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SANDY BANKS

A Father in Anguish Over Teen He Fears

May 02, 1999|SANDY BANKS

He's seen more than enough of those newspaper checklists in the past 10 days: "How to Know When Your Child Needs Help." "Warning Signs That Signal a Troubled Teen." "Could Your Teenager Turn Violent?" He runs down each list with a knot in his stomach, as he finds his daughter between the lines:

Has a history of uncontrollable angry outbursts. Habitually makes violent threats when angry. Has been truant or expelled from school. Bullies or intimidates peers or younger children. Tends to blame others for difficulties. Is involved with a gang or antisocial group on the fringe of peer acceptance.

"All these therapists are talking about the kinds of kids who snap, and all of a sudden, I'm hearing them talk about my daughter," the man from Los Angeles says.

"But even when you know, what do you do? What's a parent to do when a child like this has been identified?

"How do you keep your kid from hurting somebody?"

*

He doesn't want me to name him or to identify his daughter. He's afraid she might be encouraged by the notoriety.

Still, he called last week to share his story, to illustrate how difficult getting help for wayward teenagers can be. The Littleton, Colo., tragedy has raised the stakes and has opened his eyes to the time bomb ticking in his own suburban family.

There's a misplaced expectation, he says, that parents can control their nearly grown offspring. "I've tried, but every rule I make, she breaks it."

He has sought help, he says, from school officials, juvenile authorities, mental health counselors and the police. All agree that his 17-year-old daughter has serious problems . . . but not serious enough--yet--to intervene.

She's been arrested twice--for shoplifting and for threatening the life of a former friend--but was sent home pending court hearings in June.

She's been kicked out of two public schools for repeated truancy.

The walls of her bedroom are marked with crude graffiti--"187," the criminal code for homicide, alongside the names of her enemies. In the room, her dad has found marijuana.

She has run off in the family's car, taken her father's credit cards and stolen her younger brother's money.

"Now we have to keep purses, car keys, everything under lock and key," her father says.

And recently he learned that his daughter likes to drive past groups of children, pelt them with rocks, then laugh and speed away.

"She and her friends have these slingshots, and they put marbles in there and shoot them at kids who are riding their bikes. They think that's funny, hitting little kids with rocks and marbles."

He takes a deep breath, then tries again to find words to convey both his fear and his pain.

"She's a gorgeous kid. If you talk to her, she can be the most charming person, she can be as sweet as she wants to be. But she's deeply troubled, and she's a violent child.

"I'm scared of her. . . . I'm her father and I'm scared."

*

If his daughter is a monster . . . well, he might be called Dr. Frankenstein. He admits that her rocky upbringing provides a textbook example of how adult problems can sabotage a child.

He and her mother divorced when she was just a toddler, and their bitter breakup evolved into an ugly, protracted custody battle, 14 years of lawsuits, name-calling, allegations of child neglect and abuse.

The rancor persists to this day as the feuding parents--both remarried, with younger children--bicker over what should be done to redeem their daughter, how serious her problems are and whose fault it is that she turned out this way.

Her father won custody when she was 4 and raised her until she hit her teens. Then she rebelled and ran off to live with her mother. That went sour, and now she bounces back and forth between families.

She's been in counseling but refuses to cooperate. "She's an angry, hostile girl who doesn't trust anyone," her stepmother complains. "She's always been that way, but [her dad] didn't see it."

Her father admits he may have been blinded by love--or selfishly may have neglected her needs.

But now his vision is clearing, and it's not only his troubled daughter he sees, but the carnage left behind in Colorado by similarly troubled teens.

"I want somebody to help her," he says.

"But I want her locked up . . . in jail. Where she won't be able to hurt anybody."

*

Sandy Banks' column is appearing today and on Monday this week. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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