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Deadly 'Ghosts from the Nursery'

Hathaway: Deadly 'Ghosts from the Nursery'

By Fran Hathaway, Palm Beach Post Editorial Writer
Sunday, July 29, 2001

Why do kids kill? How often we've asked that question in recent years. How rarely we've received satisfying answers. Yet who can say why adolescents turn violent?

Robin Karr-Morse can, and did Friday to an invited audience of several hundred people at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in West Palm Beach. Her excellent presentation coincided almost to the minute with the sentencing of Nathaniel Brazill for the murder of Barry Grunow.

Violence begins in the brain, Ms. Karr-Morse says, perhaps before birth. Advances in neuroscience coupled with new technology is proving that. Today, using brain imaging techniques such as the MRI -- magnetic resonance imaging -- scientists actually can see inside the brain. They also are finding commonalities in the medical histories of violent juveniles: hyperactivity, impulsivity, learning disabilities or attention deficits, often coupled with prenatal complications or serious injuries as an infant.

"The parts of the brain responsible for judgment, impulse control and reality testing are disproportionately impaired, along with the capacity for empathy and the ability to accurately interpret the actions and intent of other people," says Ms. Karr-Morse, author of Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence. It is no coincidence that most violent acts, especially among teens, are impulsive rather than premeditated.

Ms. Karr-Morse is a family therapist, first director of the Oregon Children's Trust Fund and an authority on reducing youth violence. On Friday, she was the first speaker in the National Perspectives Series, a project of the children's services council and the Lawton Chiles Foundation's Whole Child Project.

No child is born with a "violent gene." But we all go through critical periods in which key aspects of development occur, including the ability to trust or feel connected to others. The neurological circuits for learning words, for example, are being built in the first months of life, when most of us thought our babies were just adorable-looking lumps.

So how does a baby metamorphose into a killer? If delays in learning and mental retardation can spring from those early months, can they be prevented? In a study of 120 poor families, various supports were provided to enrich the child's environment and prevent problems. Yet the factor that most put a child at risk was not the lack of medical care, good nutrition or quality child care. It was the parents' education and their intellectual and language abilities, how well they could stimulate their baby's brain to build gray matter.

"The single strongest predictor of all," Ms. Karr-Morse says, "is the mother's level of intelligence." So I wonder: With so many children having children, does the widening gap between rich and poor begin in the cradle?

Ms. Karr-Morse compares her message to that of Rachel Carson, the field biologist who wrote Silent Spring. Ms. Carson alerted the world to the pesticides that were poisoning not just the songbirds but our own species. Ms. Karr-Morse says the same dynamic is at work among children. Babies in record numbers are absorbing toxic experiences such as family violence, physical and emotional abuse, parental depression, lack of a father and chronic neglect -- along with nicotine, alcohol and illegal drugs -- during a crucial period of development. "It's an environment designed to breed rage and despair, potentially as lethal as the effects of DDT."

Is that what happened with Nathaniel Brazill? We know his father was absent and that he witnessed repeated domestic violence as a child. What about 14-year-old Lionel Tate, the Pembroke Pines boy who killed a 6-year-old girl with his bare hands? What were his early months and years like? What about all the children who have shot up their schools?

Why do kids kill? If Ms. Karr-Morse is right, and I suspect she is, it's because the child they once were lives at the core of the person they have become. It's enough to make you want to go back and raise your kids all over again.

Fran Hathaway is an editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post. Her e-mail address is fran_hathaway@pbpost.com

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