The making of a murderer?

Our Failed Solutions for Seriously Ill Foster Youths (published by The Chronicle of Social Change)

Justin Taylor Bean, removed from his abusive birth parents as a toddler, spent the next two decades in psychiatric hospitals and more than 40 residential facilities.

Over the years, his physical and verbal aggression increased despite treatment and medication. Then, at the age of 22, Justin strangled to death a fellow group home resident.

During his sentencing last month, District Attorney Laura Thomas argued almost sympathetically that Justin “did not have a chance — it was all over for him at age 2.” She then asked that he be sentenced to a life behind bars, which he was.

“There’s not a miraculous cure,” Thomas said. “The public needs to be protected from him forever.”

Many will be outraged by this story, but few will understand how something like this happens. After all, all the warning signs were there. Doesn’t that mean this could have been prevented?

Sadly, it’s not that simple.

More than a million children each year experience early childhood trauma, most often due to abuse and neglect. “Developmental trauma,” a term coined by leading expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, affects a child’s brain development. The impact can be devastating, including severe attachment and behavioral issues. These traumatized children need comprehensive, specialized professional intervention and treatment – treatment that’s expensive and not available in most areas.

Unfortunately, I know all too well just how true this is. My adopted son, Devon, has also attempted to seriously harm fellow residents in group homes – more than once. Like Justin, Devon has a diagnosis of reactive attachment disorder and has a similar treatment history. My son could easily have killed someone, he’s just been small enough that staff can control him.

He’s received medication and thousands of hours of therapy. He’s only become more violent and dangerous. Unable to safely live at home, he’s been in and out of psychiatric residential treatment facilities for years. All I can do is helplessly watch as he careens toward adulthood, an angry and violent young man.

What’s clear from Devon and Justin’s stories is that our mental health system does not yet know how to effectively treat children with the most severe developmental trauma. Residential treatment facilities, often the only available choice, are virtual incubators for violence, and many children leave more dangerous than they went in. And far too many end up institutionalized or incarcerated.

As a society, we take these already broken and vulnerable children, and like a gruesome medieval torture press, crush their hope for a good future. We perpetuate their trauma by piling on with broken systems that exacerbate the very problems they try to address: foster care, family court, health care, mental health services and juvenile justice, to name a few.

Further, our communities don’t understand developmental trauma and underestimate its impact. And so, schools, unwitting parents, therapists and social groups pile on too. Under this pressing weight, what hope is there for these children?

The vast majority of people with mental health disorders do not go on to commit murder. But given our apathetic and broken mental health system, developmental trauma can be its own life sentence for youth in the child welfare system. It negatively affects all areas of life – relational, legal, educational and financial. A few victims, like Justin, go on to commit violent crimes.

How many lives have to be destroyed? Isn’t it time to recognize developmental trauma as the unsolved challenge it is, and prioritize funding research, prevention and treatment? Until we do, too many broken children will continue to grow into broken adults and we will continue to see tragedies like the murder committed by Justin.

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