The legacy of abuse is violence, child advocates warn

February 09, 1992|By Jay Apperson

Mrs. Goldberg's third-grade class, Edgewater Elementary School, 1970.

Can you pick out the kid whose father beat him with his police belt, beat his backside so badly that Jane Goldberg one day noticed he couldn't sit still at his desk? The same kid who was being sexually abused by a man, a friend of his father's?

The same kid who, by the third grade, had already suffered a nervous breakdown?

Can you pick out the kid who grew up to be a murderer?

Look at the smiling, freckle-faced boy, last row, sixth from the left. That's 9-year-old Steven Gregory Anderson.

Elaine R. Fisher, executive director of Parents Anonymous of Maryland, points to Steven Anderson's life when she argues: We should identify and treat the victims of child abuse because, if we don't, some of them will grow up to rape and kill us.

Last month, at age 31, Anderson was sentenced to life without parole for raping and murdering a 41-year-old Crofton woman. In sparing him from the gas chamber, an Anne Arundel County judge cited Anderson's miserable upbringing.

His third grade teacher, in a letter to Judge H. Chester Goudy Jr., wrote: "In all my years of teaching there are probably five children I will never forget. Steven was one of those. He never had a chance."

Ms. Fisher, whose group offers counseling to victims of child abuse and to the abusers themselves, passes out pamphlets reading, "Today's victim of child abuse is tomorrow's predator."

If you doubt her, consider the defendants in three recent capital cases:

* John Frederick Thanos, the convicted, unremorseful murderer of two Middle River teen-agers. Before a mistrial was declared in the sentencing phase of his trial, a social worker testified that Thanos was beaten, humiliated and terrorized as a child by his hard-drinking father. Thanos, who is also awaiting trial in the slaying of a Salisbury man, has spent most of his 42 years behind bars.

* Daniel E. Turner, a 33-year-old laborer sentenced last June to life without parole for the kidnapping and murder of an Army clerk who was found stabbed more than 20 times in a wooded area near Aberdeen Proving Ground. In rejecting the death penalty for Turner, the jury cited a violent childhood marked by regular beatings from his father and his mother's boyfriends. Turner's lawyer, Luther West, said his client spent most of his teen-age years in boys' homes and murdered the clerk within five months of completing a five-year prison term for assault.

* Ronald L. Scoates, who stabbed his former housemate to death during a $50 robbery at the man's home in Crownsville. At the time, Scoates was on parole for a Florida murder. The jury in the Maryland case sentenced the 31-year-old defendant to life without parole. This followed testimony that Scoates, while growing up in Florida, was abandoned by his mother and was pistol-whipped and taught to steal by his alcoholic father -- who also terrorized family members with live alligators.

Deborah Daro, research director for the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse, said studies show a link between abuse, juvenile delinquency and adult crime, but no causal relationship has been proved.

She noted that abused children are less likely to become lTC well-adjusted adults, but whether they become criminals can depend on personality and environmental factors beyond the family, such as growing up in areas where crime is a way of life.

To be sure, the prosecutor in Anderson's case -- and the husband of victim Gwyn Dixon Criswell -- were not overly moved by the killer's background. In unsuccessfully pushing for the death penalty, Assistant State's Attorney Cynthia M. Ferris said, "We certainly agree he had a horrible upbringing, a miserable life. But many people are abused as children and don't act out in such aggressive, negative ways."

An angry Theodore Criswell, terming Anderson's sentence "absolutely ludicrous," said the implication is, "The bigger the bum I am the more I can get away with. I bet half the people in that courtroom came from dysfunctional families. I was beaten when I was a kid. Maybe not the same manner or severity, but I was beaten."

While Ms. Daro said no scientifically valid body of research exists to definitively show how many criminals were abused as children, a number of studies have looked at the question:

* A 1985 study by the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services found that children from violent homes are nearly twice as likely to commit crimes against another person and 24 times more likely to commit sexual assaults than children who have not been abused.

* Up to a third of all homicides reveal a history of abuse in the killer's background, according to the 1986 book, "Troubled Youth, Troubled Families," by James Garbarino, president of the Chicago-based Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development.

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