Childhood Attachments May Predict Violent Behavior

Article excerpt

FIVE WEEKS ago today, Jevon Washington, on his way home from the local grocery, was murdered. Two shots - one in the chest, one in the back. Dead . . . at the age of 15.

"I just don't understand why,' says his mother, Patricia Washington.

She's not the only one with questions. Why was Dawan Parker, 21, fatally shot March 31 as he and a friend walked down a neighborhood street?

Why was Valeniece Stark, 16, fatally shot Jan. 25 after stepping outside to take a homework break?

Why was Guyton Wagner, 20, fatally stabbed Feb. 26 during a domestic dispute?

Why was Beacher "Terry" Buchanan Jr., 17, fatally shot in a drive-by shooting Jan. 17?

Why will some teen-ager or young adult likely murder another this weekend?

Despite the effectiveness of the city's Violent Crime Task Force and a drop from 1995 in the metropolitan area's homicide rate, it's violence as usual this year for some neighborhoods. And about half of this violence involves young people.

During the first 110 days of 1996, of the 50 recorded killings in the city of St. Louis, more than half the victims were teen-agers or young adults. Of the 205 city victims in 1995, 46 percent were under 25; of the 42 victims in St. Louis County, 48 percent were under 25.

Although the 1991 movie "Boyz N the Hood" provided mainstream America with insight to life in violent neighborhoods, it did little in answering the question: Why?

Five years later, criminologists and psychiatrists have begun to develop theories as they delve deeper into boys and their 'hoods - their childhoods, that is.

In addition to genetic influences, scientists believe, environmental influences in early childhood can predict whether a youngster will grow up programmed for violent behavior. The lack of quality "attachment figures" - people who consistently provide care during the first two years of a child's life - may be the closest answer to the complicated and controversial question.

"There seems to be an important association between early relationships and the development of aggression," says Dr. John Constantino, a child psychiatrist and pediatrician at St. Louis Children's Hospital.

In a study to be published in a summer edition of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, Constantino's research suggests that the quality of children's attachment relationships can be predicted by their parents' early-childhood relationships.

"It's a cycle," Constantino said. "It's called the intergenerational transmission of attachment. What I'm trying to do is see whether the intergenerational transmission of violence - which we know is a phenomenon - is related to the intergenerational transmission of attachment. I think it is."

If true, "it may be possible to take children at risk and see to it somehow that they have, in the course of their early lives, one secure relationship with somebody," Constantino said.

The cost of government-funded child care in this preventive approach to violent behavior, theoretically, could pay for itself with the reduction in property damage, fires, court costs and other expenses associated with delinquency.

But even if all of America's so-called "at-risk" babies and toddlers began receiving today the best parental and professional day-care available, the violence would continue among older children. Once aggressive behavior is established, criminologists say, it is notorious for resisting change. …