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Psychologist Calls Child Stabbing Predictable And Preventable

A psychologist says the shocking stabbing death of a 12-year-old boy, allegedly by his 10-year-old playmate, can be traced to clues and causes in the childhood brain.

— The news was shocking:

A 10-year-old boy stabbed a 12-year-old friend to death with a kitchen knife in front of his home Monday in El Cajon.

If the facts are correct, what can help us to understand the crime? And how will law enforcement respond?

Bonny Forrest is a child neuropsychologist and attorney who has studied criminal behavior. She spoke about the killing with me on KPBS' Morning Edition. I asked how such a violent act from a 10 year old was even possible.

FORREST: My first thought when I heard the news yesterday was that there’s something neurobiological going on. And certainly as we get more information that seems to be the case. It sounds like there may have been some issue, even when this child was in-utero. A new study came out yesterday showing that drinking during the first trimester of pregnancy, or use of drugs during that time… it’s a critical period of brain development. So you could have a structure in the brain that could have problems from the time of birth.

FUDGE: Well, what are the warning signs that a child may be possible of killing someone in anger?

FORREST: This is extreme. And there are very few cases. I think there were maybe 10 cases in all of last year for a child this young. So you’re looking for extreme aggression, extreme outbursts, lying, stealing… those sorts of markers should be signs to a parent that they need to seek help.

FUDGE: And if a person with this kind of anger can be spotted, given the warning sings you mentioned, are there interventions with a kid like that that can make a difference?

FORREST: Absolutely! I think one of the things that has come out of the mental health industry over the past 10 years have been called evidence-based treatments. And these are treatments that have shown effectiveness against these anger and impulsive-type issues.

FUDGE: And what is the likelihood that a parent who sees these tendencies in a kid can find help, and afford help?

FORREST: That’s a bigger issue. In California a lot of these programs have been cut. Before, a school psychologist might have noticed these issues. But school psychologists have been either eliminated from schools, or have such large caseloads they can’t identify problems. So it has become harder. But what I would tell parents is to be persistent, find a mental health professional, continue to ask questions, seek out a pediatricians… those kind of resources are still available, especially at the county level.

FUDGE: I think I mentioned that in addition to being a psychologist you’re an attorney. How can law enforcement respond to a crime like this, and what are their options?

FORREST: That’s a great question. One of the reasons I went back to school and got a degree in psychology was because I felt law enforcement was ill equipped to handle these things. In this case they had to handcuff him. They were probably as compassionate as possible. He will be adjudicated in the juvenile system. Kids under 14 cannot be tried in the adult system in California. And we’ll probably see him in a residential facility for the next decade or so.

FUDGE: Can children this young understand what they’re doing in a case like that?

FORREST: Well, you have to say he used a knife. We don’t know what the knife was like. I think it was a kitchen knife. So I don’t think you can say he was carrying around a concealed weapon. It sounds like something that happened in an outburst or a compulsive moment. It looks like they were good friends. He had spent the night several times in fact. And when the other child was loaded into the ambulance, he watched and said, 'I didn’t mean to do it.' That what I hear in reports.

So did he understand? It’s hard to really know. Maybe he thought he would get back up. Maybe he saw a video game and he didn’t totally understand death.

FUDGE: I know you’ve spent some time talking to men on death row. And when you look at them and look at their childhoods do you see people for whom intervention might have made a difference?

FORREST: Absolutely. We spend more money on prisons than preschools these days. If we can intervene with these kids, and with kids with less severe problems, we can make a difference and spend less in the long run. And especially for the victims… both children here, because there are a lot of victims here. Make their lives different.

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