When a young boy named Etan Patz vanished while walking to his bus stop one morning in New York City, his mysterious disappearance demanded the spotlight, as pictures of the boy’s face were spread across the country on milk cartons in hopes of finding answers. Now, thirty-three years later, it appears that some answers may have finally been uncovered.

The story took an unexpected turn when a man named Pedro Hernandez recently came forward and admitted to the murder, supposedly providing vivid details of the events of that day that link him to the crime. Authorities do not know for sure if Hernandez is responsible, but he has been charged with 2nd degree murder in the slaying of the young boy.

As this story continues to unravel, people will speculate and delve into the life of Hernandez. If he is in fact responsible, why would he do such a terrible thing? Psychology shows us that there are almost always reasons behind a criminal act. With this in mind, three factors we need to watch for as this case unfolds are Hernandez’s family history, his mental health, and his past behavior.

Family History and Attachment Disorder

Not much is currently known about Hernandez’s relationship with his family. He has a wife and a daughter in college, both of whom were in disbelief that he had confessed to the crime. Hernandez comes from a large family, having 11 siblings, with at least one who has come forward and commented following Hernandez’s admission. His sister, Norma Hernandez, claims that at some point in the 1980s, Hernandez mentioned to the family that he had taken a young boy’s life, which she supposedly reported to police.

One “red flag” to look for is whether Hernandez may have had an attachment disorder. When a parent or guardian is abusive, neglectful, or unavailable, the child’s ability to attach emotionally is reduced. The resulting attachment disorder is the basis for dangerous conduct, personality disorders, and adult dysfunctions (Ziegler 1998), including psychopathy (Meloy 2002). In order to fully understand Hernandez, we must look into what his environment was like growing up.

Mental Health and Stability

It has become clear that Hernandez was not as mentally stable as those around him perceived him to be. He reportedly suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and has a history of auditory and visual hallucinations. He had also been taking psychiatric medication for a long period of time.

If he is found guilty, it will be important to look at whether he was mentally ill at the time of the murder, and whether he could have been abusing any substances at that time. Conversely, we should also look to see if he had been neglecting prescribed medications that could have helped his mental stability.

That being said, it is not enough to simply look at a person’s mental issues and assume that they led to the crime. Any history of mental issues must be linked with other factors before it can be seen as a “red flag.” It has to be in combination with substance abuse, attachment disorder, violent family background, etc., in order to be considered a sign of potential danger.

Past Problematic Behavior

It is no secret that one of the most salient risk factors for future violence is prior assault. While the Etan Patz murder is the only crime being investigated right now, if Hernandez is found guilty, it would be extremely rare if it turned out to be the only violent act he ever committed. We must look for any prior problematic or criminal behavior, either at school, at work, or at home. Signs to look for include arson, cruelty to animals, violence among peers, and an inability to socialize successfully among peers.

Decoding Pedro Hernandez

After a crime, all the attention, resources, and efforts of the parties involved is spent on finding who is responsible and sentencing an appropriate punishment. However, what we tend to forget is that there are often many, many clues (red flags) that lead up to the actual crime. I believe that if we shift our thinking and devote more attention to children in early development stages, with a focus on looking for red flags, we will be able to prevent many of the crimes like this.

As the Pedro Hernandez case unfolds, look to see if you can spot the clues that lead up to this horrific crime. Could he have had an attachment disorder? Were there prior instances of problematic behavior? Already we have found that he had certain mental issues, but most certainly, if he is proven guilty, there are problems that ran much deeper.

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–Dr. Kathy Seifert

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