Some doctor friends of mine assure me that we've all been putting too much emphasis on the environment . . . that there are bad seeds--just plain bad from the beginning.
--Reginald Tasker in 1954 Broadway hit "The Bad Seed" In a small Encino laboratory crammed with computer screens and diagnostic electronic equipment, Dr. James H. Satterfield contemplates streams of herky-jerky lines on a long roll of paper as he seeks the hiding place of the bad seed.
He is studying the brain waves of a towheaded little boy in a small room next door whose head is strapped in a cap that sprouts a crest of wires feeding information to Satterfield's instruments.
Satterfield's federally funded research is aimed at identifying those hyperactive boys, 6 to 12 years old, whose neurophysiological disorder makes them statistically more likely to become violent criminals and devising treatments for them before they wind up in prison.
He thinks he is making progress.
Speciality for 15 Years
Satterfield is executive director of the National Center for Hyperactive Children, a nonprofit clinic and research institution. Hyperactivity is a specialty he has been working in for 15 years. Other researchers in the field said Satterfield is highly respected and a leader in research.
Following up his earlier research, which reported that 46% of young boys diagnosed as hyperactive had been jailed on felony charges by the time they were in their late teens, Satterfield this month published in an international scientific journal his first tentative findings that there may be identifiable differences between the brain functions of hyperactive boys who became criminals and those who did not.
His research now looks toward determining whether the tentative differences, found in electroencephalograph readings of the small electrical currents of the brain, can be confirmed in a larger number of test subjects.
If so, he hopes to refine the technique into a reliable method of identifying boys who may have a predisposition to violent criminality.
That does not mean, he stressed, that he is developing "some sort of method that will invariably stamp a kid with 'you're doomed to be a criminal.' "
"One of the reasons we're interested in this new technique as a diagnostic aid is that early identification is important because the sooner we can begin treating the child, the more likely we are to be successful."
Children with such behavioral disorders can be classed in groups with known statistical "risks" of becoming criminals later on, he said. "If a child is diagnosed as hyperactive, the probability of his being arrested for a felony in his teens is 10 to 20 times that of a non-hyperactive child. . . . Maybe half of them are going to be in trouble with the law."
The existence of hyperactives, children whose minds appear to operate differently from normal children's, has been accepted in psychiatry for many years. But the causes of the difference, one goal of Satterfield's research, have long been a subject of debate.
It is a touchy subject, the search for a true "bad seed" undreamed of when Maxwell Anderson's play of that name and the movie that followed were hits in the mid-1950s. The play, taken from a novel by William March, told the story of a murderous little girl born with no capability of developing a conscience. She turns out to be the granddaughter of a multiple murderer.
Satterfield is not suggesting that the children he treats inherited their problem from criminal ancestors.
But he does say he is dealing with a condition that is probably present from birth or even earlier.
"Some mothers report that the child was far more active in the womb than their other children, kicking and striking much harder and more frequently," said Breena Satterfield, a psychotherapist and director of the clinic that treats children at her husband's center.
Children with the hyperactivity condition--also called attention deficit disorder, minimal brain dysfunction or hyperkinetic syndrome--are not just healthily energetic or mischievous. They are a bundle of trouble from infancy and do not respond to discipline by parents or teachers.
About 5% of children are believed to have the disorder, James Satterfield said, although estimates have ranged from 3% to 15%, or loosely speaking "one in every classroom."
It is mostly a male problem. There are six to nine boys with the disorder for every girl, he said. Troublesome as the girls may be, he said, the boys are more violent and likelier to grow strong enough to become dangerous at an early age.
"Most likely these kids are born with a constitutional predisposition to impulsive conduct, a short attention span and excessive motor activity," he said.
Excessive Motor Activity