Braking Bad

Kids who callously kill on a whim seem untreatable, but they aren’t.

Posted Nov 23, 2013

On the same day this week, I came across two items that are intricately intertwined: the sentencing of a juvenile sex murderer and recent research on whether certain types of violent kids are salvageable. This question will likely pop up a lot in the future. If we’re willing to invest, the answer is cautiously positive.

First, the case: Austin Sigg pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting, killing and dismembering 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway in October 2012. He’d waited as she walked toward him, then grabbed her, bound her, and took her home. After strangling and dismembering her, he hid some of her remains in a crawl space there at his mother’s house. Six months earlier, Sigg had approached a woman with the same intent.

Sigg was fascinated with death and interested in mortuary science. This alerted someone who knew him to send police his way. Yet it was his mother who turned him in. That’s what brought him before the courts this week.

Sigg was 17 when he did these things. He’s clearly eligible for the category, “callous-unemotional (C-U),” one of the precursor conditions in juveniles for adult psychopathy. This means that he has limited empathy, a lack of remorse for causing harm, and shallow emotional qualities to his relationships. Juveniles with high C-U traits can judge others’ points of view, but have a blunted emotional response.

Sigg himself called what he’d done to Jessica “evil.” He knew it was wrong, but he didn’t care. He actually snacked as he described the kidnapping, murder, and dismemberment to police.

Once Jessica was under his control, Sigg had cut her hair and forced her to undress so she could put on clothing from his closet. He'd kept her alive and terrified for two hours, lying to her about what he would do. His attempts to strangle her with zip ties had failed, so he'd used his hands. He'd also placed her facedown in scalding hot water.

Then he'd dismembered her body, keeping some of the parts, including the skull, as souvenirs. The dismemberment itself was erotic for him, the fulfillment of a sexual fantasy.

He’d been through treatment before, for having child pornography on his computer. Apparently, the lessons did not stick. That’s no surprise, since typical treatment approaches to troubled juveniles have little effect on those with high C-U traits. They just shrug them off.

One twin study tells us that antisocial behavior coupled with high C-U appears to be heritable, particularly for males. Environmental circumstances (such as Sigg’s interest in death) can trigger risk factors for acting out. Due to their indifferent attitudes, it has seemed unlikely that these juveniles would ever respond to treatment.

However, the good news is that C-U traits appear to be somewhat malleable; thus, they’re manageable. According to a recent report in Psychological Bulletin, some studies show that juveniles with high C-U traits can improve their emotional literacy and develop prosocial responses, but the treatment must be consistent, intense, and individualized. That is, it must be tailored to a child’s unique cognitive, motivational and emotional style. Thus, it will be expensive.

Still, we must keep the cost in perspective. Because high C-U antisocial juveniles will likely commit some of the most damaging types of violence, they can potentially exact a high social cost down the road. Had Sigg not been caught, he would have repeated his brutal acts, again and again. Intervention that has any degree of success with someone like him will lower this cost.

Psychopathy expert Kent Kiehl recognizes such person-focused programs, citing those that have been effectively used at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center (MJTC) in Madison, WI, to reduce recidivism. “If we applied them nationwide,” he says “we could reduce youth violence by fifty percent. MJTC studies have shown that for every $10,000 the Department of Corrections invested in treatment, you save $70,000 in the next four-year period. Over the life of that offender [if it's successful], it’s millions of dollars.”

Intensive one-on-one treatment of high C-U offenders is costly, but the lack of treatment is more so. Even small successes with offenders like Sigg should be incentive for us to invest in these programs.


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