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Caring the last hope to curtail youth rage

In St. Petersburg this week, a 13-year-old sixth-grader apparently donned boxing gloves and pummeled his 3-year-old cousin into the hospital. The beaten girl's 5-year-old brother reportedly followed his cousin's lead and also used her as a punching bag.

After surgery, the child was expected to recover _ physically.

Such stories will always be appalling, but they have ceased to be shocking, barely even surprising.

The 13-year-old, who was only supposed to babysit the younger children, is charged with aggravated child abuse. He will probably stand before Juvenile Court Judge Dee Anna Farnell _ his hands cuffed, hers tied _ and "get over" on her because there will be no space available for her to sentence him.

Too many other children have done their horrendous deeds before him.

He will probably stand before her again, in another, more crowded courtroom full of children whose crimes will be just as bad as his, just as violent.

That is a pattern familiar to S. Gail Gardner. As head of psychological services at the juvenile courts complex, she and her staff will likely be called upon to evaluate the boy and between 750 and 800 other youthful criminals this year.

Most will fit a profile, but it won't be one an artist could render.

Artists can't draw psychological and emotional stress. They can't draw the building anger in a child who can't understand it or express it.

The profile is not of physical features. Gardner says about 40 percent of them will be African-American; the other 60 percent will be Caucasian, with a smattering of other ethnic groups.

They will mostly be boys, but the number of girls is increasing, as is the degree of their involvement. Girls used to be on the periphery of crimes committed by boys. They would be spectators or passive accomplices while the boys did the real dirty work. Now they are just as likely to be the perpetrators.

A majority of them will be from homes where one or both of the birth parents are absent. Overwhelmingly, they will be from families of low to low-middle income.

Their intelligence levels will cover a broad range, from near-retarded to near-genius, but their reading level will be low and their school performance will be poor.

Some of them will eventually end up sentenced to programs intended to rehabilitate them and get them on the right track, but they won't go far enough.

"They go into the programs and come back to the same families," laments Gardner. The programs teach them discipline and how to corral their anti-social behavior, but they aren't equipped to get to the core of the problems that sent them there, Gardner said, reluctant to make even this small criticism of programs that are the last chance for some of the young offenders.

"They're coming back knowing how to make their beds, but their anger has not changed."

Gardner said children reared in homes where dysfunction is the norm _ where substance abuse is rampant or tolerated, where discipline and nurturing are inconsistent, where family violence and abuse is high _ develop an anger that over time boils to a rage.

She said she has often counseled children who present a tough front and discovered that it was merely a protective covering for the hurt and anger they felt over the absence of a parent. Some of the fronts crumbled into tears while talking about their lives at home.

In environments that foster such rage, the skills needed to harness it or to find appropriate methods of expressing it are not taught or learned. Anger over time makes the child insensitive to other people's pain, Gardner said. If nobody cares about me, the child figures, why should I care about them?

And so a 3-year-old cousin becomes a convenient punching bag.

Someone needs to care, and show it to those who don't know how.

Else we become an angry world where we are forced to be punchers _ or punching bags.