The Court asked me to evaluate 14-year-old Emilio because of his worrisome charges: “Cruelty to Animals” and “Setting Fire on Another’s Land.” Of Portuguese descent, Emilio lives with his parents and maternal grandparents. Their home is in a rural area, and the family keeps chickens, rabbits and pigs on their property. Unlike city kids, Emilio often slaughters chickens and cleans fish for family meals.
Emilio is athletic and plays on the school football team. He has been diagnosed with ADHD and receives special education services; he has not had any disciplinary issues at school.
Emilio and the Snapping Turtle
Emilio told me about the day he got the charges. He and three of his friends walked to a nearby lake to go fishing. When they arrived Emilio immediately started to fish, while the three other boys started a small camp fire using some rubbing alcohol. Soon Emilio had caught a sunfish that unfortunately was being eaten by a snapping turtle. He pulled both onto shore.
Emilio was irritated that he had caught a turtle. "It’s a pain to deal with,” he said. “And it’s dangerous. You could lose a finger trying to get the hook out of its mouth." Emilio said he ran back to his family's shed to get a small hatchet. When he returned, one of the other boys was tormenting the turtle with a stick. Emilio acted swiftly; he struck the turtle with the hatchet, killed it, and freed his hook.
Shortly after, the fire got out of control and one of the boys got burned. A neighbor alerted authorities who came to investigate. Later the police questioned the four boys. Emilio said that at first he lied about killing the turtle because he thought he would get into trouble. He then felt bad and in later questioning, told the truth. While the other boys were not charged, Emilio ended up with serious charges, “Cruelty to Animals” and “Setting Fire on Another's Land.”
Facing Charges and Stigma
Since the Court referred Emilio to ACS for a comprehensive delinquency and firesetting evaluation, I interviewed Emilio, his brother and his very concerned parents. I didn’t know what to expect since the Probation Officer and the Assistant District Attorney were pretty upset with him, and thought he might be psychologically disturbed. A police officer, reporting to Probation, even described him as a “sicko”.
My evaluation uncovered a more nuanced story. According to the evaluation, Emilio was at low risk for firesetting and interviews revealed that he had no involvement in starting the fire. I took into account Emilio’s ADHD diagnosis, which I knew impacted his judgment and impulse control. I ruled out cruelty to animals as a clinical concern by screening him and taking into account the area his cultural background and his rural life experience. I presented the situation to the court through that lens. I noted that in his view, he killed the snapping turtle quickly before it could hurt him. While his action could be seen as poor judgment, it was not animal cruelty.
Connecting Emilio with Services in His Community
I saw Emilio as someone who could benefit by services in the community, and took this into account when I made my recommendations to the Court. I recommended a fire safety class at the local fire station, community service hours with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and continued individual therapy to help him manage his ADHD. The judge agreed and ordered Emilio to follow the recommendations.
As an added benefit, my evaluation gave Emilio’s Probation Officer more information on Emilio’s background. His Probation Officer could now understand the motivations behind the incident and no longer thought of Emilio as a disturbed kid. The two were able to build rapport that facilitated successful follow-through on the recommendations.
Over a month later, Emilio had put the snapping turtle incident behind him and was focusing on his family and schoolwork. He was relieved that the Court acknowledged his supportive family and thought he should be free to continue to do things that he enjoys, including outdoor activities like fishing. He feels fortunate that people at the Court understand him, really want him to succeed, and have tailored a service plan to help him do just that!