in California we've seen education go, in California, from one of the best in the country to one of the worst.

We have to recognize the significance of providing people with the ability to cope with their world. And there's also, in terms of environmental factors, the whole question of employment. When many of the residents of Richmond--the overwhelming majority, certainly minority residents--came initially to Richmond in the Second World War and the period immediately following it, there was a very excellent superstructure for unemployment. Employment was available, and people were upwardly mobile. They acquired skills, and they acquired education, and they provided for their families in a way that they hadn't been able to prior to that.

We're seeing in recent decades the opposite. The tendency is for decline, for employment to be replaced by unemployment, for generational unemployment. Then we begin to replace welfare. If we're asking these people to get off welfare without insuring there will be jobs, what we're really doing is creating a vast problem that will be reflected in violence. And it will be reflected in youthful violence, since one out of every four American children, at this point, lives in poverty. Poverty is not the sole determinant of violence, but we know statistically, predictively it contributes to violence, it contributes to the factors that generate violence.

Q: Can violent 6-year-olds be treated successfully? Are there any kids who can or should be written off?

Hyman: There are certain elements of society, certain politicians, policy analysts, certain religious leaders, others, who would like to write off various sectors of youth, indeed various sectors of society, as being beyond the pale of intervention. And some who might even suggest that in the case of a 6-year-old this would be appropriate.

There's certainly no data to justify such a perspective. And not only in my review of the scientific literature, my own clinical experience, but in my personal experience, i've never seen a child who should be written off and i've certainly never seen a 6-year-old child who should be written off.


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