St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Justice System is Tested When Accused Killer is 6

BY MATTHEW FRANCK
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
November 16, 2003<

When a 6-year-old boy is accused by police of intentionally killing his own grandfather, the juvenile justice system is tossed into a peculiar predicament.

Such is the dilemma in Jefferson City, where officials are struggling with how to fit a boy scarcely old enough for grade school into a juvenile system populated by youths at least twice his age and stature.

Police say that earlier this month a boy with a history of mental health problems fired a .22-caliber rifle at his grandfather, James Zbinden, killing him in his home.

Some juvenile justice officials believe the boy, whose name has not been made public, may be the youngest in Missouri ever suspected of intentionally taking a life. At a minimum, he is four years younger than any child currently committed to the state’s Division of Youth Services.

Nationwide, cases of young children who kill occasionally have grabbed headlines, such as in Mount Morris Township, Mich., where a 6-year-old killed a fellow first-grader in 2000 with a gun he found at home. But crime statistics show that such cases are extremely rare.

Figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation indicate that 13 murders across the nation in 2000 involved offenders under the age of 12. Experts say that most, if not all, of those 13 murders were committed by children ages 10 and 11. Because the FBI figures include information reported by police prior to trial, more specific numbers are not available.

“Common sense”

Officials say the infrequency of such cases creates a quandary for the legal and mental health systems.

“It’s so rare that everything about it ends up feeling exceptional,” said Joseph Parks, of the Missouri Department of Mental Health. “It’s easy to make plans for something that happens regularly, but it’s hard to make plans when something happens rarely.”

The boy is living at an undisclosed mental health treatment center.

Winston Rutledge, juvenile court administrator for Cole County, decided Friday to make the boy a ward of the court. He will not face criminal charges, Rutledge said, for several reasons, including the child’s age. Instead, the boy will be turned over to the juvenile court for treatment and supervision.

Under Missouri law, a young offender is under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court unless he or she if certified to face criminal charges as an adult.

Missouri does not have a minimum age for adult certification in severe felony cases. As a result, the juvenile court is obligated to hold a hearing in all such cases to determine whether to proceed with certification, said Julie Cole Agee of the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association.

Officials had expected that the 6-year-old would remain a ward of the juvenile court.

For it to be otherwise, a juvenile judge would have had to determine that the child was beyond rehabilitation in the juvenile system. Missouri laws leave full discretion on the matter to the judge, with prosecutors having no authority to file adult criminal charges against minors.

“You can trust that common sense will prevail with a 6-year-old,” said Jeffrey Butts, who heads the Program on Youth Justice at the Urban Institute in Washington.

“A child first”

Officials say the boy seems destined to remain an anomaly regardless of where he’s placed.

Mark Steward, who heads the Missouri Division of Youth Services, said the youngest child currently in state-run juvenile corrections facilities is 10. He said the state would be unable to accommodate a child any younger and doubts such a placement would be made.

Melissa Sickmund, of the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh, said juvenile corrections systems are incompatible with small children. She said rehabilitation in such programs is based on counseling and communication – an approach that’s less effective with young kids, who need to develop using play. “And they need to be hugged,” she said.

Officials said the boy would probably be placed in a privately run group home or mental health facility.

Police say the boy has a history of mental health problems, including unprovoked attacks on relatives. He reportedly had been released from a mental health treatment program several days before the killing.

Parks said he and others at the Missouri Department of Mental Health could not comment on specifics related to the boy’s case. But he said a wide range of mental health services are available to the boy, if requested by the court. Those could include treatment in a therapeutic foster home, with foster parents specially trained to handle mentally ill children.

Some are skeptical whether a judge would allow for such a homelike treatment option, considering the offense. “It would be difficult for anyone to propose a nonsecure setting,” Butts said.

One likely option, observers say, is that the boy will be sent to a privately operated residential program – several of which in the state are set up to deal with foster children and emotionally disturbed youngsters.

While such facilities rarely treat children younger than 10 who are in the juvenile justice system, operators of the centers say they could make accommodations.

“Agencies like ours are probably the most adaptable,” said Vince Hillyer, director of Boys and Girls Town of Missouri.

Hillyer said Boys Town and other facilities like it can provide a setting that state juvenile programs cannot, with programs designed for young children.

“A 6-year-old still needs to be a child, so we can’t house them with juveniles or forget they need to play and go to school and form relationships,” he said.

Hillyer said the system shouldn’t let the gravity of the offense eclipse the age of the boy.

“It’s very important that we remember that he’s a child first and see if we can put his life back together,” he said.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2003, St. Louis Post-Dispatch