Canada

When children are vicious

Fear mounts about the increase in violent youth crime

BRIAN BERGMAN August 12 1996
Canada

When children are vicious

Fear mounts about the increase in violent youth crime

BRIAN BERGMAN August 12 1996

When children are vicious

Canada

Fear mounts about the increase in violent youth crime

BRIAN BERGMAN

It was the sort of cruel, callous violence that the residents of Red Deer—a normally tranquil city of 60,000 located halfway between Edmonton and Calgary—say is unheard-of in their community. On the evening of July 24, three young boys surrounded a 37-year-old mentally handicapped women as she tried to buzz a friend at a downtown apartment building. They mimicked her calls of “hello,” then shoved her to the ground, breaking her arm in the fall. One of the boys kicked her in the groin, while the other two spat on her. Last week, police charged a 12-year-old boy with assault causing bodily harm, but took no action against the other two alleged assailants who, at age 10, are too young to be charged. Five days later, three other Red Deer youths, all age 16, were charged with assault after a separate incident in which a 32-year-old mentally handicapped man was struck with a skateboard and a hammer. “Punks like this are picking on weaker people,” complained Dan Brinton, 36, who is confined to a wheelchair. “They feel like they can’t be touched by the law.”

Those sentiments have been voiced before as teenagers, cloaked in the anonymity offered by the Young Offenders Act, were charged and convicted of even more heinous crimes, then given what many Canadians regard as token sentences. But something else sprang out of the news reports last week—the age of the accused. When most 10year-olds are playing sports, two young boys allegedly got their kicks by attacking a woman who police said was functioning at roughly the same mental age as her tormentors.

Such behavior, while still rare, is not unheard-of. In the past two months, Canadians have been treated to the grisly details from a murder trial in Saskatoon that revealed how an eight-year-old boy helped plan and execute the brutal slaying of a seven-year-old, while in Toronto a sexual assault case featured allegations that an 11-year-old acted as the ringleader of a group of boys who raped a 13-year-old girl.

These disturbing developments come at a time when, ironically, crime rates generally are declining. Statistics Canada reported last week that the violent crime rate dropped by just over four per cent last year—the third successive annual decline, and the largest since the survey began in 1962. The number led some critics to suggest that sensational media reports were feeding fears about crime that are at odds with the facts. But the same report confirmed suspicions that the violent crime rate among youths has continued to increase—and last year stood at twice the rate in 1986. According to Roy O’Shaughnessy, clinical director of British Columbia’s Youth Court Services, Youth Forensic Psychiatric Services, the perception that a segment of young people is becoming more brutally violent is well-founded. “The type of crime we’re seeing now is different from what we saw 10 years ago,” says O’Shaughnessy, whose unit does psychiatric assessments of delin-

quents between the ages of 12 and 17. “We’re seeing more use of weapons, more gang-related activity, more violent behavior.” O’Shaughnessy adds that it should come as little surprise that the propensity for violence can extend even to the very young. “Antisocial behavior is a continuum which begins in its worst forms around age 5 or 6,” he says. “So there’s a few kids starting to display aggressive violent behavior even at a preteen level.” Within this group, which accounts for only about 20 per cent of adolescent offenders but which, O’Shaughnessy says, is responsible for the majority of serious crimes, the first warning signals appear in the schoolyard among kids who frequently fight, bully others and steal. As they approach their teenage years, they may already be engaged in violent criminal behavior. What these youths also have in common is a stunning lack of empathy for their victims.

Most of those traits were clearly evident in a 1993 case that focused the world’s attention on the potential brutality of preteens. In Preston, England, two 10-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, lured two-year-old James Bulger away from his mother in a shopping mall. They beat him to death with bricks and

a 22-lb. metal bar, then left his body on a railway track where it was sliced in two by a passing train. At their trial, the evidence showed that Thompson and Venables already had a lengthy history of disrupting classes, skipping school and picking fights. Thompson, thought to be the instigator, also displayed an insolence that even his lawyers found remarkable.

More recently, evidence of preteen malevolence surfaced in a Saskatchewan court case. Last week, 15-year-old Sandy Charles was found not criminally responsible by reason of mental illness for the murder of Johnathan Thimpsen, 7, of La Ronge. During his trial in June, the court heard how Charles repeatedly stabbed Thimpsen and crushed his skull with a rock. Then, apparently mimicking a ritual in a horror movie called Warlock, Charles tore 15 strips off the body and boiled the flesh into liquid fat. But the court also heard that an eight-year-old accomplice—who cannot be charged and who can only be referred to as “M”—handed Charles the rock when the stabbing failed to kill the child. Charles claimed that M urged him on—and insisted that they go through with their plan to strip off the flesh or else, in M’s words, “we killed him for nothing.”

In the Toronto case, a 13-year-old girl told a hushed courtroom last month how an 11-year-old helped two other boys, aged 13 and 15, rape her. At one point, she said, she thought the older boys—who have been charged with sexual assault and whose trial resumes on Aug. 27—were ready to let her go, but then the 11-year-old pushed her down and sat on her stomach. Following the boys’ arrest in May, police told reporters that the 11-year-old had taunted them, saying: “You got me—so what are you going to do?” They also said that the boy had previously walked away from other charges, including armed robbery and assault, because of his age.

Such incidents have led to renewed calls on Ottawa to get tougher with very young criminals. Among the proposals: amending the Young Offenders Act to lower the minimum age at which charges can be laid to 10 from 12. But even outspoken proponents like Scott Newark, executive director of the Canadian Police Association, concede that such a move is no panacea. “What we’re dealing with here are the symptoms of antisocial behavior,” says Newark. “And while we need to do that, what we really have to be going after is what produces these children in the first place.”

Experts generally agree that the most serious offenders emerge in far greater numbers from homes where there have been serious emotional or financial problems. Some also cite larger societal changes, including an explosion in graphic violence in movies and on TV and a gnawing absence of positive cultural role models. Put it all together, says Simon Fraser University criminologist Raymond Corrado, and the result is a group of kids “who don’t have a lot of hope and for whom the idea of viciously beating someone up, or worse, is not something they worry too much about.” The one certainty among child experts is the need to detect the signs of trouble as early as possible. “We really need to be setting our sights on the sixand sevenyear-olds who are showing behavioral problems,” says O’Shaughnessy. He adds, chillingly: “By the time they are 14 or 15, it’s probably too late.” □