Warning: Today’s ethical dilemma is not light Sunday reading. First, let me give you not a hypothetical set of facts but actual ones. In 2012, Adam Lanza murdered his mother and 26 children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut before killing himself.
A recent New Yorker article tells the story of Peter Lanza, Adam’s father. His son lived with his ex-wife at the time of the murders, and Peter had not seen Adam for two years. In the article, Lanza laments about what more he or anyone could have done to help his son not end up a mass murderer.
Adam Lanza, as the article points out, was never what any of us would consider typical. From an early age, his behavior was abnormal. His parents sought innumerable treatments, none of which helped their son for any period of time.
Over the years, Adam’s behavior went from abnormal to strange, then from weird to frightening. There were many examples, but one of the most chilling was a story he cowrote as a fifth grader: “The Big Book of Granny.” It told the tale of an old woman with a gun in her cane who kills wantonly. One character in the book says, “I like hurting people … Especially children.”
A few years later a teacher noted “disturbing “violence in Adam’s writing and described Adam as “intelligent but not normal, with antisocial issues.” As he grew up, numerous other teachers, social workers, psychiatrists, and others noted in report after report that Adam was not just weird; he had serious psychological problems. In the last years of his life, which he lived alone with his mother, Adam was described as “hypersensitive, controlling and increasingly hostile.”
In almost every state, teachers, social workers, therapists, doctors, and others have a legal duty to report to the proper authorities behavior they reasonably consider dangerous, in children or adults.
But this is easier said than done.
Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University, is quoted in the New Yorker as stating, “Among the hardest people to engage in treatment are young males who may be angry, suspicious and socially isolated.” More importantly he added, the few dangerous one are impossible to identify. He also said, “[E]ven if we knew who they were, whether they would actually accept treatment is an open question.”
Now for the ethical dilemma of the day.
If the experts can’t reasonably predict who among their patients might become dangerous, how could a layperson do better?
Assume for the discussion that you’re not a mental-health worker or doctor. In other words, you have no credentials to back up your observations. Let’s say you’re a relative, maybe even a grandparent, a friend, a neighbor, or a coworker of a parent whose child you have seen on occasion act (to use a nonscientific and imprecise word) “weird.” Or worse. Maybe, you have even observed the child say or do violent things to himself or others.
When you or others have discussed this with the child’s parents, they either don’t recognize their child’s behavior or simply refers to it as just a “little different than most kids.” They say things such as “Johnny is a special child.”
You see it quite differently.
When do you, if ever, candidly talk with the parent about your observations that their child or young adult might need professional help?
Are you willing to risk your relationship with the parents? Their reaction to what you’re telling them could range from “Thanks for pointing that out to us” to “You are obviously no friend of ours.”
Let’s complicate it more. Say you’re a grandparent, and you think that your grandchild has serious emotional issues that are causing serious antisocial behavior. Are you willing to have your own adult child prevent contact with your grandchild?
I would hope that I would have the social courage, with well-chosen and caring words, to tell someone whose child I perceive to be a threat to himself or others that the parent should seek help for the child.
Again, according to the professionals, few children who need psychological help will ever become a danger to themselves others. Maybe, it’s not worth potentially destroying a friendship or family relationship by sharing your concerns and thoughts about someone else’s children?
For me — and I’ve not had face this situation, I would hope that I would have the social courage to make my thoughts known to the parents.
One, because I believe it’s the right thing to do, and second, as horrible a thought as it might be, if something tragic ever happened in the future, I would know that I did all that I could possibly do.
Benjamin Bycel is an attorney and writer. He was the founding executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and of the newly reconstituted Connecticut Ethics office. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with political and legal ethics. If you have an ethics question, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.