Children without a conscience
April 27, 2012
When I was nine or ten years old my mom worked evenings as a social worker. Eventually my mom went from working as a social worker to being a foster parent. She had purchased a fairly large home and we had room for up to five children at a time.
I was eleven when the first foster child came to live in our home. She was the same age as me, but her life seemed complicated for someone so young. I was told next to nothing about her history. I didn’t know where she came from, why she was in foster care, or why she had to attend a completely different school. Her name was Kelly and she was classified as “specialized”.
In foster care there is this period of time when you have a child come to live with you that is generally quite pleasant and uneventful. This is referred to as the honeymoon period. The first two weeks Kelly lived with us were great. I loved having what felt to me like a sibling. Kelly and I were inseparable, except for that period of time when she got on her bus and went to some school I had never heard of, bringing home work she claimed was too hard. I remember doing her math homework in the morning before her bus arrived because I didn’t want her to fail and get in trouble. She said she would and I believed her.
However, after the first two weeks things changed dramatically. It is hard to remember exactly what happened or what precipitated some of the fights, but Kelly and my mom did not get along. Mainly it appeared that Kelly did not appreciate rules or authority. I never had any problems with Kelly, but then again I never told her what to do or how to do it.
All of this eventually culminated into a major ordeal where she attempted to hang our dog by its leash in the backyard. When my mom attempted to intervene, Kelly got physical and tried to hit her over the head with a stool from the kitchen. While I only remember those specific details, and then Kelly being removed from the house, it stands out in my mind saliently.
After Kelly left we learned about her past. She had experienced various forms of abuse and she had burned the family home down. It seems she might have also hit someone with a rock, but to be honest, it is hard to remember all of the details. It just seemed odd to me that we would come to learn those things after Kelly had already lived in our home.
The one thing that I could not understand is why she tried to hurt the dog. The dog was extremely friendly and posed no real threat to anyone. It was unlikely the dog did anything to upset Kelly. It was confusion over this action, in particular, that motivated me to go to the library to try to figure out why someone would do something like that.
I came across this book called High Risk: Children without a Conscience. It was a disturbing account of children who were unable to bond with others. It detailed attachment disorder and discussed the consequences of failing to address children who do not bond to parents or caregivers early in life. It described Kelly perfectly, from her superficial demeanor to her highly manipulative approach to dealing with all people she encountered.
Sometimes I wonder what ever happened to Kelly. It is hard not to imagine her still living in the same state, either in the state prison or having served time there. However, the truth is I have no way of knowing whatever became of her. I wonder sometimes, knowing what I know now, if she could have been helped. While I don’t have an answer to that, the mere question prompted me to investigate the topic further.
A while back I came across this documentary called “Child of Rage”. The documentary features a girl named Beth Thomas. Beth, like Kelly, experienced years of abuse. The documentary details the sexual abuse she endured and the severe consequences through unflinching narrative given by a very young and extremely candid six year old child.
Beth Thomas was placed into a foster home along with her younger brother. The documentary features discussions between Beth and her therapist. She talked about sticking pins in her brother and wanting to kill him. She also disclosed that she wanted to kill her foster parents. The foster parents had taken in Beth and her brother from the time they were very young. Beth was 19 months old at the time and her brother was under a year old.
Both children had significant emotional problems stemming from the abuse they suffered in the past. Even though the children were babies, the abuse took a drastic toll on each child’s ability to function. The children were found in filthy conditions. The boy’s head was flattened from having been left in a crib, rarely if ever receiving stimulation or attention from a caregiver.
Beth also demonstrated inappropriate sexual behavior toward her brother. This behavior is common among children who are abused and usually serves as a red flag that something has happened to the child demonstrating the behaviors or is happening. Failure to address this, through intensive therapy and intervention, is devastating to both the child acting out and the children they come in contact with.
Beth’s foster parents eventually reached the limit of what they could handle when it came to having the child in the home. They feared for the life of Beth’s younger brother and they were concerned about their own well being. After examining Beth and analyzing her complex situation, the therapist decided that she needed to be removed from the home and placed into the care of a woman specializing in children who demonstrate a lack of conscience.
Beth was placed into the care of a woman who took other similar children into her home. On the documentary she explains that she had previously taken in children who had committed murder and other extreme acts. She talked about her approach to healing these children in terms of addressing the basic level of trust existing between the children and the adult.
The woman provided an exceptionally structured environment. She used tasks and responsibilities to build self-esteem and self-efficacy within the children. The use of positive feedback also helped to build trust.
The miraculous aspect of this particular story is the transformation Beth made after going to live in this woman’s home. In time she no longer hurt animals or people. She did not report any desire to hurt other living beings and she exuded a clear degree of confidence and self-esteem.
This and other stories like this one provide insight into the ability of children to develop a conscience. While some people believe that children who exhibit harmful behaviors cannot change, this documentary and other stories like this one are proof that children are highly resilient. Another important message contained in these stories relates to the impact of abuse on children – including extremely young children who are abused at an age when most would not even think they might remember it.
Many people who have seen this documentary, or remember it from a long time ago, may wonder what has happened to Beth since she has become an adult.
Some of the techniques used to help Beth overcome her problems are highly controversial. For example, holding therapy is a practice that has been touted as helping children with attachment disorder form bonds with others. It has been highly criticized, however. Without speaking to the efficacy of this or other techniques, I will say that Beth’s childhood problems and subsequent recovery is fascinating.
Today Beth is a registered nurse. She has co-written a book along with Nancy Thomas. The book details the experiences of both Beth and the Thomas family in regard to raising children who came from similar backgrounds.
Further examination of children like Beth could provide valuable insight into the best methods for providing children from abusive environments, who lack the ability or desire to bond with others, tools that promote these types of relationships. If we know, as a society, that healing is possible then what implication does that knowledge have on the way we treat these children as they age? What about the implications of failing to address the systems that are supposed to identify these children early on, but don’t?
All I know is that Beth’s story is inspirational and gives hope to so many other children out there who have been battered and abused. It is a story that suggests we all have a responsibility to help these children to heal and overcome their tragic circumstances.
To view the documentary describing Beth story, go here: