Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Mental health professionals have spent years studying some of the most notorious serial killers in history, but a small segment of people who fall into this category — children — often go overlooked, says an associate professor of forensic psychiatry.

“Until now, the disturbing details of a half-dozen children’s serial killing sprees have remained well-hidden, concealed in 150 years of medical literature, true-crime tales, newspaper clippings and history books,” said Dr. Wade C. Myers of the University of Florida’s Health Science Center.

Dr. Myers researched what he describes as the “previously unknown psychopathic phenomenon” of “sexual serial homicides” by children and adolescents. His findings are published in a 19-page report in the summer the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law.

The purpose of the research was to discover factors that may have contributed to such worst-case criminal behavior by minors.

As in so many studies that have examined causes of juvenile delinquency, the University of Florida study found that unstable and abusive family life was a major factor in the development of young serial killers.

The six children described in Dr. Myers’ report — five boys and a girl — all killed before age 18, slaying at least two victims, usually other children they knew. Three were from the United States, two from Europe, and one from Central America.

Dr. Myers said he initially went to scientific textbooks and journals to learn about “kids who do these sorts of crimes … but found there was almost nothing written about them.”

He expanded his search by studying newspaper accounts and other popular material dealing with true crimes.

Dr. Myers’ report does not include children who killed under the direct influence of an adult co-conspirator or those involved in mass murder sprees. Instead, he focused on cases in which youngsters independently killed and had a “cooling off” period between the crimes.

He concentrated on cases with sexual overtones, pointing out that sex was a factor in the bulk of the most notorious serial killing cases perpetrated by adults.

A vital finding, Dr. Myers said, is that the children described in his paper lacked positive adult role models in their homes and were subjected to “cruel discipline, neglect, and physical and emotional abuse.”

“One had a prostitute for a mother who abandoned her as a child. Another had a brutally abusive father who [was an alcoholic and] butchered farm animals in front of his son from the time he was a toddler,” Dr. Myers said, adding: “It’s safe to say that none of these children would have committed serial murders had they come from stable backgrounds, and none of them did come from stable backgrounds.”

Because of the abusive home lives of these children, “they had little capacity to feel guilt and displayed psychopathic personality features, such as being emotionally cold, callous and manipulative,” Dr. Myers said.

“What is harder to explain is what actually creates in them a fascination with sadistic acts, that is, pleasure in the harming or killing of others.”

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