Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

Case study: The critical need to conduct thorough child assessments

By Gregory K. Moffatt January 29, 2015

“Amanda” sat on the couch across the room from me drawing on a sketch pad. A lovely young girl of 14, she weighed scarcely 100 pounds, and with her cheery and naïve smile, she looked as innocent as they come. If I hadn’t seen attachment disorders many times before, I could easily have been swingsfooled by her carefree air and seemingly open-book candor.

Could this barely pubescent teen really have done what she had been accused of? In my work, I have seen dozens of children who have been accused of animal cruelty, rape and even murder. I knew better than to be fooled by the crafty façade of which children such as this are capable.

 

The case

The call on my cell phone was from a social worker at a foster care agency. As I drove through Atlanta traffic, she explained that two family pets had been horribly violated in a sexual way, with injuries so serious that both dogs had required surgery. The county sheriff’s department was investigating the case, and Amanda was the prime suspect.

Amanda’s background was classic for reactive attachment disorder (RAD). Very early in life, she had been abused both physically and sexually, at which time she was removed from her biological parents’ home and placed in foster care. Early attachment problems were present in her case file, including sexual acting out and some indication of cruelty to animals.

Circumstantial evidence pointed to Amanda as well. She was the caretaker of the pets and was often unsupervised. She was the last person seen with the dogs before their injuries, and her home was in a remote, rural area, making it unlikely that some random perpetrator was at fault.

My heart sank. I felt certain I had another case of a seriously disturbed child, and I made an appointment to do an assessment with Amanda within the next few days.

But things are not always what they seem.

 

The assessment

I easily could have conducted my in-office assessment with Amanda, written my report, submitted my bill and been done with it. But this would not have given me the fullest picture of Amanda and the extenuating circumstances this situation presented.

Prior cases such as Amanda’s that I had worked were clear. Children with RAD often begin displaying disturbing behavior in early childhood, sometimes even in infancy. These behaviors become progressively worse until parents or guardians eventually run out of ideas for coping. By the time they come to my office, these children have often sexually assaulted other children, destroyed property or become incorrigible. None of these things were true for Amanda.

My normal assessment includes, among other things, a number of processes that allow me to observe a child’s sexualization, socialization and attachment. In cases such as this, I also normally conduct a minimum of two different assessment appointments. Children may behave very differently from one day to another, and this practice has helped me avoid many problems over the years.

Amanda passed these assessments with flying colors. I was at a loss because cursory information made her the most likely suspect, but what I saw in my assessment was inconsistent with a young teen who could have so cruelly abused an animal in such a sexual way.

Looking through nearly 10 years of Amanda’s evaluations by psychologists, I found hints of sexualization and cruelty to animals as I had initially been told, but careful reading put this information in a different context. In the child’s early years, there had, indeed, been evidence of sexual acting out as one might see in children with RAD. But interestingly, no one had observed even a single instance of Amanda acting out sexually since she was 6 years old —a span of longer than eight years.

The “cruelty” to animals that existed in her file was, in my opinion, either a very mild form of cruelty or not cruelty at all. Children often hurt animals, sometimes in very serious ways, but my concern is not with the seriousness of the injury. A normal child might seriously injure or even kill a pet by accident. A child with RAD, on the other hand, might torment and torture a pet explicitly for the purpose of causing pain, even if the pet doesn’t end up being seriously injured. These are very different motives. I saw no clear evidence of “cruelty” in the recorded behaviors in Amanda’s file.

But this evidence can be deceptive. Children with RAD often mask their cruel behaviors against both animals and people as seemingly innocent mistakes. I had to be certain I wasn’t missing something with Amanda.

 

Interviews and supporting information:

I needed a fuller picture of Amanda than I could achieve from my office evaluation and the information in her file. One of the many professional hats I wear is that of a homicide profiler. When I am looking at a homicide case, I want to know as much as I can, not only about the homicide but also about the victim, the place, the weapon and the timing of the event. I interview as many people as I can and look at every piece of evidence available to me. In ethnographic research, this is called triangulation (looking at evidence from three or more sources), and Amanda’s case demanded this type of multidirectional examination. I didn’t want to make a decision based simply on my office assessment.

I started my interviews with the foster parents. I needed to know more about Amanda’s history in the nine years they had had guardianship of her, and specifically about the past three or four years. This caring and loving couple had treated Amanda like a daughter since her placement in their home, and they were certain she was innocent. I knew they could be biased in their perceptions, but unless they were trained to know what I was looking for, they couldn’t easily manipulate my impressions.

I was looking for any symptoms of sexualization or cruelty in Amanda’s recent history. RAD doesn’t go away by itself, and it doesn’t improve with time. Instead, the symptoms digress. If Amanda had been cruel to animals early in life, she almost certainly would not stop, and the cruel behavior would escalate. Likewise, if she truly was a child with RAD and she had acted out sexually early on, she would still be engaging in sexual behaviors, and those behaviors also would have escalated. Cruelty moves through a digression — objects to animals and then animals to people. Sexual behaviors digress as well — masturbation, sexual exploration, acting out with consenting others and, finally, acting out on others by force.

Children might easily “practice” their sexual exploitation on animals before moving to humans because animals are easier to control. If Amanda had done something so overtly sexual and cruel to the two family pets, there would have to be symptoms of cruelty and sexualization in her recent history. But my interview with her parents turned up no such allegations in any context, at any time, from any teacher, playmate, sibling, coach or therapist.

I was also interested in Amanda’s ability to connect with other human beings — to show and receive affection. Children with RAD have trouble with both. The comments of the foster parents were consistent with what I had observed in my evaluation. Amanda had no troubles connecting in any context — school, church, athletics or home. She seemed to be a loving child who, although socially awkward, got along well with others and would not intentionally hurt anyone or anything.

I also needed the investigative perspective of the sheriff’s deputy, even though I knew he was already convinced that Amanda was to blame. For good reason, he saw no other logical suspect and had focused all of his investigative resources on her, but he was waiting for my evaluation before proceeding. He provided me with the basic facts of the case. During our first conversation, I derived a clearer picture of how this event could have taken place. The timing of events and other facts confirmed the information I had received from the foster parents. This confirmation was very important because it allowed me to dismiss the possibility that they were attempting to deceive me. It also helped me create a visual image of the event and give further consideration to how Amanda might have injured these dogs without being detected as well as how difficult that might have been for her to do.

Armed with that information, I realized it was at least possible that Amanda was just beginning to exhibit cruel behavior. I needed to know what the dogs experienced, so, with the consent of my client, I called the veterinarian who conducted the surgeries. My main question: Would someone have known she was hurting these animals, or would the animals simply have stood still and allowed the abuse? After all, Amanda was tiny, and these were large, full-grown dogs. Could she have restrained them?

The vet said the dogs would have been howling, struggling and whimpering. “No question,” he said. “The perpetrator would have known these dogs were in serious pain.” This was consistent with the idea of children with RAD intending to do harm, but it left me wondering how Amanda could have controlled the dogs long enough to do this.

I wanted a second opinion. I called a university with a respected veterinary program and talked to the department chair. I sent him photographs of the objects used in the abuse and gave him a summary of the case. His answer to my question? The dogs would have simply stood there and accepted the abuse! The perpetrator may not have known that he or she was causing serious, life-threatening pain, he said. This could be consistent with a child just beginning to act out on animals and didn’t exonerate Amanda.

I now had two completely opposing opinions, so what could I do? I chose to dismiss the “pain” component because I couldn’t be certain which veterinarian to believe. What was uncontested was the fact that both female dogs had large objects inserted into their vaginas. This was clearly a sexual behavior. Most adults couldn’t even find a dog’s vagina. The most obvious rear orifice in a female dog is the anus. This told me that this perpetrator had to deliberately seek out the vagina. Therefore, this was almost certainly not the first time he or she had acted out sexually, which was inconsistent with Amanda’s history. Was it possible for a child to go from simple “show me yours” sexual acting out nine years earlier to vaginally violating not one but two animals at the same time? I hardly saw that as possible.

 

Conclusions

After nearly two weeks of study, interviews, telephone calls and assessments, my final conclusion was that Amanda had nothing to do with the abuse to these animals. I believed that the loving and caring foster family had helped her weather a very difficult start to her life and their interventions had been effective in counteracting the problems of early attachment issues. Amanda measured low normal in IQ, and it seemed inconceivable to me that she could be cunning enough to hide this type of serious dysfunction from everyone in her environment for so long. Although it wasn’t impossible, it was highly improbable.

It was my recommendation that the foster care agency carefully investigate other possible perpetrators among the children in the home and that the sheriff’s department look into other possible suspects from nearby homes as well as hunters or others who might be known to be in this remote area. In my final telephone call with the investigating officer from the sheriff’s department, he asked me the obvious question: “If this child didn’t do it, then who did?” Occam’s razor tells us that the simplest solution is most often the correct one. That just wasn’t the case here. I didn’t want to sound trite, but the person he should investigate really wasn’t my problem, and I said so, although not so bluntly.

Still, I remained tentative in my final evaluation. The risk to others was very high if I was wrong. Therefore, I proposed that Amanda be reevaluated at six months, and I also recommended that she be evaluated by an expert in dissociative identity disorder (DID). The only way I could fathom her possibly committing such acts and yet successfully hiding them from everyone for so long was the remote possibility of DID. I suggested that either I was right and Amanda had nothing to do with this incident, or I was wrong and she was the most clever, sly and dangerous child I had ever seen in my practice.

So, why couldn’t I have simply skipped all the phone calls and gone with my initial evaluation? After all, it appears that I was correct, wasn’t I? Yes, but a possibility certainly existed that I was wrong, and the risk that posed to Amanda, her family, animals in her environment and others was scary. If I had concluded that Amanda was not the perpetrator and was wrong, she would have been free to act out on other animals. In addition, this behavior was so cruel that it would have been a very small step for her to act out on humans, including younger or weaker siblings or playmates. She would have been a risk to everyone she came into contact with.

On the other hand, if I concluded that Amanda did in fact commit this act, she would have been removed from the home. She had lived in this stable, loving home for most of her life, and if my conclusions were wrong, she would have been unfairly uprooted, stigmatized and very difficult to place in the foster care system. The progress she had made might quickly have been undone, and my mistake could have had lifelong consequences for her. Both of these possible outcomes had serious consequences.

 

Follow-up

One year later, my conclusions seem to have been proved correct. The follow-up for DID resulted in no indication of multiple personalities, and the psychologist’s conclusions were the same as mine. Subsequent evaluations also rendered conclusions consistent with my original evaluation, and no other incidents have occurred in the family home or environs. To my knowledge, no other perpetrator has been pursued or apprehended.

This case presents four very important lessons for counselors:

1) Cover every base. Avoid the temptation to lean too heavily on any single piece of information or assessment for conclusions. Assessment processes, interviews, case material and other sources of information can provide triangulation and help confirm or disconfirm information that might be presented in a child’s file.

2) Material in case files may not be objective, and there may be other ways to see the behaviors recorded therein. Read these files with objectivity and caution.

3) Be tentative in your conclusions.

4) Follow up for certainty. If I had been wrong in this case, my recommended follow-up could literally have saved someone’s life.

 

 

****

Gregory K. Moffatt is a professor of counseling and human services at Point University. A licensed professional counselor, he has more than 25 years of clinical experience treating trauma with children. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

 

2 Comments

  1. La Shay Johnson

    I really want to know who did it. The crime was heinous! Is Amanda and her family still at risk of harm, With no knowledge as to the identity of the perpetrator?

    Reply
    1. Greg

      Unfortunately, the sheriff’s office put the investigation on the back burner after my assessment. It is currently tabled so we may never know who did it. Your curiosity and concern is shared by all involved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.