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Published: Sunday, 10/9/2005

Courts confront surging caseload of kids who batter family members

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER
This man, who lives near downtown Toledo, was assaulted with a snow shovel four years ago by two nephews. This man, who lives near downtown Toledo, was assaulted with a snow shovel four years ago by two nephews.
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The interior of the tiny, near-downtown apartment is decorated by violence - patched holes in the drywall, twisted metal door frames, slit screens, and shattered windows.

A snow shovel that four years ago was smashed into the 71-year-old homeowner's forehead stands in an upstairs closet.

The homeowner's gnarled fingers sweep over his left brow line. He winces.

"Left a lump," he says.

But this two-room pressure cooker is just one of many area homes where domestic violence - on the part of youths, not adults - is routine.

This particular homeowner's abusers were two young nephews, both just 9 years old when they were taken from their drug-addicted mother and abusive father.

The nephews, whose identities are being withheld because The Blade generally does not identify juvenile offenders, weighed less than 100 pounds when police first began responding to incidents at the home. But over a five-year period they grew taller, heavier, and more violent.

They stopped going to school. They stole things. They smoked dope and drank alcohol. They punched and kicked. Bashed in walls. Threw furniture.

"He couldn't do anything to control them," said Toledo police Officer Andre Bills, who was called to the house "probably two days out of four."

A new report by Lucas County Juvenile Court confirms that episodes like this are repeated throughout the county every day - inside dilapidated homes in its poorest pockets and behind ivy-draped fences along its swankiest neighborhoods.

Last year, one in eight juvenile court cases involved domestic violence or unruly, a charge often associated with domestic assault.

No one is able to estimate the total cost to the juvenile system. But an average night's stay at the downtown juvenile facility costs $134.19, and the county's youngest domestic combatants last year filled up 8 percent of the bed spaces.

That means taxpayers shelled out $270,929 just to house domestic violence offenders. That doesn't count the cost of judges, bailiffs, secretaries, probation officers, mediators, and other juvenile court system personnel.

And the problem is growing at a staggering rate.

In 1985, Lucas County juvenile court logged just 70 domestic violence cases. Last year, that number multiplied nearly 10 times to 681. Through August, the court had logged 479 cases this year.

At that pace, there will be 718 cases of domestic violence by juveniles this year.

Court staff know that what appear to some to be inane triggers of violence confrontations - a fight over cake frosting or a TV remote - often belie complex family tensions aggravated by adolescence, complicated by layers of mental-health issues, and cemented in place by a long history of family violence.

"We have seen a lot of kids coming from homes where violence is problem-solving," said Kathleen Baird, the psychologist at the Lucas County juvenile lock-up. "Dad beats mom or the kids, and he thinks that works for the family until the kid gets big. Then Dad thinks that things have gone out of control, and it's then that someone calls 911."

With the hopes that dissecting the problem might expose clues to its treatment, Dan Pompa, longtime juvenile court administrator, set out to study the court's domestic violence cases.

"What happens if we don't mend it? How many of these kids are moving through the system beating up their moms and dads and sisters and brothers, only to graduate to adults with the same problems?" he said.

Staff studied 1,144 cases from 2001 and 2002 for which a juvenile's police reports and court records were available, gleaning details about the 875 offenders, their families, and their weapons.

They reviewed how earlier cases concluded and counted the times a youth landed in handcuffs again.

But after two years of study, one of the most frustrating conclusions for Mr. Pompa was that there was no one conclusion. No common denominators. No obvious solution.

Episodes had ranged from angry words over curfew to knife fights over insults.

Some cases were dismissed; some were diverted to a mediation program.

Hardly ever was a juvenile sentenced to time behind bars.

Perhaps the most sobering conclusion was one many of those who work in juvenile justice already suspected: The domestic caseload drains a system inadequately equipped to help such troubled families.

At his office, Mr. Pompa pauses, mulling the question: How effective is juvenile court in resolving its domestic caseload?

"I'd give it maybe a C, and that's only because we have a great mediation program."

"I don't think as a system we understand what [juvenile domestic violence] is and we don't yet understand the consequences of it. If you go over to adult courts, you understand the high impact of domestic violence. The prosecutors are sensitive to it. The judges are sensitive to it. You've got advocates sitting in the courtroom that are ready to jump up with the victims and say 'We'll lead you through.'●You don't see any of that here."

Longtime administrative Lucas County Juvenile Court Judge James Ray agreed. The problem is that the court never has looked closely enough at the problem. Mr. Pompa's study, he said, gives them a starting point because it identifies gaps in services.

"I think there's a lot more that we can do," he said.

In Waterville, a mother hides in a bedroom, dialing 911. Her 17-year-old son has hit her before. He's boiling again. Something about a cigarette.

In an Ottawa Hills home, a 10-year-old girl punches and bites her mother. They're arguing about a candy wrapper.

In Monclova Township, a 16-year-old boy flattens the tires on his father's vehicle in a fight over troubles at school.

"Wait `till you go to sleep," the boy says. "I'm going to kill you."

Why? Some argue that juveniles are striking out more frequently these days. They blame a lack of regard for parents and police reinforced by modern media. Others point to tired to overwhelmed moms and dads or tired and ill-equipped grandparents having to do the job as parent.

James Garbarino knows family violence.

The professor of human development has authored several books, including Lost Boys, which finds surprising similarities between minority teens who gun down each other on America's most dangerous streets and white kids who shoot down classmates at its heartland schools.

To Mr. Garbarino, cases on a court docket often are just brief glimpses into a cycle of violence that perpetuates behind closed doors and is handed down from one generation to the next.

Juveniles who lash out often have been humiliated, beaten, or sexually assaulted and now are coming of age. They've had enough, he said. The fight-or-flight routine they've lived with for so long has toggled over to fight mode.

Without serious intervention, they are destined to repeat the cycle on their own children or continue the violence against their aging parents. "You're tapping into a family at a certain time, but 10 years ago this was a house with potential child abuse and 30 years from now it might be a house with potential elder abuse," he said.

Increasing domestic cases may have other sources, too, say those in the trenches.

The same act that now lands a teenager before a judge were cases that 20 years ago were dismissed by parents as normal growing pains or listed by police as "unruly" offenses.

The fact is that teens test limits and forge new independence. But families now seem more fragmented. Long gone are the days when most parents could turn to an aunt or a grandparent for respite. At wit's end, some may dial 911.

And with Ohio law mandating an arrest on most domestic calls, someone often ends up in handcuffs.

Toledo police Officer Michelle Sterling is a mother of four. The youngest is in diapers. The oldest is training to be a police officer.

She'll be the first to tell you - she laughs when she does - that the family has toughed out plenty of growing pains together as they navigate the emotional minefield of adolescence.

No caregiver is perfect, but it seems parents these days are allowing their children to systematically erode their control, Officer Sterling said. Maybe the toddler first wins an argument over candy; later, it's a toy, she said.

Then it's the argument over curfew or going to school. After structure, consistency, and authority have crumbled, the parent punches in 911 for a magic answer, Officer Sterling said.

"I think: What are these parents thinking? Giving in [to a toddler's demands] seems insignificant at the time, but as it goes on, it's more and more significant and it's over bigger and more serious things.

"It's part of the being a kid to see how far you can get. It's your duty as a parent to have rules and regulations," she said.

Further, youngsters twist what they know from public awareness campaigns on child abuse, she said.

"These kids take advantage of it. They exploit their rights. They say 'You do that and I'll call [Children Services]. I'll tell them you hit me.'●"

Uneasy to step into that gray area between discipline and abuse, a parent stops short and the child has something he shouldn't have: the upper hand.

A few paces more, and he learns that throwing a fist or pulling a knife accomplishes his goal even quicker, Officer Sterling said.

Barb Laraway, founder of the support group Parents Helping Parents, seethes when she hears about parents cowering to their children. But she also understands it.

Kids, she said, "have learned to work the system. We as parents need to take back that authority."

She and others say there's an even more vexing reason that explains the juvenile court's surge in domestic violence cases.

It's mental illness - sometimes overmedicated, undermedicated, or misdiagnosed. Often, it's not even recognized until tempers flash violently.

"Adolescence is a tumultuous time and it can be a trigger for mental health issues," said Juvenile Court Magistrate Linda Sorah. "You've got all these new hormones pumping through the body and that can throw off the chemicals in the brain."

Deputies responded so often to one Jerusalem Township home "it was to the point it was getting stupid," said Lucas County sheriff's Deputy Ron Baum.

There, the boy - 10 years old the first time police responded and loaded with at least five different mental-health diagnoses - was arrested more than two dozen times for punching, kicking, and biting his mother.

"I'd get there, open the [patrol] car door. He'd get in the back, and we'd come back to the substation," Deputy Baum said. "He'd know where the reports were. He could have probably done it himself."

Blame it on a change in the make-up of today's juvenile or dismiss it as a shift in the paperwork, the increased caseload makes one conclusion unavoidable: girls end up in handcuffs as often - or even more often - than boys for assaulting their loved ones.

That's a startling contrast to adult domestic violence where men are overwhelmingly the offenders, but it doesn't surprise those who work with troubled families.

Girls sense family dysfunction - and often are the victims of it, themselves - lashing out in response, said Stephen Gevazzi, a researcher and professor of human ecology at Ohio State University.

"Girls in general are exposed to physical and sexual abuse, especially sexual abuse, more than boys. We know they're exposed to greater problems, and we're assuming it's because of these problems that they end up in [trouble]," he said.

There are other distinctions between adult and juvenile domestic violence offenders.

While adult domestic violence is often about a longtime effort at controlling another person, juvenile domestic violence is often more episodic. The youth - traditionally a less powerful person in the family - will periodically challenge the family ranks, said Carl McCurley, a researcher at National Center for Juvenile Justice, a Pittsburgh-based group that studies juvenile justice issues for the U.S. Department of Justice.

"Their offending is tied to the circumstance at the time, rather than a longtime pattern. They're willing to act out from an inferior position," he said.

Using national arrest data from 1997 to 2000, Mr. McCurley compared assault arrest data in two categories: those with adult offenders and those with juvenile offenders.

He found that domestic assaults by juveniles peaked between 3 and 4 p.m. Adult assaults were most common between 9 and 10 p.m.

Like the Lucas County study, Mr. McCurley found females were victims about seven out of 10 times and were the offenders about once in every three incidents.

Still, pie charts and bar graphs can only say so much about domestic violence, he conceded.

Behind closed doors, he said, "It's difficult to say what's really going on."

That's where the Toledo Hospital Cullen Center comes in.

Painted with bold purples and greens and yellows - its reception area is a whimsical combination at odds with the emotional hell that so many children carry in here.

The mission of the staff is to untangle traumatic pasts of troubled children.

Too often, the youngsters who are sent here by a judge have learned their violent behavior by watching a boyfriend pummel mom or mom take it out on the children. Their only predictable part of the day: fear.

Constant trauma literally changes the way their body and brain responds to stimuli, putting children into a constant state of "hypervigilance," counselors say.

"When you're in constant chronic trauma, you're in constant emergency mode. You're waiting for the next bomb to drop," said Kris Buffington, project director. "On a simpler level, you're not learning to resolve conflict."

The fallout can be violent even from a single traumatic episode - a traffic collision, an accidental death of a sibling, for example.

"It's not that you have a bad kid; it's that you have a stressed-out family," said Bonita Roberts, outreach family therapist.

Still, no one's denying that - whatever the source, whatever the fuel for violence - some kids are downright dangerous.

Two of every five domestic squabbles in the Lucas County study involved only a volley of words. But even though no one punched or pushed, some of these incidents may rate as the scariest of all, Mr. Pompa said.

They adhere to a more purist definition of domestic violence: where the offender controls the victim by terrifying them.

"Your kid looks at you and says 'I'll kill you when you sleep.' What are you going to do? I think I might call police and get a good night's sleep," Mr. Pompa said.

"The next day, the court gets to try to figure out who really is to blame."

Contact Robin Erb at:

robinerb@theblade.com

or 419-724-6133.



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