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damaged children

Chernobyl orphans

I see the crosses lining school yards and street lanes but one or two or three are always missing. Who else deserves to be mourned? Who else is being abandoned? Who else is deemed a pariah in his or her respective community?

I think of the boys at Columbine. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold who murdered 12 students and one teacher and injured scores more. I think of the Sandy Hook massacre. Adam Lanza murdered his mother at their home and 20 children and 6 staff at the school. I think of the Aurora Theatre where 24 were murdered and 140 others were severely injured by James Eagan Holmes. Of course I think of the "actual" victims (our hearts genuinely and rightfully go out to them and their families), but why was and is there no compassion left for the perpetrators? No markers at all. Their existence needs to be honored too--in some way. I feel sad.

What do all these boys or young men have in common? All were clearly disturbed individuals yet did not get the urgent help they desperately needed. At Columbine, one of the shooters came from an early abusive childhood and then was adopted. At Sandy Hook, the mother of the young man gave him a gun as a gift to offer him an opportunity to be responsible. At Aurora, the shooter had been diagnosed with a number of psychoses, one of which was possibly dysphoric mania, a form of bipolar disorder.

There are so many other children among us (few of whom have committed crimes) who demonstrate anti-social and sociopathic behaviors. Many are withdrawn or are manic or exhibit violent episodes. Many times, children are diagnosed (often incorrectly) as having one or more of a variety of mental disorders. Many suffer from severe emotional dysfunction. What happens to them when people in their lives don't look hard enough to seek answers for their problems? Too many simply fall through the cracks. "Simply"? How outrageous!

Many of our children come from homes where parents are drug-addicted and/or alcoholics. The mistreated experience uncontrolled and constant physical and mental abuse (often including sexual molestation). Many children are abandoned (voluntarily or not) by birth parents. As a consequence, some youngsters live with other relatives (but, regardless, feel abandoned by those who should have loved and protected them). They feel alienated despite how loving and caring the substitute home is. Others are sent from one foster home to another (a situation which never allows the child to feel a sense of stability and safety) where they often suffer from abuse in those homes as well.

Some dislocations are so extreme and stressful that the child, despite his or her desire to be loved and to belong, becomes a victim of attachment disorder. This is a diagnosis that has been recognized for a long time, yet far too few psychiatrists and therapists are familiar with the symptoms and, therefore, frequently misdiagnose children’s mental and emotional issues. What is worse, these professionals often prescribe strong medications which produce minimal positive results but, instead, often cause severe adverse side effects on their hopeful, innocent patients.

I remember when I was in college, I studied about an experiment with baby rhesus macaque monkeys (very similar in their early behavior patterns to human infants). Half were placed in cribs where they were lovingly and frequently handled and nurtured and fed by bottle while being held and cooed to. The other group was essentially left alone in their cribs—bottled formula propped up, no verbal communication, and a minimum of touch interaction (think of prisoners in the American system who lose their minds after months or even years in solitary confinement). The first group thrived and flourished. The second group became very ill while many of these experimental victims even died. (Is it any wonder that human prisoners, once released after draconian treatment, become recidivists--often perpetrating even worse crimes than the ones for which they were initially convicted?)

Later in my life, I was in the Soviet Union after Chernobyl. Many children there had lost both parents. They were placed in orphanages which were so understaffed that very little nurturing transpired. As these children grew so emerged mental and emotional pathologies. Ironically, many Americans, looking for an underprivileged child to bring into their families, chose to adopt a Russian child--only to realize later that these children began exhibiting symptoms of Attachment Disorder once they returned to the United States.

This syndrome is characterized by an inability to form emotional relationships. Perceiving uncertain futures, it is not uncommon for them to steal and horde out of fear (at least subconsciously) that there would not be available to them food or other desired items which they knew they would need or might want. Constantly hanging over them is the thought that they might be abandoned and deprived again. Typical of these young people are anti-social, controlling, and often violent behaviors.

And for all such children, despite wanting to fit in and be “normal,” there is something broken in them that they (and most of their caregivers) don’t know how to fix. Their symptoms, for the most part, can be traced directly to the various manifestations of early childhood victimization—not to overlook other factors such as being “drug babies” (passed on through their mothers).

We as a society can’t simply throw up our hands nonchalantly and exclaim, “This is not my problem! They are not my children!” To say we are our brothers and sisters’ keepers is perhaps too cliché. The reality, however, is that what transpires in the minds and hearts of these young people does not affect them alone or only their family and friends. Without question, what happens to them and what they do does affect the entire extended community—hence Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora, and countless more.

Thus, in a different but very real way, these children and young adults are victims too--though of a different sort. Their mental and emotional pain is so overwhelming that they have no idea how to find relief. Many commit suicide or try to. Many hope that through their actions, they will commit “suicide by cop." Many find themselves adrift in an endless nightmare of grays and blacks, of horrors unimaginable.

Future parents must be educated, as well, in what to watch for in their children—born to them, fostered, or adopted. These guardians must be ready for early intervention.

We must not and cannot forget or overlook the fact that these human beings are truly a part of each of us. Undeniably, they are victims. Our schools need to make accommodations for the full spectrum of their mental and emotional illnesses that manifest themselves in so many different ways. Schools must be on the lookout for the scars (physical and psychological) of physical abuse. Teachers need to be trained to recognize the signs.

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Just as we have classes for the visually- and hearing-impaired, for physical disabilities, for the severely mentally disturbed (with teachers with specialized credentials), so must we have classes with a small teacher-student ratio with committed and highly trained teachers for children who would otherwise be "discarded"--children who are not only equally needy but, in many cases, even more needy than those in the other categories

Without that recognition and special attention, these children become pigeon-holed as trouble- and mischief-makers with teachers who commonly believe that these "annoying" kids can behave if they really want to but disrupt, instead, for the sheer pleasure of disturbing others. We have to change that frame of mind which is so off the mark. We must if we want to help each of our children who attend our educational institutions.

Future parents must be educated, as well, in what to watch for in their children—born to them, fostered, or adopted. These guardians must be ready for early intervention. Pediatricians need a foundation on which they can make appropriate, informed diagnoses.

The child victims at Chernobyl became detached because they viewed their futures filled only with "repeated adversity with no forseeable end." Harry Frederick Harlow, the American psychologist who experimented with the macaque monkeys, early on hit upon the long-term effects of maternal separation, dependency needs, and social isolation. He observed glazed looks, self-mutilation, severe psychological psychoses, and even digestive disorders (such as continual diarrhea)--all symptoms which equally plague the monkeys and their human child counterparts. He also noted that even after a child is removed from such social and actual isolation, many (if not most) will never fully recover from their attachment disorder.

Now that we know the symptoms and most of the causes, what do we do?

There is hope that reversal of these symptoms is still possible if the root of the problem is recognized early enough and appropriate action is taken. These children need to understand and believe that there is hope for alleviating their pain and suffering in a meaningful and significant way. Wrap-around services must include wrap-around love from every person who plays a role in their lives. No one should be told, unlike what Dr. Harlow predicted decades ago, that he or she is a lost soul. Perhaps what is most true is what the song so unpretentiously claims: ". . .all you need is love."

As Antwone Fisher wrote in one of his poems with words and sentiments that are so apt. . .

Who will cry for the little boy?
Lost and all alone.
Who will cry for the little boy?
Abandoned without his own?

Who will cry for the little boy?
He cried himself to sleep.
Who will cry for the little boy?
He never had for keeps.

Who will cry for the little boy?
He walked the burning sand.
Who will cry for the little boy?
The boy inside the man.

Who will cry for the little boy?
Who knows well hurt and pain.
Who will cry for the little boy?
He died again and again.

Who will cry for the little boy?
A good boy he tried to be.
Who will cry for the little boy?
Who cries inside of me.

Yes, I see (we see) the crosses (and other markers) lining school yards and street lanes. No more, however, should they include some names to the exclusion of others. We must mourn all those who have left us too early but, for those still living, promise to recognize and attend to their needs (before it is too late)—each being who must be thought of in his or her way as a gift from On High.

Rosemary Jenkins

Rosemary Jenkins

Rosemary Jenkins