Right Family Is a Must for a Boy Done Awfully Wrong

He's still the 10-year-old boy whose name we don't know.

Let's hope we never know it. Let's hope he becomes an anonymous kid who likes school and sports and hanging out with his friends and that he then transforms into an anonymous adult with a job and a family and a lawn to mow.

Let's hope we don't read about him in five, 10 or 20 years when the product of his anger and hostility and mistrust spills out into some violent antisocial act.

Let's hope (and throw in a prayer too) that some governor of California in the 21st Century doesn't have a request with the kid's name on it--a request to commute a scheduled date with the gas chamber.

I'm not trying to sensationalize. Anyone reading the newspapers in Orange County these days knows about the 10-year-old boy who has been in protective custody after allegations surfaced that the aunt who was taking care of him physically abused him with a heated knife and sexually abused him with a souvenir baseball bat.

Already, the deck has been stacked against this 10-year-old. I remember how, before the 1992 execution of Robert Alton Harris, psychiatrists noted that the convicted murderer was a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome and also was beaten as a child.

Obviously, no one can predict what will happen to this 10-year-old now, and it's a good thing for all of us that not every abused child ends up on Death Row. But for now the deck is stacked. The Orange County Probation Department, in identifying factors that characterize its most troublesome youth offenders, lists "child abuse or neglect" among them.

Ira Gorman is a family and child psychologist with a practice in Santa Ana. He's not involved in the 10-year-old's case, but I asked Gorman if he could make general observations about the potential effect of such abuse.

"In general, there would be greater distrust for adults and authority," Gorman said. "He would have difficulty getting close to other people, he'd probably be more guarded and one can anticipate he would have interpersonal relationship problems."

In addition, males who are abused as children often use aggression to handle problems as adults and often repeat abusive behavior as parents.

As for potential criminal behavior, Gorman said that the likelihood of delinquency rises when dysfunctional families are involved. The boy's intelligence level and success in school will play a key role, Gorman said, "but in general, people who are raised in dysfunctional settings tend to become dysfunctional adolescents and adults, and you'll find that prisons are populated with individuals who are raised in abusive, dysfunctional and neglectful homes."

In the midst of that gloomy scenario is a beckoning light, Gorman said.

"With the right home and the right substitute parents, he could improve significantly," Gorman said. "It's only bleak if he goes from foster home to foster home and doesn't get into a situation where his substitute parent is sophisticated and loving."

Therapy is great, Gorman said, but not more so than a stable home environment. "There's always been therapy, but it goes right back to the type of setting he goes into."

The good news is that there are plenty of capable substitute parents, Gorman said. The bad news is that they aren't always matched with the children who need them.

For the 10-year-old now in the news, another hopeful note comes from Bruce Malloy, head of the county's Juvenile Justice Commission and a former probation officer. Malloy is well aware of the cycle of child abuse and its potential link to criminal behavior.

However, he said, public awareness of the effects of child abuse have led to increased efforts to help children like the 10-year-old boy. "The likelihood that he might wind up with these problems later in life is less today than if this had happened 10 or 15 years ago," Malloy said. "I don't think you'll see this boy in this category (of being a future abuser)," he said. "Not with the help he's getting now."

On Tuesday, authorities found him a temporary foster home. It's a start, but this boy has many, many miles to walk before he rests.

No one knows where the boy will wind up. His father and his grandmother both say they want custody.

In a figurative sense, good foster parents can "save" the life of any child they receive.

In this 10-year-old's case, where the abuse is not likely to fade from memory quickly, it would be stretching the point only a little to suggest the right family could be saving someone else's too.

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

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