The two San Bernardino County brothers who lived lives of isolation in a desert compound--allegedly starved, beaten, at times chained to their beds--can make tremendous strides if they are given the right care, child abuse experts say. But they face many challenges, and might never fully recover.
Details about the boys’ lives are still sparse and conflicting. So it is difficult for experts to predict how Yahweh Lord and Angel Lord, as their father reportedly named them, are likely to fare. The brothers were taken last weekend from their home in Wonder Valley, a small, rural community east of Twentynine Palms.
The boys are so underdeveloped physically that Yahweh Lord, 17, has the appearance of a 10-year-old, and his brother, 12, looks like a 5-year-old, authorities say.
But their bodies can do a tremendous catch-up job, now that they are getting proper nutrition, medical experts say.
Whether the boys’ minds can heal is another matter.
“It’s grim,” said Catherine Koverola, director of mental health and research for USC’s Violence Intervention Program, which treats abused children and adults.
Often, she said, the outcome in such cases is not good. Children can end up with severe behavior disturbances, mental illness or problems with alcohol and drugs. Children who have been abused are also at higher risk of growing up to become violent or to be victims again in adulthood.
“But,” Koverola added, “I’ve seen kids miraculously recover when they’re given good treatment and have someone who believes in them.”
The two brothers were treated at Loma Linda University Medical Center, then released to a social services “safe house,” where they seem content, according to law enforcement officials.
The three relatives charged with torture and child abuse in the case were taken Thursday to the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga, where they were being held in lieu of $2 million bail each.
Meanwhile, investigators were raising new questions about the relationship shared by the three--the boy’s parents, 53-year-old John “Rajohn Lord” Davis and 41-year-old Carrie Davis, and 46-year-old Faye Potts, initially described as John Davis’ sister and the boys’ aunt.
Investigators said late Thursday that they now suspect Potts was more of a second wife than a sister. They are unsure at this point whether Potts and John Davis are even related, said Sheriff’s Sgt. Fred Gonzalez.
“With every hour, there is another twist,” he said.
Both boys--even the 17-year-old--have a good chance of reaching reasonable height, said Dr. Marvin Ament, chief of gastroenterology and nutrition at UCLA Medical Center.
Though children normally stop growing about the age of 18, if proper maturation of the bones is delayed because of malnutrition, there can be a few extra years of growth, he said. Puberty for the boys will also come later than normal, he added.
And although starvation affects proper development of the brain, here again the body is resilient, Ament said. Studies of twins in which one had been starved in infancy show that the deprived twin ended up losing about 10 IQ points--not profoundly handicapping, according to Ament.
Far deeper are the effects of years of deprivation and abuse.
Certain skills--like those of language and intellectual reasoning--can be seriously undermined if children do not attain them during critical times in development, said Dr. James McCracken, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute.
In one of the most extreme child abuse cases documented, “Genie,” a Temple City girl who spent her childhood locked in her bedroom and tied to a potty chair before she was discovered in 1970, did not learn speech as a child, and never mastered it properly.
Yahweh Lord was reportedly resourceful enough to dial 911 to alert authorities, and the boys were said to read the Bible while in church on the rare occasions when they ventured off the compound with their family.
But they never went to school and were isolated from people other than their family, authorities said. Because of this, they are likely to have stunted intellects, McCracken said. And they are almost certain to have serious problems relating appropriately to others.
“How do they know how to treat other people? What have they seen?” asked Dr. Astrid Heger, associate professor of pediatrics at USC and executive director of the Violence Intervention Program. “These kids have not been to school or to other places where people say, ‘No, no, we don’t hit each other. We don’t beat people. We don’t chain them up.’ ”
There are psychiatric issues too, she and Koverola said. No one knows what the boys endured and witnessed--what, for instance, happened to a brother who reportedly died 10 years ago. Suspected bone fragments that could be from his body were unearthed in the desert Wednesday.
And abuse by a parent, undiluted by a caring teacher or friend, is particularly damaging, behavioral scientists say. A parent, after all, is the one who is supposed to love and protect a child.
Not surprisingly, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe anxiety and substance abuse are all common among abuse victims.
To have their best chance at recovering, experts say, the boys will need intensive, round-the-clock care--complete with therapy, social skills classes, a stable home with caregivers whom the boys can learn to trust, and possibly medication for psychiatric problems.
The fear can linger for years, said Dave Pelzer of Rancho Mirage--who until the age of 12 was starved, burned, beaten, forced to swallow ammonia and excrement and made to sleep in the basement by his alcoholic mother.
To get through each day, Pelzer, who has written books about his experiences, developed strategies such as counting backward from 60 to help endure pain and loneliness; reveling in the fact that the scrap of bread he had stolen one day was larger than the one from the day before; reminding himself that he had been beaten for only five minutes today, not 10.
Today, Pelzer, 39, is a married father with a successful career as an author and speaker and is a champion for abused children. He thinks there is great hope for survivors of child abuse if they can somehow tap into the strength that got them through the suffering in the first place.
It wasn’t until age 15--three years after his rescue--that it dawned on him that he was going to be OK.
“I was terrified, sure that every corner I turned, every time I woke up from sleep, that my mother was going to come and seize me,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe it was over.”
Still, sometimes, “I think I’m going to wake up from this dream and be back in the basement,” he said. “It’s part of my makeup. I take nothing in life for granted.”
Times staff writer Scott Gold contributed to this story.