Destroying Children

Jonathan McLeod

Jonathan McLeod is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario. (That means Canada.) He spends too much time following local politics and writing about zoning issues. Follow him on Twitter.

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41 Responses

  1. dragonfrog says:

    This is so incredibly sad. If ever there were a case where the accused were obviously not acting with the mental capacity of adults, this is one.Report

  2. Burt Likko says:

    Well, the assailants very clearly need to be prosecuted and, if found guilty, punished.

    But of course a juvenile justice system exists for a reason and that is to emphasize rehabilitation and to take into account the lower capacity of children to understand consequences and the moral gravity of their actions. It seems pretty clear to me that two pre-teens who bought in to an internet myth that even rudimentary research would have revealed was fiction are not in possession of full adult mental capacity.

    That leads me to think about people who commit crimes (or other kinds of moral lapses) based on equally irrational but somewhat more mainstream sorts of beliefs — science deniers like parents who refuse to vaccinate their children because of anti-vax mythology, or faith-healers who pray for their children to get better instead of taking them to a doctor. And you know what? I find myself having little sympathy for them and perfectly satisfied to see the law step in to the worst outcomes of such circumstances.

    About the only thing that I can identify that distinguishes these girls in Waukesha from parents who won’t get their kids medical care because Jesus told them not to is the dimension of adulthood. The presumption of being able to understand the world for what it is, a presumption that evidence for both adults and children is not always validated experientially. The ability to weigh relative moral costs of the anticipated results of a particular set of actions, again an ability that not all adults seem to demonstrate, either.

    So it seems like a sliding scale to some degree, but here the ages really skew towards the extra-rehabilitative and merciful side of state disposition of a crime that the juvenile justice system is supposed to offer.

    There is nothing good about this story, anywhere, at any point. It’s just incredibly awful.Report

    • Francis in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Counselor: I respectfully disagree with your first sentence. Prosecution and punishment require that the defendant be competent. Someone who is a juvenile or so mentally deficient as to lack understanding of the nature of his crimes and the proceedings doesn’t get prosecuted. They go through a very different proceeding.

      This is not a trivial distinction, even if it’s one too often lost to prosecutors. But the idea of mens rea — the guilty mind — is an essential component of our system of justice.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Francis says:

        Then why have a juvenile justice system at all?

        A successful and just prosecution as an adult requires demonstration of mens rea, I certainly agree with that. And I don’t see that application of justice being a possibility in this case. Which is what I thought I said.

        But we still have two twelve-year-old girls who, with malice aforethought, tried to stab another twelve-year-old girl to death. I’m not comfortable with the state stepping back and saying “Kids will be kids.” The state needs to do something in response to this — not from a general deterrence point of view, pretty clearly, but from a rehabilitative standpoint.

        Which seemingly unavoidably involves a diminution in the childrens’ liberty, which in turn unavoidably involves a diminution in their parents’ liberty, which means we need to have some kind of formal procedure that meets the requirements of due process.

        Society cannot tolerate twelve-year-olds stabbing each other.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Francis says:

        I concur with Burt, we aren’t talking about stealing some gum.

        Though I do wonder if there is some mental illness at play if the Vox story is accurate.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Francis says:

        FTR, I do not interpret @francis ‘s statement as advocating the state adopting a laissez-faire “kids will be kids” attitude about this event. He’s suggesting that application of the criminal law is inappropriate for this situation.Report

      • dragonfrog in reply to Francis says:

        @burt-likko Then why have a juvenile justice system at all?

        To deal with defendants who are minors, and to all appearances sane. The fitness of these defendants to stand trial doesn’t seem obvious to me.Report

      • Francis in reply to Francis says:

        Juvenile justice is all about rehabilitation. Technically, there is no finding of guilt. Instead, juveniles are determined to be wards of the state.

        If a toddler drops a knife which kills a cat, is the toddler guilty of animal abuse? (No.) So where do we draw the line? Historically it varies. But the idea remains that difference between the very young and the rest of us is one of kind, not just degree. If you are too young, then you simply cannot be punished by the State.Report

  3. Saul DeGraw says:

    I have nothing to add to your view. I don’t think anyone under 18 should be charged as adults. Though there are tough questions about how long should a juvenile be in prison for. Suppose the same crime happened but the defendants were 17 instead of 12. Should they only be sentenced to one year of juvie because of their age? Should we design institutions for convicted juvenilles who age out of juvie that are not adult prisons? I think the answer to the last question is yes.

    Though I agree that the motive is disturbing and bizarre. If you placed it in a movie, I would roll my eyes at the “implausibility.”Report

    • Glyph in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

      Ever see Heavenly Creatures? It’s based on an actual case.

      “During their friendship, the girls invented their own personal religion, with its own ideas on morality. They rejected Christianity and worshipped their own saints, envisioning a parallel dimension called The Fourth World, essentially their version of Heaven. The Fourth World was a place that they felt they were already able to enter occasionally, during moments of spiritual enlightenment. ”

      I mean, it’s not Slenderman’s Mansion, but…Report

    • Alan Scott in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

      Saul, from what I read, in Wisconsin, people in the juvenile justice system can be incarcerated up through the age of 25.

      I can see how this might be an issue if you’re dealing with the crimes of a 17 year old. But these girls are twelve. If tried in a juvenile court, they could face a sentence that’s literally longer than they’ve been alive.Report

    • Damon in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

      Oh hell,
      When I was 16 I had a real drivers license (not those stupid conditional ones), working on a farm 12 hours a day baling wheat in the summer, fighting wild fires, splitting and chopping firewood to heat the house, working the garden, hunting deer and birds during season, and doing all the normal kid stuff in high school.

      And yeah, I started doing all that except the farming work when I was 12. If I was capable of handling mechanized equipment, edged tools, vehicles, and firearms then, I was mature enough to understand the consequences of stabbing someone…and to be punished, if not as an adult, a near adult.Report

      • morat20 in reply to Damon says:

        Well, that settles it. Damon’s childhood is indicative of all childhoods. He also had 1.2 siblings and roughly half a dog.Report

      • Damon in reply to Damon says:


        Actually I had two dogs, no siblings, and I walked to school uphill both ways, in the snow. Somebody PLEASE check my privilege!Report

      • morat20 in reply to Damon says:

        Taking a single data point and extrapolating a general policy from it is, well, it’s a good way to get everything really wrong.

        It also misses the thrust of the entire post, and indeed human nature in general: While perhaps you were ‘a near adult’ at 12 (unlikely, unless your brain somehow decided to bypass biology and do twenty year’s worth of development in 12 years, not to mention starting puberty around 6) that doesn’t mean anyone else is.

        Morally and philosophically, one can make the case that punishment for children should be done differently than adults, for the simple reason that children have diminished capacity for judgement.

        Biologically: Half their freakin’ brain isn’t wired up yet. Treating a kid like a miniature adult is just begging for trouble. They don’t think like adults. They literally can’t. They can just fake it to one extent or another.Report

      • zic in reply to Damon says:

        @morat20 I had a childhood similar to @damon ‘s. By the time I was 12, I had a lot of responsibility — what we’d consider adult-level responsibility. Since I lived on a farm, I also had adults around to turn to if I needed help with that responsibility.

        I in no way mean to detract from your point of developing brains. But there is something very important to having responsibility and the freedom to sink or swim with it at that young age, and the grown ups around to help navigate the shoals of that process. I simply do not see a lot of children having similar experience. The expectation that we would live up to our responsibilities as an adult helped us become adults.

        I think there is something very important at the heart of this; though I don’t agree that it means 12 year olds should be tried as adults for the behavior. But 12-year-olds who shoulder adult responsibilities have, in both my experience and Damon’s — a much more adult view of themselves and their responsibilities and obligations then children who don’t have this kind of responsibility.Report

      • morat20 in reply to Damon says:

        Perhaps they do (although I think you would be surprised at to the extent with which they mimic without deeper understanding. Or perhaps not), but judging these girls by your background would be…well, just as pointless as judging these girls by mine.

        Laws must be universal, but we strive to make justice at least somewhat unique to the specifics of person, motive, and crime.Report

      • Patrick in reply to Damon says:

        Responsibility is something that is learned. There’s lots of way to learn it, just like there’s lots of ways to learn math or reading or how to write decent prose.

        Some ways are more effective for some kids than other ways, some of those other ways are more effective for some other kids than the first ways.

        (One thing I find interesting: nobody in any generation really taught their kids about fiscal responsibility. Not mine, not my parents’, not my parents’ parents’, and by general anecdote, it doesn’t look like the current one is very interested either. Generally.)Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Damon says:

        @zic @damon

        We don’t know anything about the circumstances in how the alleged defendants grew up. Let’s refrain from speculating that a life of bailing hay is the cure-all for all juvenile crime.Report

      • zic in reply to Damon says:

        @saul-degraw that’s absolutely not what I’m trying to imply.

        But some of us have a very different experience of what adulthood means; it starts much earlier, and it generally involves childhood labor. Baling hay isn’t the solution to this particular problem, but having baled hay does provide a different perspective on childhood and responsibility and the relationship between them.

        I don’t agree with Damon that 12-year olds should be tried as adult; but I do agree with him that certain experiences bring a much more adult perspective to a 12-year old’s life, and a lot of that has to do with working and achieving in such a way that you can see the results of both your contributions and your mistakes.Report

      • Damon in reply to Damon says:

        Well, it was wheat not hay that was being baled. And I wasn’t stating that working on the farm was a cure all to deliquency. I was pointing out that calendar age and maturity/responsibility are not necessarily the same. Kids mature differently and at different rates. And frankly, I think the justice system assumes a level of maturity for many “defendants” that is just too low in many cases.Report

      • LWA in reply to Damon says:


        Well that settles it-
        12 year olds are capable of exercising adult responsibility.

        Lets extend the voting rights, driving privileges, contract rights, military service, and age of consent to down to 12.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Damon says:

        Society comes first, LWA. Let’s not get too individualistic here with this rights talk. If 12 year olds have to be imprisoned for the good of the whole, it’s a small price to pay.Report

      • zic in reply to Damon says:


        I don’t know if they deserve adult treatment, probably not.

        But they also stabbed a friend repeatedly, and left her for dead. This isn’t normal, it’s outside the bounds of civil society, and I don’t think there can ever be any comfort in how we handle it. I would hope for redemption, yet they most assuredly should not be treated like the kid who careless action results in a death through recklessness, either.

        From what I see, we have a lot of children detained in prison, thousands charged as adults.

        I only know I’m relieved it’s not me deciding their fate; I don’t have a suggestion of what’s right and what’s just here. That wisdom escapes me. I think our track record for all those other children indicates I’ve got a lot of company in not knowing the answer. I think like the Norwegian system; it provides incentive to help people redeem themselves.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Damon says:

        Above I mentioned Heavenly Creatures and the case it was based on.

        Now, this was in NZ in 1954, but the girls (Parker and Hulme) were older when the murder was committed (in their teens). They only served 5 years, and one went on to be a fairly successful author, under another name. So, rehabilitation at least in some cases appears to be possible.

        Still, 5 years for something so horrific and premeditated doesn’t totally sit well with me. And the other later ran a children’s riding school, again under another name. I can’t imagine I woulda enrolled my kid if I knew who she was.Report

  4. James Hanley says:

    I have two daughters this age, who love horror stories and read these kinds of things on the internet all the time, and have played some on-line Slenderman video game. And based on them, I can’t fathom that these two girls actually believed stabbing another girl would bring this character to them. There is something wrong here–either the girls are being untruthful about their motivations, or there is something wrong with how they’ve been raised that they could believe this and take such an action. I don’t think we have anything like an accurate or complete story yet.Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to James Hanley says:

      James these are my thoughts on the issue at will. Something is wrong here with the girls themselves (early mental illness?) or how they were raised.Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        Perhaps not mental illness as such, but maybe mild developmental disability. Say an IQ of around 70 or 80.

        And/or a childhood having your head filled with religious tripe. I mean… if you’re being told by adults you trust that stories about talking snakes; talking, burning bushes; hitting a rock with a stick to get water; bread falling from the sky; water turning to wine; virgin birth; dead folks coming to life; and of course, the whole effing universe being created in less than a week. If you’re being taught that all that and more absolutely, positively, without a shadow of doubt, is the absolute literal truth… well, maybe Slender Man isn’t so farfetched.

        Don’t get me wrong, killing someone to make him appear is still pretty damned sick, but it may be less outrageous to believe it might actually work. Basically summoning a demon.Report

    • Patrick in reply to James Hanley says:

      I don’t think we have anything like an accurate or complete story yet.

      But… this is the Internet! How else will we rush to judgment if we don’t do it on incomplete information!Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    If I ever killed someone I hated, I would do my best to explain that the situation was not one where I killed someone that I hated, but that I had just drunk a can of 4Loko and played Grand Theft Auto while listening to Judas Priest and in a state where I had no idea what I was doing, killed someone I knew.

    Oh, and bonus points come from making the act itself really, really weird. Like “HE FILLED HIS LUNGS WITH CHEESE IN A CAN” or something. “CASE AFTER CASE. WELL AFTER THE BODY STOPPED MOVING. CAN AFTER CAN AFTER CAN.”

    (Of course, that trick won’t work *NOW*.)Report

  6. LeeEsq says:

    Children should not be charged as adults. There has been too much of a tendency to charge children as adults these days rather than juveniles and see if they can rehabilitated. I suspect this is because of the prison-industrial complex, the militarization of the police caused by the war on drugs, and the fact that it’s cheaper to charge kids as adults.Report

  7. trizzlor says:

    Based on a quick read of the history of juvenile court, this seems like a clear case where the judicial system hasn’t figured out it’s role between rehabilitation and punishment and is trying to split the difference. For a long time kids were seen as miniature adults and tried as such over the age of 7, this changed in the late 1800’s when juvenile courts were established with a focus on rehabilitation. Then in the late 1900’s there was a big rise in juvenile murders and the pendulum swung back, with lots of avenues developed for trying someone as an adult. This seems like a dangerous compromise, meant primarily to ensure that sociopaths just on the cusp of adulthood don’t get a speedy release. Seems to me that the right thing to do is establish whether the criminal should be punished as an adult as part of the trial, with the baseline assumption of rehabilitation.

    A few statistics that really gave me pause:
    * As with almost everything in the criminal system: “One study of youths in California found that racial/ethnic minorities arrested for a violent crime were 3.1 times more likely to be transferred and convicted than non-Hispanic white youths arrested for a violent crime.”
    * ” Among the juveniles transferred to criminal court, 68% had one psychiatric disorder and 43% had two or more psychiatric disorders.”
    * “Researchers found that juveniles housed in adult facilities are: 5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than youth held in juvenile detention centers. 2 times more likely to be beaten by staff than youth held in juvenile detention centers.”Report

  8. Saul DeGraw says:


    I don’t think any child should be charged as adults. There seems to be plenty of scientific evidence that shows the brain is not completely formed until someone is around 25.

    I am also not arguing that the girls shouldn’t be punished if they are guilty. But my stance on this is rather bright line. Children should not be charged as adults even when they commit hideous crimes.Report

  9. aaron david says:

    @glyph Mentioned Heavenly Creatures above, and I was reminded of this bit from Roger Eberts review:

    “The insight of “Heavenly Creatures” is that sometimes people are capable of committing acts together that they could not commit by themselves. A mob can be as small as two persons. Reading in the paper recently about a crowd of teenage boys who beat an innocent youth to death, I was reminded of this film. Sometimes tragedies happen because each person is waiting for someone else to say “no!”

    I think it in some ways may get to the heart of the matter.Report

    • Glyph in reply to aaron david says:

      @aaron-david – Good thing these girls didn’t read about this ‘Slender Man’ nonsense on a PUA site. Somebody might’ve gotten hurt.

      Pointless snark aside, yeah, what makes cases like Parker/Hulme or this one (assuming the girls are mentally competent, at least as competent as 12-year-olds can be) so scary is precisely the idea that somehow a sick idea or obsessive game of dares can be pushed too far, even amongst people who are not otherwise mentally ill or incompetent.

      In Parker/Hulme, the girls were suspected to be lesbians (at that time, thought to be a serious mental illness); the final case ruling backed off on that, but still claimed that they had an “obsession” with each other (Juliet Hulme, now successful author Anne Perry, confirmed this view in 2006).

      Since at least one of the girls went on to a successful career (there’s not as much post-incarceration info about Parker, other than the fact that at one point she ran a children’s riding school in England), it seemingly militates against serious mental incompetence in the girls (or, they really were thoroughly rehabilitated).

      Speaking of rehabilitation, and assuming they were rehabilitated, it’s interesting that both left NZ and changed their names after serving their sentences – almost a sort of “exile”, though self-chosen and not enforced by the state.

      Undoubtedly they didn’t have much choice if they wanted to move on with their lives; NZ isn’t that big, and they were pretty notorious. But at the same time, it does make me wonder about the rehabilitation efficacy of incarceration versus exile, if such a thing as “exile” is even possible in today’s world.

      In today’s world, even if another country were willing to take such notorious persons, I am not sure how easy it would be to change your name and create a new life for yourself without leaving a trail, in the internet age.

      Moreover, I’m not sure how much we’d WANT it to be easy; like I said, I’d kind of want to know if the headmaster of my kid’s riding school was a notorious killer. Maybe it’s relevant, maybe it’s not, but I’d probably want to know. So it’d be hard to worry overmuch about their privacy, even though they’d theoretically paid their debt to society already.

      TL;DR – appropriately sentencing crime, particularly for violence and children, is hard.

      Maybe that’s why so many people want to pursue simple sentences like the death penalty or life in prison. Those at least have the benefit of being unambiguous, if harsh.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Glyph says:


        I’ve heard of other examples where juvenile defendants/convicts were given new identities after they were released from prison especially if their crime was tabloid worthy/infamous and it always raises outrage. The other time I heard about the renaming practice was for two boys who were convicted of murdering a toddler in the UK.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Glyph says:

        @saul-degraw – was that one recent? I really do wonder how effective it would be in today’s world. It seems like it’d take 4Chan about 5 minutes to find out the truth.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Glyph says:


        I was in grad school so about 6-8 years ago.

        Wow, I was in grad school ages ago….Report