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Is It Right to Picture a ‘Child of Rage’?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Beth tosses around on the sofa with the twitchy energy of any 6 1/2-year-old girl who has to sit there talking with an adult. She holds her head in her hand, rubs her nose, twirls a strand of hair around a finger. Her sparkling blue eyes wander about the room.

The adult asks about the knife missing from the kitchen. “A big sharp one,” she said.

What were you going to do with the knife, Beth?

“Kill John (her baby brother) and Mommy and Daddy.”

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This fetching little girl, with her front teeth missing, is the “star” of “Child of Rage: A Story of Abuse,” a harrowing 30-minute documentary in HBO’s “America Undercover” series. It airs tonight at 10 and five other times this month.

Beth, the show explains, is one of the devastating examples of children who are “so traumatized in the first years of life that they do not bond with other people. They are children . . . without conscience who can hurt or even kill without remorse.”

The fact that this is a real person, HBO boasts, gives the documentary its singular power. But it also is its major point of controversy among several professionals in the child abuse field who were contacted by The Times and who watched the tape in advance of broadcast.

They were critical, sometimes harshly, about putting Beth on national television, about media coverage of child abuse themes in general and about some techniques used by Dr. Ken Magid, the Denver, Colo. clinical psychologist who is Beth’s therapist and who supplied the tapes of her to HBO. He has written a widely recognized book on the subject, “High Risk: Children Without a Conscience.”

“Millions of children--(including) children who know her, people who know her--are going to see it,” said Dr. Joe Braga, a child specialist who is on the Department of Psychiatry faculty at the University of Miami Medical School. “This is going to affect her life in ways in which I don’t think the producers have given any thought whatsoever. Some of what may happen is that she may get reinforced in some of the behaviors that should be expunged by therapy.”

Dr. Toni Cavanagh Johnson, clinical director of the child sexual abuse program at Children’s Institute International in Los Angeles, said, “I can’t believe that a parent who had a child who is that disturbed and loved the child and wanted to protect the child would put them on national television.

“It’s just terrible that those parents did. That’s why I won’t let those people (the media) close to my parents, because I know the parents will do it, anything to get on national television. They (children) can’t make an informed consent. They haven’t a clue as to what it means to be on TV and have all your friends look and titter behind your back.”

She said the media often sensationalize the problems of children. She described nagging calls from the “Geraldo” show and film producers. They want the children on camera, she said.

David Lloyd, project director for the National Resource Center on Child Sexual Abuse in Washington, said that Beth faces “a double whammy” as a result of being featured in the HBO program: “No. 1 is that there is a stigma that attaches to being victimized (by sexual abuse). Secondly would be the stigma that would attach due to what she has disclosed about the acts that she has done to the animals and her brother and whatever.”

In the program’s first interview with therapist Magid, Beth tells about brutalizing and killing birds and small animals and violently kicking and molesting her little brother and sticking pins in him.

The documentary shows Beth being put in a strict, isolated residence with some children of similar troubles. At the end she seems to have made substantial progress.

Beth’s adopted parents, a Baptist minister and his wife (unnamed in the program), had legal authority to consent to the use of the minor child in the HBO documentary. Magid related in an interview that he told Beth about the film and that she replied, “Yes, I want to help other children.”

Magid noted that “in her more lucid moments, she’s right there .”

He said Beth will remain in her isolated rural residence--"They don’t get HBO"--for some time.

Magid said that he understands the question of appropriateness of using a real Beth to tell the story. “But I deal with so many children who are dying,” he said, “I had to get the message out.”

Magid, who speaks at length about the Charles Mansons and Ted Bundys of the world as other cases in point, said that he gets several anguished calls a week from parents with such damaged children, partially because there are so few specialists in the field: “I don’t need the phone calls in the middle of the night. My secretaries are ready to quit. They can’t take it.

“I’m tired of dealing with quote-accidents-unquote where a brother’s been killed. . . . I’m at the point of being angry about it and frustrated and saying that we’ve got to recognize this for what it is.”

He uses such terms as “attachment,” “bonding” and “breaks in the primary connection.” He said that “the big picture” is that if a child doesn’t develop a sense of trust in the first two years, he likely will be seriously impaired the rest of his life: “I hope you can hear my heart talking. To me it’s absolutely essential (to get out the message).”

He had sent HBO a therapy tape that he uses for instruction, in order to interest the cable network in a special. It included several “high risk” children and parents.

Sheila Nevins, HBO vice president for documentary and family programming, immediately spotted Beth: “She caught my heart, you know? I’d never seen anybody like her. . . . Just when you thought you’ve seen everything. . . .”

She feels “the greater good” is served by using the real Beth, although “I can’t justify it a hundred percent. . . . But I think that Beth will grow up and be another person and this will be something far away . . . and there will be this little gem (of a documentary) of what happens to a child.”

Some professionals said that they feel “Child of Rage” contains positive elements and will have a strong impact. The program has been endorsed by the prestigious National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, based in Chicago.


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