Adolescent Homicide and Family Pathology: Implications for Research and Treatment with Adolescents

Article excerpt

Concern about adolescent homicide is not new. As early as 1642 and continuing to the present, adolescents have been committed to death in the United States for extreme acts of violence (Ewing, 1990; Lewis, Pincus, Bard, Richardson, Prichep, Feldman, & Yeager, 1988; Ogloff, 1987). Looking at U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation tallies, Zigler, Taussig, and Black (1992) note that 1.75 million juveniles under the age of 18 were arrested in 1990. Specifically, the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has noted that of the more than 1.5 million juveniles arrested annually, 34,000 are arrested for aggravated assault and 2,000 for murder (Regnery, 1985). Looking at adolescent killers, Ewing (1990), noted that as of 1990 there were 30 juvenile killers on Death Row in the United States.

Interestingly, though, despite such dramatic figures, and despite the fact that assaultive violence among adolescents may actually be three times greater than current arrest statistics would suggest (Elliot, Huizinga, & Morse, 1986), psychopathology in adolescence continues to be an area of neglect (Kazdin, 1993).

Specifically, despite the large numbers of adolescents demonstrating extremely dangerous behavior, little is known about the family backgrounds of such youth. Moreover, acknowledgement of such a shortcoming is not entirely new. More than a decade ago Solway, Richardson, Hays, and Elion (1981), in a critical discussion on adolescent violence - murderers - noted that despite the fact that juvenile violence was a major problem, little research marks the field. Equally alarming, these scholars have suggested that the new research available is less than complete. Yet, it has been noted that society is frightened and frustrated by the dangerous types of behavior demonstrated by young people (Ogloff, 1987).

The main purpose of this paper is to review the existing research. Critically, it shall be suggested that our scope of knowledge and understanding is limited. On the other hand, while it is recognized that the knowledge base is limited, it will be suggested that much can be learned through a family studies perspective.

What do we know about the parents and families of homicidal adolescents? What is the family legacy when a child is convicted of a violent crime? Can family interventions produce a positive outcome when a child is condemned to death, convicted of murder, or confined for acts of violence? At present, given the dearth of information on this population, clinicians interested in adolescent development and family treatment might ask why such information is important? Four major implications for a research agenda on adolescent homicide underscore the importance of a heightened commitment to a family perspective on adolescent violence:

1. We seem to be experiencing a paradox. Although children have been referred to as one of the most neglected populations in mental health (Tuma, 1989), adolescent violence is extremely disturbing to society (Ogloff, 1987). Unfortunately, at the present time, little empirical data is available about homicidal adolescents. More to the point, such data might help inform health policy decisions and guide clinicians and researchers.

2. In spite of the fact that therapeutic treatment with children has been demonstrated to be as effective as that conducted with adults (Tuma, 1989), juveniles condemned to death in the United States do not routinely receive the clinical services necessary to uncover their vulnerabilities and psychiatric symptomatology (Lewis, Pincus, Bard, Richardson, Prichep, Feldman, & Yeager, 1988). The reasons adolescent murderers do not receive such diagnostic and clinical interventions requires investigation.

3. Curiously, while it has been demonstrated that for most families with adolescents, serious conflict and disorganization are not characteristic (Hill, 1987), the implications of the fact that homicidal adolescents appear to come from violent, abusive households (Lewis, Pincus, Bard, Richardson, Prichep, Feldman, & Yeager, 1988), appears inadequately explored. …