An 11-year-old boy sits on a stool in his living room, hands still plump with baby fat resting easily on his lap. He answers some questions softly and some not at all.
One question, at this point, may be unanswerable.
Why did you set the fire?
There are plenty of words in the boy's sixth-grade vocabulary to explain, if only his sixth-grade mind could sort them out.
Caseworker Paul Hasan gives the boy, who wants to be called Mark, an encouraging look, just to let him know they're on the same team.
Mark would probably answer more questions if his grandmother didn't answer them first. She asserts herself often from her perch in the doorway. Emphatic, gesturing widely, she is the foil to Mark's prepubescent cool.
To understand her grandson, she says, you must understand where he's been.
Mark's mother -- her daughter -- smoked crack cocaine while she was pregnant with him. He came into this world an addict, and became an orphan soon afterward.
Mark was a year old and in foster care before his grandmother took him in. A despondent toddler "who cried all the time," Mark soon grew into a troublesome child who could not be left alone.
"I would have to monitor every move," she says. "Even if he went to take out the garbage, I'd have to watch him."
Four years ago, she was in her bedroom getting ready for work when she handed Mark a piece of cardboard from a new pair of panty hose and told him to throw it away. He went to the kitchen instead and slipped it under a kettle on the lit stove. By the time his grandmother got there, flames were crawling up the wall.
Why did you set the fire?
No explanation was offered. When Mark finally did talk -- to a psychiatrist -- he said he wanted to kill himself. The psychiatrist prescribed antidepressants. Mark's behavior didn't improve. He started stealing -- jewelry, money. He even stole a violin once. He'd chase girls, grab their clothes, tell them he wanted to touch their breasts.
Then there were the fires. There have been five or six since the first one, his grandmother says with a shudder, the most recent flaring two summers ago.
Mark ignited a hairbrush, then chucked it down the laundry chute, where it smoldered long enough to make the house reek.
His grandmother worried obsessively that he'd burn down the house while she slept. She barely survived a fire as a girl and showed him the scars from her skin grafts. It didn't seem to stem his fascination.
Why did you set the fire?
He was silent. Impassive. She drove him to a boot camp in Warren for children with discipline problems. A few months later, he ran away from home. In May, she took him to the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court and declared him unruly.
That's when "Mr. Hasan," a worldly, dignified man not given to small talk, started coming to the house. Hasan works with the Pro Kids & Families program of Berea Children's Home and Family Services, which attempts to divert unruly children from the juvenile system.
Throughout the summer, Hasan came every day. He would talk to Mark about his behavior and take him to group sessions with other children. Now he just comes twice a week. Sometimes he drops by Mark's school. Sometimes they go places together. Sometimes they just talk.
Mark's grandmother says Hasan has been the first steady male presence in her grandson's life. "God sent him to me," she proclaims. Among other things, Hasan helped Mark learn how to control his anger and act properly around girls.
Mark stopped getting into trouble at school. He cut down on his stealing. He hasn't set any more fires.
Recently, he started talking to his grandmother and asking his own unanswerable questions.
Why doesn't Mom come to see me?
Looking more prep school than problem child in his neat, buttoned shirt and dark blue pants, Mark feels much better than he did before Hasan started coming around. When he gets angry these days, he just thinks about "something fun," like playing basketball or video games. He admits he's still working on his stealing.
If he could change just one thing in his life, Mark says it would be "more easier homework."
Hasan says it's been heartening to watch Mark become a happier, more respectful young man over the past eight months.
"Mark has come a long way," he says. "He's got so much potential."
Then, with sadness, Hasan has an afterthought.
"It's hard to believe the government wants to throw kids like him away."
On March 24, 1998, two armed boys in Jonesboro, Arkansas, set off the fire alarm in their middle school, then took cover in the nearby woods. As their teachers and classmates evacuated the building, the boys started shooting. Four students and a teacher died that day. One of the shooters was Andrew Golden, a mere 11 years old.
State Rep. Edward Jerse, a Euclid Democrat on the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission, says Jonesboro was on his mind as he helped craft new juvenile justice legislation. The 500-page bill revamps the juvenile code, changing what has long been the guiding principle of Ohio's system -- to act in the best interest of the child.
The measure expands the system's purpose to include protecting the public safety, punishing the offender, and restoring the victim. It calls for harsher penalties and longer Department of Youth Services commitments for offenders. The most controversial provision -- the one made with homicidal 11-year-olds in mind -- lowers the age of incarceration from 12 to 10.
Many have questioned the need for this provision. According to Sentencing Commission statistics from 1997, the last available, children under 12 were responsible for less than 3 percent of all juvenile crime in the state. They committed 326 felonies. While children that young have been charged with rape and other serious assaults, no 10- or 11-year-old has ever committed murder in Ohio -- at least, none that anyone can remember.
But the real impetus behind the measure was not Jonesboro's 11-year-old shooter; it was a 10-year-old arsonist from Claremont County. The boy had been thrown out of 17 different foster and group homes because he kept setting fires.
"The judges were coming forth and saying we have a problem," says Jerse, one of the few Democrats to vote for the measure. "If you get a 10- or an 11-year-old in a certain category, such as a sex offender or an arsonist or a murderer, it's difficult to place them in the traditional facilities, because those places won't accept certain types of kids. We need to have DYS have control over these kids."
The mostly Republican supporters of Senate Bill 179 assured outraged children's advocates -- including a busload of Clevelanders who traveled to Columbus to protest -- that the legislation would apply to no more than a handful of children each year. Only 10- and 11-year-old murderers, arsonists, and other violent offenders would be whisked away to a secure facility not yet determined.
"We're projecting possibly six kids," says Kevin Miller, spokesman for the Department of Youth Services. "We could have two."
But institutions as divergent as the NAACP and The Columbus Dispatch have said a handful is too many. Black legislators and a grassroots Cleveland group, the Coalition to Stop Senate Bill 179, felt that the bill would disproportionately affect black children, who are already over-represented in detention centers.
Editorial writers at the Dispatch called the provision "the last flaw" in an otherwise laudable bill, a needless response to Jonesboro-induced hysteria that is likely to have more negative effects than positive ones. Judges already send violent 10- and 11-year-olds to the secure facilities, they argued. Putting it on the books not only adds an unnecessary level of bureaucracy, it carries additional risks. What if the provision is overused? What if 10- and 11-year-olds end up housed with older offenders, irrespective of the legislature's mandate that they be separated? And who's next in line for DYS commitment? Eight- and nine-year-olds?
Despite protests, rallies, and racially charged, partisan rancor, the bill passed. Now, the only thing standing between 10-year-olds and lockdown is Governor Bob Taft's signature. He has until the end of this week to veto the legislation; otherwise, it becomes law -- with or without his signature.
In some ways, the opposition centers not so much on the bill itself, but on the sentiment that drove it. This law, critics argue, betrays a reality far more frightening than the mythical, machine-gun-wielding fourth grader: Adults are giving up on children because of the pervading belief that young offenders should be punished, not helped.
"We do have a small fringe of kids who commit heinous acts that get transposed onto every kid that age," says Frank Balistreri, who has worked in the juvenile justice system for 32 years. "We've begun to fear kids as we would any criminal element."
And those kids, more often than not, are highly damaged themselves. Children who commit violent acts are likely to be physically, emotionally, and intellectually underdeveloped, survivors of physical or sexual abuse, and frequently suffering from mental illness.
Those who work with troubled children have consistently told legislators who don't that prison need not be the default option. Unfortunately, services for children with severe problems are expensive. The science is inexact. And every child requires a different course of action.
So the legislature chose a more expedient course for 10- and 11-year-old offenders.
It chose to lock them up.
News of Senate Bill 179 resonated in Colleen Hendricks's classroom. She teaches a class of boys ages 10 to 12 at Safely Home, a Bedford residential program.
Although it will be years before legislators care what her voteless students think, Hendricks asked them to write papers on the issue.
One student started with "Dear Government Leader, I don't believe the children ages 10-11 should go to prison. Because they are to yung to go to prison. And they probly don't know what's going on or what's hapning around them. If you whant yong citizens to get bedder put then in a treatment facility."
Another warned legislators that prison "can realy hurt the children."
In a group discussion, Christopher, a fidgety 11-year-old in a Pokémon shirt and mismatched, pinstriped pants, says the government shouldn't send 10-year-olds to jail "because it's just bad, and somebody might beat you up."
Christopher views physical safety as being of supreme importance, having been beaten up at his last foster home. He has the exaggerated, sorrowful expressions of the child actor in The Sixth Sense. Instead of being a product of Hollywood acting coaches, however, Christopher is a product of his mother's abusive boyfriend. He looks pained even when he's laughing.
"He did some nasty things to me," Christopher says, choosing not to elaborate.
Ask Christopher what he's learned over the past five months at Safely Home, and he'll say, "Math." Ask him what he likes about the place, and he'll say, "It's safe." Ask what he likes the most, and he'll say the trips to Petland, because "they let you pet the hamsters."
As executive director George Purgert explains, every child in Hendricks's class has "acted out" physically or sexually. All have been abused. The boys have spent months learning empathy, respect, and morality, as well as how to overcome the effects of abuse.
"We have kids who have scars on them," Purgert says. "Kids who have been sexually violated in every part of their bodies. We have kids who movies are made of."
After five years at the Bedford home, Purgert still gets choked up when he learns the histories of the boys who arrive. There was the child who lifted his shirt to reveal rows of raised scars from where he was beaten. Another boy said he was forced to have sex with his relatives and tortured when he didn't perform well.
Purgert, sporting Disney socks and an unyielding cheerfulness, has spent more than two decades in the field. He says 10- and 11-year-olds who hurt others are often mimicking behavior they have observed or experienced. Sure enough, when he asks the boys in Hendricks's class if they have been abused, all but one raise their hands. When they are asked who hurt them, most answer, "My mom" or "My stepdad." And each has observed someone close to him hurting someone else, either physically or sexually.
Robert, a pudgy, ruddy-cheeked 11-year-old who possesses the eerie speech of someone a decade older, explains that his mom started hurting him when he was a baby. Robert often tries to distance himself from others by picking his nose or doing something else with his hands to repel people. Today, he sits on them, struggling to keep the habit in check as he tells about the first time he hurt someone.
He was seven.
"A kid took my glasses, and I beat him up," Robert says. "But I don't get into fights now. I know how to handle my anger. I take a time-out."
Purgert explains that, in addition to teaching children to control their impulses, they are taught empathy. "All the kids know that word," he says. Children often come to Safely Home so emotionally underdeveloped, they have to be taught things other kids learn on their own.
He tells the story of the boy who coerced a smaller child into sexual penetration. The boy had been molested himself by an adult. He minimized his own abusiveness while describing what had happened to him as "horrible." It had to be explained to the boy that what he did was actually far worse.
Children usually spend about a year at Safely Home, though some have been here much longer. The building's past -- it was a convent -- intrudes on its present. The mood is pleasant but austere. Light from stained-glass windows illuminates art therapy projects in a room that used to be a chapel. It's easy to imagine nuns strolling though a narrow upstairs hallway before its thin walls were replaced with a material strong enough to withstand an angry teenage boy's punch or kick.
The children, who know something about emerging from the past themselves, receive an hour of individual therapy a week, plus 15 hours of group therapy. Every hour is planned, and the children are often taken into the community, where they rake leaves, shovel snow, and do other volunteer work.
"We want them to know they are part of society, not locked away from it," Purgert says.
There is always a waiting list to get into this 18-bed facility. More than 60 percent of applicants are turned away. Safely Home is designed for boys with a low-to-moderate risk of reoffending. It is run like a middle-class suburban home, where the staffers act like mothers and fathers, serving as dishwashers, cooks, and taxi drivers.
So far, 105 children have lived here. Purgert says 85 percent of those completing the program have gone back home or into a foster setting and have not reoffended.
That success, of course, comes at a price -- $50,625 a year per child. It's nearly impossible for families to send children here on their own. Almost all referrals are from the county or juvenile court. But the staggering price is much cheaper than the likely alternative: a lifetime of prison, social work, and probation bills.
At Beech Brook's residential facility in Pepper Pike, the cost is $85,000 a year to house kids ages 5 to 12. Beech Brook takes some of the most difficult cases in the county. Executive Director Mario Tonti says the children have been physically and sexually abused. A number have abused others. Some have been brought to the charming suburban campus in leg manacles.
"We see very angry children," Tonti says. "They're angry that the people who love them have hurt them."
Children that young tend to steal or hurt others -- not because they have made conscious decisions to live lives of crime, Tonti says. At 10 or 11, they have yet to choose their own value systems, much less figure out society's rules of conduct.
"Stealing or hurting others is a way of expressing the need for control and the anger and rage within them," he says. "It's different than the 17-year-old who has decided on his lifestyle to support a crack habit."
Court officials are nowhere close to implementing Senate Bill 179. A thick, foreboding binder with "SB 179" printed on its spine sits on a windowsill in Richard Graham's office. Getting the court into compliance isn't a responsibility the chief magistrate of the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court looks forward to. The bill's star provision -- blended sentencing -- poses some questions that both the courts and the legislature will have to answer before the law goes into effect in January 2002.
Blended sentencing allows a child found guilty of a violent felony to be given both a juvenile disposition and an adult sentence. The juvenile disposition would be served and the adult sentence stayed -- unless the child commits another serious offense or rule violation while in DYS custody.
Because children will now face adult sentences, Senate Bill 179 guarantees children the same rights as adults, including the right to counsel, the right to a public trial, and the right to claim incompetence.
Some consider "incompetent to stand trial" the norm, rather than the exception, for 10- and 11-year-olds.
"I question the competency of a 10-year-old or 11-year-old even to understand the proceedings," Graham says. "I don't know how you arraign a 10-year-old. I don't know how you accept a plea from a 10-year-old. It's supposed to be voluntary."
Public Defender Brenda Gray doesn't know what her 10-year-old client wants.
Every time she tries to talk to him, he curls into the fetal position and refuses to speak. On a recent visit, his probation officer found the boy hiding in his basement.
"He's like a little mouse," Gray says. And he's facing an arson rap.
While his behavior is a bit more extreme than most of the 10- and 11-year-olds she represents, he's among the majority who are unable to participate in their own defense.
"A lot of times, they don't know why they're there," she says. "They don't understand what the court is or who I am. Some are so scared. Some are crying and screaming."
David Diroll, executive director of the Sentencing Commission, says plenty of judges and child psychologists consider 10-year-olds and 11-year-olds capable of understanding their crimes and being held accountable for them. But he also maintains that SB 179 should have been accompanied by a competency statute.
Legislators concerned about what to do with incompetent kids put the issue on hold because of the divisiveness SB 179 caused in the House. Its supporters, who just wanted to make sure it passed, figured they'd deal with the question later.
Mental health workers anxiously await that discussion. While the bill allows for violent children to be deemed incompetent to stand trial, the state does not have a place to send them. Adults ruled incompetent are usually sent to a secure mental health institution. The state has no comparable facility for juveniles, Diroll says.
Hence, with no guidelines, judges can essentially do whatever they want.
"If you find an adult incompetent, it's clear what you do," Graham says. "It's not clear what you do with incompetent kids."
Despite efforts to separate the issues, the juvenile crime problem is inextricably linked to the dearth of mental health services. When there's no bed waiting at a hospital or group home, a detention center often becomes the last resort for mentally ill children age 12 or older. And, soon, for 10- and 11-year-olds, too.
SB 179's supporters have said that the controversial prison provision wouldn't exist if there were someplace else to send violent children ages 10 and 11. The reason there isn't? A reverse case of supply and demand.
As the demand for mental health services has increased, the supply has actually withered. In the 1960s, the government started downsizing psychiatric hospitals so the mentally ill could be treated in less restrictive community programs. In the past two decades, private hospitals also eliminated beds. In 1995, Ohio's last state psychiatric hospital for children closed. Many people who would have been hospitalized decades ago now wind up untreated on the streets.
But instead of shoring up mental health facilities, the legislature launched a campaign to reinstitutionalize kids -- this time in prison.
"The only difference is we've replaced mental health with the justice system," Purgert says.
The shift in thinking also comes at a time when the rolls of kids in county custody are ever-increasing. Removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect, many of these children are prime candidates for mental health services.
The most unmanageable among them are sent to residential facilities -- some as far away as Colorado. Beech Brook offers one of just a few local residential treatment centers. It has a six-month waiting list.
"The kid who used to be hospitalized is now in residential treatment," Tonti laments. "The kid who used to be in residential treatment is now in foster care. We are in a terribly underfunded system."
The situation is so dire that Andrew Calladine, director of contracts and agency relations for The Center for Families and Children, told the Cuyahoga County mental health board recently that he couldn't find services for a 10-year-old who had turned a loaded gun on his family.
A 1998 clinical study by the Ohio Department of Youth Services showed an "alarming need for psychological services within DYS institutions." Of the kids sampled, 35 percent were diagnosed as needing mental health services. Of that population, 20 percent were diagnosed as needing intensive mental health services. Six percent were deemed psychotic.
Sadly, many children aren't diagnosed with mental illnesses until they get into trouble. DYS detention often means much-needed treatment a child would not receive elsewhere.
But treatment specialists insist that most children who have committed violent acts can be managed outside detention-center walls. Legislation to dedicate more money to mental health has been introduced in the past, and Diroll expects a push to build a new facility for children deemed incompetent. But in the age of get-tough lawmaking, it's far more expedient -- and politically lucrative -- to punish kids rather than redeem them.
The prison provision is expected to apply only to the most violent, hard-to-place offenders. But it does give judges the power to lock up many more 10- and 11-year-olds. For example, if they had been charged for their crimes, Mark could have been classified as a serial arsonist, and Christopher and Robert as violent offenders, making them eligible for a locked facility.
These would have been extreme penalties -- and unnecessary.
For Mark, a combination of mental health care and a caseworker was all that was needed -- with an emphasis on the caseworker, according to his grandmother. The consistency of Hasan's visits and the genuineness of his concern made the difference, she says. And she appreciates having a number to call that isn't automatically directed to an answering service.
For children like Christopher and Robert, more intensive services are needed. After several months at Safely Home's open, structured environment, the two boys say they now understand hurting others is wrong. They know why they did it. And they have learned to deal with their emotions.
The open and unlocked doors at Safely Home reflect the boys' improvement. Purgert tells of the time he left a small pile of money on his desk. It remained in full view of boys entering and exiting the dining area for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At the end of the day, when he counted it, the money was all there.
Purgert says others are more surprised by the story than he.
"Very often people will live up to your expectations," he says. "If you treat them like criminals, they will be."
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