(Red flag photo via Andrea Sanchez Martinez.)
The shooting at Virginia Tech yesterday raised a lot of difficult and as yet unanswered questions for a whole lot of folks yesterday. This morning's news brings a much higher casualty number than we knew about yesterday, but it will take a lot more time to sift through all of the clues of the young man's life who pulled the trigger so many times in such a horrific, violent incident.
As someone who spent a good deal of her legal career trying to understand and work with violent juvenile and adult offenders, this is a particularly troubling incident. There are so many unanswered questions at this point, but all of my study and training in these issues raises so many more that investigators will be trying to answer.
This morning's Today Show, of all places, had an excellent segment on some of the "red flag" warning signs that folks in communities all across our country ought to be aware of — things that have, repeatedly, shown up in violent incident after violent incident that have been studied by law enforcement and mental health professionals for years. This is information that needs a wider distribution outside the law enforcement community, and I wanted to do a little bit on it this morning as a sort of public service while we all wait for better answers from Blacksburg.
So, with the understanding that for every rule there are about a million exceptions, and that you are likely to see them in any criminal case that ever touches your life. And the knowledge that some or none of this may apply directly to the shooter in Blacksburg — I just wanted to share a few thoughts with you about identifying potentially violent actors who may be in need of intervention of some sort — for their own protection as much as that of the community.
There are certain common threads that I saw a lot in working with abuse and neglect cases, juvenile offenders and adult criminals over the years of my practice. And they were similarly identified by the psych professionals with whom I worked on a day to day basis, who provided therapy and evaluation services for us in particular cases — and in the literature about these sorts of issues and at seminars that I attended. In particular, a seminar on violent juvenile offenders that I attended — run by the OJJDP — during the time I was a prosecutor, helped to hone in on the psychological aspects and root causes, as well as to indentify certain "red flag" behaviors that are common across the board in violent incidents. These include, but are not limited to:
— Animal abuse, especially torture and physical violence of any kind.
— Arson/fire starting.
— A history of sexual abuse, either as a victim or a perpetrator.
— Anti-social/loner tendencies.
— Outbursts of anger.
— A history of bedwetting beyond young childhood range.
— Language delays, causing difficulty in comprehension or expression.
— An obsession with firearms or other explosive devices or weaponry.
— Abuse toward younger siblings or other family members.
— Violence in the home.
— Obsession with violent video games, or other violent media or literature.
— Drug and/or alcohol abuse, especially where it results in violent behavior while intoxicated.
— Truancy/delinquency issues.
— A home life that includes maltreatment, neglect and other emotional abuse issues, as well as exposure to physical abuse, to themselves or to others in the home.
This is by no means a complete list — there are a number of other factors as well, and any one or more of these factors may be present without seeing a child have issues with sociopathic or other violent behavior. But they should raise concerns for adults around that child, and should at the least say that the child needs some extra intervention to be certain that the behavior and questions raised do not spiral downward into more violent behavior. This includes aggressive mental health intervention, as well as family counseling, where appropriate, because so often mental health problems go hand in hand with a lot of the red flag problems raised above.
With years of experience in working with at risk kids, from very young childhood forward to dealing with the parents of these children, the thing which stands out in my mind is how little work we do with abused children at the front end of this cycle the way our criminal system is currently structured — and how much good early intervention can truly do for a child to keep them out of the juvenile and adult criminal system as time goes forward. (And I say this knowing that West Virginia actually has a better abuse and neglect system than many states.) This is a discussion that I desperately want to see happen in this country, because the costs of incarceration — and the horrible impact that violent crime has on the victims who must face it — cannot continue to rise without us examining more effective means to combat these crimes at their root.
In all honesty, there are some offenders who simply cannot be rehabilitated, for whom incarceration is the best means of ensuring safety for the community and for the defendant. But that is not true for all offenders, and that is especially true for younger juveniles for whom effective and immediate psych and educational intervention can make a world of difference. (Not in all cases, but in a lot of them.) Far too often, once a juvenile offender moves to adult status, it is almost too late to work on the necessary changes for behavior and other issues — but if we can catch a child when he is very young in an abuse case and help to make his environment more steady and safe, or if we can work with a young juvenile offender before the behavior and problems spiral downward toward more and more violence, we can make a substantial difference. I don't mean to sound altogether cynical, but truly my experience has borne out that you are far more likely to make a difference if you catch the problem when the person is young.
All indications are that the shooter at Virginia Tech was an older student in his early 20s, but the questions that law enforcement will be asking will still be along some of these red flag lines as they work backward through the evidence to comprehend the reasons for this violent tragedy. Ultimately, any answers on this will not provide anything but a stepping off point for more questions for the families of the victims in this shooting. But I hope with this initial article to also raise some questions — and awareness — among our readers.
This is a starting point for conversation, not a complete list. But by having a better understanding of some of the things to look for — in your own kids, in their friends, in the kids at their school, in other folks with whom you have contact — perhaps this will give you a little insight into a difference you might be able to make in an at risk child's life. A lot of these kids live in chaotic, violent families, with no semblence of order or care. Not always, though. A lot of these kids are loners or socially inept in a lot of ways. But not always. For many of these kids, having an adult who cares about them and is willing to talk through some of these issues can make all the difference in the world.
What else has a big impact? Early intervention. If there is a family or a child about whom you are currently asking yourself some questions, please consider being more actively alert — or even talking with a school counselor or social work professional or a local police officer who may or may not have already had questions about that child as well.
Look, a lot of times you just have a kid who gets into the trouble that teenagers get into, and they outgrow it once they mature a bit more. But especially where you have a child who has issues with animal or physical abuse toward others, and/or issues with fire-starting? These are tendencies that we have seen over and over again in serial killers and in other sociopathic behaviors, and this should be a big red flag for you and others in your community.
When I was growing up, the moms and dads in our neighborhood all looked out for everyone's kids. If I did something wrong up the street, my mom heard about it before I made it home, and she was glad that some other parent had cared enough to let her know about whatever it was. We are all responsible for our own communities — looking the other way and hoping the ugliness goes away, or that someone else will take care of it so that you don't have to do so, does not solve the problem. Neither does just slapping a temporary band-aid on a much longer-term problem.
I hope that this is a start to a much more detailed conversation that we need to have in this country. At the very least, perhaps it will help out someone in some community with an at risk child who needs someone to reach out…today.