April 23, 2007

Lesson to abusers: Target socially disempowered

In a case that highlights the hypocrisy of get-tough-on-crime policies supposedly driven by sympathy for victims, the juvenile court system continued to send boys to a prominent psychiatrist for at least 16 years after he was first accused of child molestation.

Juvenile court judges continued to send new victims to Dr. William Ayres until 2003, long after the first of multiple complaints against him by boys and their parents. As of the most recent tally, at least 37 men have accused Ayres of molesting them as boys dating back almost four decades.

Economic class disparities between the accusers and the accused likely influenced the failure to prosecute. After all, whom should one believe? A prominent child psychiatrist and former president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry? Or a disempowered youth who seems destined for state prison?

“You have a prominent psychiatrist saying, 'I didn't do it,' and a troubled youth who's seeing a psychiatrist," Deputy District Attorney Melissa McKowan told the San Francisco Chronicle.

According to the Chronicle article, Ayres might never have been prosecuted without the chance intervention of a freelance writer from New York.

For more media coverage of the Ayres case, go to the blog: http://psychwatch.blogspot.com/.

April 20, 2007

Too ill to die?

Scott Panetti thinks Texas wants to kill him because it is in cahoots with the devil. The devil, he theorizes, wants to stop him from preaching the gospel to his fellow prisoners.

Panetti has a severe mental disorder. He had been hospitalized more than a dozen times before he killed his estranged wife’s parents back in 1992.

No one doubts that he is crazy (although the prosecution claims he is exaggerating). At his trial, he fired his attorney and represented himself. He flipped a coin to decide on whether to keep a potential juror on his panel. Wearing a purple cowboy suit and mimicking a John Wayne character called the Ringo Kid, he blamed the shootings on another personality named “Sarge.” As evidence, he tried to subpoena Jesus Christ, the Pope, and John F. Kennedy.

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide whether he is too ill to execute.

In the 1986 case of Ford vs. Wainwright, the Supreme Court held that executing a person who is severely mentally ill constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, banned by the Eighth Amendment. The legal standard, known as the “Ford standard,” is whether a person is so insane that he cannot understand the link between his crime and the punishment.

But the Ford case did not give a precise definition of what constitutes competence for execution. Is a mere factual understanding enough? Or should the prisoner have a “rational” understanding of why he is going to be executed? That is the issue in Panetti's case.

The state argues that it is sufficient for Panetti to realize that he committed the murders and that he is being put to death. It is irrelevant that he thinks he is being executed for preaching the Bible.

Panetti's lawyers counter that a Constitutional execution requires more than this simple knowledge. The defendant should appreciate that the execution is society’s retribution for his crime. Panetti, living in a delusional world, cannot make that connection.

The American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness agree with Panetti's counsel. They have filed a joint petition arguing that people such as Panetti should not be executed because they “cannot rationally understand the reasons for their execution."

The highly polarized Supreme Court may sidestep this complex question on procedural grounds by asserting that Panetti’s appeals were exhausted. A decision is expected by July.

April 19, 2007

Can school shootings be prevented?

Everyone’s got an opinion about Seung-Hui Cho and how his Virginia Tech rampage could have been prevented. The university administration should have done something. The police should have done something. And where the heck were his parents?

Such acts never occur out of the clear blue sky. There are always signs. With new details emerging rapidly about Cho Seung-Hui's history, we know that Cho gave off a great many signs. And some around him noticed those signs.

At least one teacher was so disturbed that she reported him to academic authorities and to police. Police investigated his “stalking” of female students and even had him briefly hospitalized. His parents called campus administrators to voice their concerns about his mental health. Fellow students say they even wondered aloud whether Cho could be a school shooter.

The problem, in terms of violence prediction, is that many people – and especially many adolescent and young adult men – are troubled. Many are severely depressed. Many express disturbing, violent fantasies. But, fortunately, only a tiny fraction commit lethal acts against others.

In other words, hindsight is 20/20. It is far easier to realize that a young man is depressed or disturbed than to accurately predict whether he will become violent. Prior to his rampage, Cho may not have seemed all that out of the ordinary to college counselors and police.

A national study of 95,000 college students last year found that in the previous year 16% had felt so depressed that they found it difficult to function. More than 9 percent had seriously considered suicide, and one in every 100 had tried to kill themselves that year. And more and more students are seeking treatment at college counseling centers. The counseling center at Virginia Tech treats about 2,000 students a year, according to its director.

In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, the incoming president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors said that many of Cho’s signs are not at all unusual among college students.

At Cornell University, where he is director of counseling services, Gregory Eells said it is “fairly common” for a professor to call counseling services to ask what they should do when a student writes a disturbing essay.

“Would you hospitalize Quentin Tarantino?” Eells asked. “There are all sorts of writers who write about dark, violent themes, but most of them are not dangerous to themselves and others.

“It's always easy to look back and say the friend was concerned, a faculty member was concerned, they had a previous hospitalization…. But to make a jump and say that everyone who exhibits those signs is going to become the perpetrator of the worst shooting in American history is not a logical jump. That possibility is always there, but a million times that is not what is going to happen.”

The director of the counseling center at Virginia Tech agreed, pointing out that the types of stalking complaints made by the two women against Cho are not uncommon on college campuses.

"It is very difficult to predict when what someone perceives as stalking is stalking, and then how it might translate into violence later," Dr. Chris Flynn of the Virginia Tech counseling center told the Associated Press. "Clearly, if anyone had any warning about a violent incident, people would have stepped in and acted."

After a disaster such as this, some people will likely lobby for stricter laws. Laws reducing psychologist-patient confidentiality. Laws making involuntary hospitalization easier. But such laws would cast too wide a net. In the end, it may prove impossible to predict which troubled young man will become violent.

Instead, we might want to look for ways to reduce the alienation and rage felt by so many young men today. To improve school climates. To reduce the bullying, the ostracization, and the glorification of hypermasculinity that provide the social backdrop for school shooting rampages.

For an interesting perspective by educator ira Socol, go to: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2007/04/20/socol

April 16, 2007

Sex offenders must live as trolls

A judge has ordered five convicted sex offenders to live under a bridge near Miami because no other housing can be found for them. Under new residency restrictions, they are banned from living near schools, parks, and other places where children congregate, and even homeless shelters have refused them entry.

The judge ordered the men to stay under the bridge from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Their probation officers come by nightly to check that they are there.

Their address is listed on the Florida sexual predator Web site as “Julia Tuttle Causeway.”

One of the five, Kevin Morales, asked a judge on April 12 if he could go back to jail instead of living under the bridge. The judge said no.

Laws restricting where sex offenders can live have swept the nation since the first ones were enacted in Iowa five years ago. Iowa has seen mounting criticism of the laws, largely due to their unintended side effects. Rather than protecting children, the laws may actually endanger them more by making it harder to track and rehabilitate offenders. The laws also do nothing to protect the large proportion of sexually abused children whose assailants are family members or acquaintances, many with no prior convictions for sex offenses.

April 10, 2007

Sex Offender Laws Gone Amok

Wendy Whitaker, 26, had consensual oral sex with another high school sophomore when she was 17 years old. Unfortunately, the boy was two years younger. Ms. Whitaker was arrested and pleaded guilty to a “sodomy” charge. She was sentenced to probation but was required to register as a sex offender. When housing residency restrictions were enacted in Georgia in 2003, she was forced out of the home she owned because it was within 1,000 feet of a church.

If you think that punishment is extreme, consider the case of another Georgia woman, Janet Allison. The 45-year-old mother of five was forced to move from her four-bedroom house into a two-bedroom mobile home in the middle of nowhere because her former home was within a quarter-mile of a church. Yet the registered sex offender had committed no hands-on crime.

Ms. Allison was convicted of being a party to child molestation because she allowed the 17-year-old boyfriend of her 15-year-old daughter to move into the family home. Her daughter was pregnant by the boyfriend at the time.

After Ms. Allison was arrested, three of her children were removed from her custody and put into foster care, and she is forbidden from having any contact with one daughter and grandson. "I didn't touch anyone," she was quoted in a newspaper as saying. "I just thought I was protecting my daughter."

These women are plaintiffs in a legal challenge to Georgia’s registry being mounted by the ACLU and the Southern Center for Human Rights. The lawsuit argues that there is no individualized justice when all sex offenders are treated the same, regardless of whether they are violent predators or teenagers involved in consensual acts. It also asserts that forcing sex offenders out of their homes and off their jobs destroys families and creates social instability that in the long run will harm the public.

Click on the headline, above, to read more and to view a PBS video report on the Georgia law.

April 9, 2007

Iraq war: Epidemic of invisible brain damage?

The Washington Post published an article on April 8 by on the invisible head trauma created by the high-powered explosives being used by the U.S. military in Iraq. Forensic psychologists who evaluate combat veterans should be on the alert for neurological sequelae, as described in the following article by pediatric nephrologist Ronald Glasser:

This is the new physics of war. Three 155mm shells, linked together and combined with 100 pounds of Semtex plastic explosive, covered by canisters of butane or barrels of gasoline, can upend a 70-ton tank, destroy a Humvee or blow an engine block through the hood of a truck. Those deadly ingredients form the signature weapon of the war in Iraq: improvised explosive devices, known by anybody who watches the news as IEDs.

Some of the impact of these roadside bombs is brutally clear: Troops are maimed by projectiles, poisoned by clouds of bacteria-laced debris and burned by post-blast flames. But the IEDs have added a new dimension to battlefield injuries: wounds and even deaths among troops who have no external signs of trauma but whose brains have been severely damaged. Iraq has brought back one of the worst afflictions of World War I trench warfare: shell shock. The brain of a soldier exposed to a roadside bomb is shocked, truly.

About 1,800 U.S. troops, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, are now suffering from traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) caused by penetrating wounds. But neurologists worry that hundreds of thousands more -- at least 30 percent of the troops who've engaged in active combat for four months or longer in Iraq and Afghanistan -- are at risk of potentially disabling neurological disorders from the blast waves of IEDs and mortars, all without suffering a scratch….

Here's why IEDS carry such hidden danger. The detonation of any powerful explosive generates a blast wave of high pressure that spreads out at 1,600 feet per second from the point of explosion and travels hundreds of yards. The lethal blast wave is a two-part assault that rattles the brain against the skull. The initial shock wave of very high pressure is followed closely by the "secondary wind": a huge volume of displaced air flooding back into the area, again under high pressure. No helmet or armor can defend against such a massive wave front.

It is these sudden and extreme differences in pressures -- routinely 1,000 times greater than atmospheric pressure -- that lead to significant neurological injury. Blast waves cause severe concussions, resulting in loss of consciousness and obvious neurological deficits such as blindness, deafness and mental retardation. Blast waves causing TBIs can leave a 19-year-old private who could easily run a six-minute mile unable to stand or even to think….

Almost as daunting as treating TBI is the volume of such injuries coming out of Iraq. Macedo cited the estimates, gleaned at seminars with VA doctors, that as many as one-third of all combat forces are at risk of TBI. Military physicians have learned that significant neurological injuries should be suspected in any troops exposed to a blast, even if they were far from the explosion. Indeed, soldiers walking away from IED blasts have discovered that they often suffer from memory loss, short attention spans, muddled reasoning, headaches, confusion, anxiety, depression and irritability….

The unseen damage can be long-lasting. Most of the families of our wounded that I have interviewed months, if not years, after the injury say the same thing: "Someone should have told us that with these closed-head injuries, things would not really get all that much better."

Children Being Jailed for Temper Tantrums

The April 9 New York Times has an op-ed piece by Bob Herbert on an alarming trend of criminalizing very young children who throw temper tantrums or otherwise misbehave in school. A disproportionate number of these children, not surprisingly, are African American. The editorial, "6-Year-Olds Under Arrest," follows:

When 6-year-old Desre'e Watson threw a tantrum in her kindergarten class a couple of weeks ago she could not have known that the full force of the law would be brought down on her and that she would be carted off by the police as a felon.

But that's what happened in this small, backward city in central Florida. According to the authorities, there were no other options.

"The student became violent," said Frank Mercurio, the no-nonsense chief of the Avon Park police. "She was yelling, screaming - just being uncontrollable. Defiant." ...

The child's tantrum occurred on the morning of March 28 at the Avon Elementary School. According to the police report, "Watson was upset and crying and wailing and would not leave the classroom to let them study, causing a disruption of the normal class activities."

After a few minutes, Desre'e was, in fact, taken to another room. She as "isolated," the chief said. But she would not calm down. She flailed away at the teachers who tried to control her. She pulled one woman's hair. She was kicking.

I asked the chief if anyone had been hurt. "Yes," he said. At least one woman reported "some redness."

After 20 minutes of this "uncontrollable" behavior, the police were called in. At the sight of the two officers, Chief Mercurio said, Desre'e "tried to take flight." She went under a table. One of the police officers went after her. Each time the officer tried to grab her to drag her out, Desre'e would pull her legs away, the chief said.

Ultimately the child was no match for Avon Park's finest. The cops pulled her from under the table and handcuffed her. The officers were not fooling around. In the eyes of the cops the 6-year-old was a criminal, and in Avon Park she would be treated like any other felon.

There was a problem, though. The handcuffs were not manufactured with kindergarten kids in mind. The chief explained: "You can't handcuff them on their wrists because their wrists are too small, so you have to handcuff them up by their biceps."

As I sat listening to Chief Mercurio in a spotless, air-conditioned conference room at the Avon Park police headquarters, I had the feeling that I had somehow stumbled into the middle of a skit on "Saturday Night Live." The chief seemed like the most reasonable of men, but what was coming out of his mouth was madness.

He handed me a copy of the police report: black female. Six years old. Thin build. Dark complexion.

Desre'e was put in the back of a patrol car and driven to the police station. "Then," said Chief Mercurio, "she was transported to central booking, which is the county jail."

The child was fingerprinted and a mug shot was taken. "Those are the normal procedures for anyone who is arrested," the chief said. Desre'e was charged with battery on a school official, which is a felony, and two misdemeanors: disruption of a school function and resisting a law enforcement officer. After a brief stay at the county jail, she was released to the custody of her mother.

The arrest of this child, who should have been placed in the care of competent, comforting professionals rather than being hauled off to jail, is part of an outlandish trend of criminalizing very young children that has spread to many school districts and law enforcement agencies across the country.

A highly disproportionate number of those youngsters, like Desre'e, are black. In Baltimore last month, the police arrested, handcuffed and hauled away a 7-year-old black boy for allegedly riding a dirt bike on the sidewalk. The youngster was released and the mayor, Sheila Dixon, apologized for the incident, saying the arrest was inappropriate. Last spring a number of civil rights organizations collaborated on a study of disciplinary practices in Florida schools and concluded that many of them, "like many districts in other states, have turned away from traditional education-based disciplinary methods -- such as counseling, after-school detention, or extra homework assignments -- and are looking to the legal system to handle even the most minor transgressions." Once you adopt the mindset that ordinary childhood misbehavior is criminal behavior, it's easy to start seeing young children as somehow monstrous.

"Believe me when I tell you," said Chief Mercurio, "a 6-year-old can inflict injury to you just as much as any other person."