The kid was twelve. His father’s in prison. His mother works two jobs, as a teacher’s aide and as the part-time manager of a Wal-Mart. And in January 2002, J. Daniel Scruggs hanged himself in the bedroom closet where he often slept.He was small for his age, socially backward. He got made the goat at his middle school:
It was easy to push J. Daniel Scruggs around, to throw him off gym bleachers and send him hurtling down school staircases. A slip of a boy, he was short, and at age 12, just 63 pounds. At Washington Middle School here, where he attended seventh grade until he killed himself in January 2002, he may as well have been invisible. And in many ways, he was.Only nothing was done about it, because everybody knows middle school is hell on earth, and therefore its miseries are normal, and therefore you aren’t obliged to do anything about them. Besides, he had other problems:
“Like he was nothing,” said Melissa Smith, a 14-year-old student at the school, when asked how teachers and classmates regarded Daniel. She testified for the defense in the trial of Daniel’s mother, Judith Scruggs, who was convicted Monday in connection with his suicide. Ms. Scruggs was charged in April 2002, two months after her intent to sue the city had been filed.
Indeed, most school officials did little to halt the grim parade of attacks and indignities foisted upon Daniel. A report after Daniel’s death by the state’s Office of the Child Advocate, which oversees state agencies serving children, said he “seemed to be held responsible for his circumstances.”The advocate’s report describes a boy who had failed to navigate the byzantine corridors that are middle school. His classmates and teachers said that his clothes were not right, that he smelled bad and that he had virtually no friends.
The Meriden police, who investigated his death, described a house knee-deep in clutter, garbage and unwashed dishes. They charged his mother with misdemeanor cruelty and two felony counts of putting her child at risk. She was found guilty of one of the felonies, creating an unhealthy and unsafe home environment. She was acquitted of the cruelty charge and the second felony charge that she put her son at risk by failing to get him proper help when he showed signs of trouble. Although the child advocate’s office found repeated instances of Daniel’s being assaulted at school, the school is not the subject of a criminal investigation. State prosecutors said there were no plans to file criminal charges against it or any of its students.In the wake of the outcry following Daniel Scruggs’ death, Connecticut passed stiff new laws requiring schools to maintain active anti-bullying policies, and to log and report all such incidents. Nevertheless, the school in question has not been held responsible for anything. On the other hand, Judith Scruggs, Daniel’s mother, was convicted yesteray on one felony count of having put her child at risk by creating a home environment that was unhealthy and unsafe. She faces up to ten years in prison when she’s sentenced next month. You can read about it here. It does sound like the Scruggs family was living in a garbage house. As the NYTimes story said:
The Scruggs home, viewed from the outside, is ordinary, complete with cute decorations, including scarecrows and garden gnomes. But witnesses during the trial testified that the conditions inside the house were a nightmare of dirty clothes, dishes and debris.On the other hand, the story also says:
“They had to climb over things to get to Daniel’s body in the closet,” Mr. Dinnan said.
Detective Gary Brandl, who led the investigation and testified during the trial, said in an interview that the police did not come to the decision to arrest Ms. Scruggs immediately. “When we first arrived at the house, we thought it was a routine suicide,” he said. “Once we started working the case, our eyes began to open.” Ms. Scruggs was arrested on April 23, 2002, four months after the suicide.
Detective Brandl bristled at the suggestion that the case was simply about a messy house. “Somebody wouldn’t be arrested just because they had a messy house,” he said, adding that in 22 years as a police officer this was among the worst-kept homes he had ever seen.“It was disgusting, absolutely disgusting,” he said. “It is a tragedy that he took his own life, but the mother had many opportunities to address some of the major issues and repeatedly failed to do so.”
By the time he killed himself, [Daniel] had missed 44 days of class. He was so frightened of being bullied that he had taken to defecating and urinating in his pants, presumably to get out of school, witnesses said.According to the jury, the deciding factor was that Mrs. Scruggs had been aware that Daniel was keeping knives—big ones, not little folding pocket knives—plus a homemade spear in his bedroom closet hideout. Mrs. Scruggs said he had his knives and spear because he was terrified of being bullied any further. Here’s the end of the AP version:
Judith Scruggs acknowledged Daniel would sometimes have body odor or bad breath and would soil himself to get out of going to school. She said she frequently told Daniel to take showers, but insisted she could not force him to do so.Christ, they all needed help, and none of them got it.
Scruggs told police Daniel was afraid of bullies who had kicked and punched him, and he kept knives in his closet out of fear.
“These were not just pocket knives they were talking about. They were pretty big blades,” said Thomas Diaz, the jury’s foreman. …
“I definitely didn’t think she did enough. You just don’t let things go,” juror Vinny Giardina said.
Prosecutors said they took no joy in charging a grieving mother, but felt a jury should decide whether Scruggs’ actions contributed to the boy’s death. They presented evidence that there was barely room to move around the home because of clutter, the kitchen was full of dirty dishes and the toilet, bathroom sink and tub were soiled.
“Parents are responsible for the care and welfare of their children and must ensure their basic medical, emotional and psychological needs are satisfied,” prosecutor James Dinnan said.Norris, who had called the boy’s death a case of “Bullycide,” said prosecutors never provided evidence linking the condition of the home to the suicide. He portrayed Judith Scruggs as a loving single mother who worked two jobs — full-time as a teacher’s aide in Daniel’s school and part-time at a discount store.
I must pause here to observe that many children survive being raised in garbage houses; and many children who are raised in perfectly orderly households but who are being bullied at school become severely depressed. Some of them commit suicide. In Daniel Scruggs’ age bracket, if you look at the stats for completed (as opposed to attempted) suicides, boys off themselves four to six times as often as girls.And one other observation. Some of you may recall a post I did some time back about animal hoarding, garbage houses, and OCD. I’m not sure how clear it was at the time that many of the houses in question also had children or other dependents living in them. What follows is the text that accompanies a page of very vivid photos put together by Tufts University’s program on hoarding. The italics are mine.
The photographs on this page are meant to be representative of the conditions seen in animal hoarding. Although the newspaper and press coverage provides some idea of the conditions, it is difficult to appreciate how extreme the situation can get. In many cases, dwellings must be condemned and bulldozed because they are unfit for human habitation and are beyond repair. The dwellings pictures were all occupied by both people and animals. In some cases, the occupants were able to live double lives, holding down full-time jobs, with little clue as to their home situation. Hoarding behavior knows no socioecomonic or class boundaries. Although the stereotype is an older woman living alone with little social contact, this behavior has been discovered even among health care professionals, including veterinarians. In many cases of hoarding, dependent human victims of the hoarding (including children) were helped only because animal protection groups drew attention to the situation because of their rescue of the animal victims.