How the “System” Nearly Turned My Son into a Sociopath

Young adults who commit heinous crimes weren’t always evil. Once upon a time, they were innocent children – like my oldest son.

His story is a cautionary tale of sociopaths.

Are they born? Are they made? What role does society and its “systems” play?

In his case of my son, an 18-year-old girl-turned-woman didn’t take care of herself during pregnancy. Minimal pre-natal care. Lack of family support. An indifferent community. Maybe alcohol and drug use.

Then a child was born into poverty. Later joined by five younger siblings.

She wasn’t a bad woman consumed with harm. Just one trying to survive. Overwhelmed. Frequent moves with child welfare always a step behind.

Along came a new boyfriend. A young man full of rage. A one-bedroom apartment filled with domestic violence. Fighting was a normal way to communicate, as children watched.

The oldest boy – who later would become my son – eventually tried to defend his mother. Only to become a victim himself. Physical and emotional abuse that no seven-year-old should ever experience.

Finally child welfare intervened. Repeated attempts at reunification, since no foster home could handle his behaviors. And he was a runner – constantly fleeing any sense of structure. Hiding to feel safe. In and out of child psychiatric units. Grossly over-medicated.

No trusting relationships with anyone.

An opportunity missed.

Layer upon layer of trauma. Then an eight-year-old boy had nowhere to go – reluctantly placed in a residential facility for adolescents. Bullied. Teased.

Violent at school. Violent among support staff. Constantly restrained.


After the termination of parental rights, I entered the picture. A case manager convinced I wouldn’t turn my back on him – and one of his brothers. She believed in their worth and potential –  providing thorough information.

An opportunity gained.

To keep my new son out of the emotionally disabled classroom, I agreed to sit near him for the first three months. And child welfare paid me. There a young teacher with natural gifts took him under her wing. No judgmental words. Only empathy and kindness. Building connections that had never developed at school. 

A boy, diagnosed with PTSD, responded appropriately. Safe at last.

In spite of a fragmented education, he made straight As in fourth grade. Soon placed in the gifted and talented program.

An opportunity gained.

Unfortunately, the transition to middle school proved bumpy. Too many teachers with several pushing too hard. Judging harshly with little regard to his past. The assistant principal constantly ran interference – refusing to let any teacher label him a problem.

But they did. Shame on top of blame. Repeated suspensions – in school and out. Socially isolated.

His anger resurfaced. Something I never expected after so many gains. A teen – one who desperately needed a sense of success – now had little to none.

An opportunity missed.

A trauma-informed therapist through post-adoptive services offered me valuable insight about Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) – which led to a diagnosis. But she never was able to establish a trusting relationship with my son. Just the opposite. I should have severed ties. But wasn’t she the expert?

Meanwhile the violence at home exploded. Setting fires. Collecting small knives from who knows where. Holding the family hostage one evening with a kindling axe. Strangling the last breath out of our beautiful cat.

Sadly, the first two months in a residential treatment center three hours from home produced more defiance. A wild beast suddenly caged. Eventually my son cooperated with EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) from an extremely talented PhD clinician completing her internship. A hint of progress at last. 

An opportunity gained.

Then discharged after five months with no coordinated transition plan. EMDR had been effective; but with it relatively new in 2004, I couldn’t find a local provider to continue. I called and called. Severe regression six months later. Running off almost every weekend. Living on the streets as if he didn’t have a home.

That’s when the police told me, “We’re tired of coming to this address. He’s your responsibility.” Dismissing the safety plan approved by our therapist. Working against, not with me.

Fact was “I was tired too.” Actually mentally exhausted. Yet the softer side of my son surfaced occasionally and temporarily melted his tough-guy exterior. That gave me hope to start fresh – each and every morning.

In spite of a lengthy juvenile record, probation refused to offer intensive, community-based mental health treatment. After begging a judge (who saw me frequently in her courtroom), she ordered “wraparound” services – supposedly the best treatment that money can buy.

However, no one made significant headway. At that point in my adoption journey, my faith in the mental health system began to evaporate. So much talk about evidence-based practices and outcomes. Yet, such trivial action.

Does anyone truly care about the most difficult kids to reach? Why is past trauma overlooked? Where are “those” best practices? Or do they cost money that no agency wants to spend on a so-called throw-away kid. 

Seeds of hate grew deeper roots by the day inside my son. 

A potential sociopath in the making – while dozens of professionals and people in positions of authority washed their hands. Don’t tell me they’re clean. Don’t act surprised when my son erupts and acts upon his long history of being a burden to society. One day he will rise.

An opportunity missed.

As the verbal threats “to kill me” mounted, I removed every sharp item and heavy object from my home. Never any guns. One kitchen knife remained – secured after each use.

After using a fork to stab two siblings and drawing blood, my son bolted barefoot into the darkness. Knocking on a stranger’s door several miles away and claiming to be abused. By me. Hours later two police officers confronted me – asking inane questions and threatening my arrest.

Days later during a tense meeting at juvenile probation, our long-time therapist sat silently as a group of unknown people pointed the finger at me.

Thanks for the vote of no confidence. Thanks for glossing over the life I lead. Thanks for nothing. In response, they demanded a parenting assessment.

When in doubt, blame the parent.

Soon a 20-something woman – ignorant about trauma – talked to me several times on the phone. Then blasted me in a report, carefully omitting the positive comments I made about my son. My commitment. According to her, his issues stemmed from my unreasonable rules and lack of opportunity for self-expression.

You’re joking, right?

At the same time, an emergency foster placement resulted in a well-meaning woman talking extensively to my son about my parenting – for more than week, without any insight from me. Providing him clothes like he had none. Hanging on his every word. Giving him a sense of control that he didn’t need. 

Nonetheless, child welfare ordered him back to my home without any additional supports – because out-of-home placements can break an underfunded budget.

An opportunity missed.

Now my son became hell-bent on finding a new living arrangement. No rules. No expectations. No parent.


Within weeks, false allegations of neglect and abuse intensified. Not being fed. Blamed for his siblings’ behaviors. Forced to sleep in a custom-built room in our garage – yet approved by a juvenile judge to keep everyone safe.

Somehow my now 15-year-old son stonewalled two police officers, who routinely responded to 911 calls. Even though he torpedoed landscaping stones and made our homefront look like a war zone, one officer pulled me aside – while my son listened. “We think you’re instigating him.”

An opportunity missed.

Several months later a fight erupted in our mini-van. A younger son had a concussion from a boot kick to the skull. I probably had one too from the welts on the back of my head – yet no time to slow down.

This time my son’s story about mistreatment fell on deaf ears – with an officer unfamiliar with my family.

A different juvenile court judge ordered a new psychiatric evaluation. Great, I thought. Then a 90-minute evaluation with my uncooperative son. Rigid thinking and a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. Did I hear that right?

Not one mention of trauma or attachment. Not a single conversation with me or any previous professional.

An opportunity missed.

Off to the least reputable residential treatment center in the area, my son went. Alongside delinquent youth. When attempting to share “the facts” with the clinical director, I was quickly cut off. He threatened to report me for being uncooperative.

For the next four months, my son took control in the worst ways possible – especially with the revolving door of direct care workers who could be easily manipulated. “Cured” and sent home.

Within three days of his release, he knocked me to the ground with his fist – as his four younger brothers watched during their tumbling class.

Like clockwork, the police came and took my son. Like clockwork, juvenile detention called me to retrieve him. When I refused for the first time – after three long years of violence in my home, the child welfare machine moved into high gear to charge me with neglect. His probation officer even brought my son to watch the court proceedings.

From the corner of my eye, I watched the smirk on his face grow. My son believed he was untouchable – and could manipulate anyone. 

For six stressful months, a three-person legal team expended incredible energy to discredit me – while ignoring the needs of my deeply-troubled son.

An opportunity missed.

With nothing to hide, I took matters into my own hands and provided a stack of notarized letters from professionals familiar with my son. At last the judge overruled child welfare and put juvenile probation in charge.

No, I hadn’t given up on my son. But, I refused to accept another substandard residential placement. Probation agreed.

One of the leading trauma facilities in the nation accepted him – but promptly rescinded its offer after reading about his fire setting history from five years earlier. No negotiation. Not even a trial admission.

Where on earth are the most troubled teens to go?

An opportunity missed.

Off to another facility claiming to understand trauma. Not surprisingly, the power struggles began day one and never stopped. Punitive approaches. Staff bent on breaking teens into compliance – which triggered my son daily. Constant dysregulation. One day he ran with two younger boys – gone for 10 days. Surviving on their own.

Then one day he stood up to a poorly-trained security guard who would target him for the last time. In turn, the superintendent expelled him.


Forget the Asperger’s Diagnosis. Back to RAD with the addition of Conduct Disorder and Intermittent Explosive Disorder.

Now the juvenile judge gave me two choices. Bring my unstable, hostile 17-year-old son home without supports or remand him to the Department of Corrections until age 19.

To be honest, I had only one choice.

A parent’s worst nightmare – again.

For the next 18 months in juvenile prison, I wrote him thoughtful, lengthy letters every two-three weeks – never receiving a reply. Not once. Meanwhile, the court ordered me to meet every week with a re-entry case manager who spent more time invading my other children’s privacy – than finding ways to help my son.

An opportunity missed.

The one bright spot was a prison teacher who actually called me to talk about my son. She saw his intelligence and wanted to help. Taking my advice, she pushed him to fulfill all graduation requirements – something that rarely happens with youth behind bars. And he did.

An opportunity gained.

Prior to his release, the case manager arranged voluntary participation in a transitional program but wouldn’t let me be involved in the planning. My son lasted three days – before returning to his birth family’s hometown three hours downstate.

An opportunity missed.

More alone than ever as a young adult – while unsure of his relationship with me, my son sought comfort in drugs. Quickly developing a serious addiction. Using. Dealing. Stealing. Over the next five years, he become a frequent visitor at the county jail. After a drug deal gone bad, he landed in state prison.

Thankfully he didn’t have a gun – and used his fists instead. Like he had done many times before. A trained response from early in life – before his adoption.

And thankfully no one died – even though he wore brass knuckles. 

At the age of 25 from a prison cell, my son reached out to me.

He’s definitely calmer. He’s mostly rational. Moreover, he’s begun to take responsibility for his actions. To understand his past. To reflect. To accept a greater good. To develop faith. To forgive.

Together we make sense of the opportunities ahead. 

Together we stopped a potential sociopath in his tracks.

But I must be brutally frank. My son must never have access to guns. Never. Not at a retail store. Not at a gun show with lax oversight. Too much risk. 

His potential for violence lies right below the surface, easily triggered when he feels judged or shamed.

And yes to boundaries. Courts set them for sexual predators. Perhaps individuals like my son need appropriate boundaries too. To keep him and the community safe. 

Furthermore, his thinking tends to be rigid – thankfully less so than his teen years. His need to be right is still obvious – with little regard to others’ opinions. 

Unfortunately, he’s now absorbed the negative rhetoric about immigrants – from listening to a single news source within the prison walls. Day after day. The tone of his last letter was alarming. He clearly gives off an aura of white superiority.

Cause for concern.

Parents know their kids best. 

Who’s listening?  DCP

Click here to read my son’s writings from prison.

Prison Diary of a Trauma Survivor

Truth or Consequences and Trauma

To My Father & All the Silent Heroes

Hitting Rock Bottom in Prison & Discovering Faith


Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE

To follow Craig’s journey in raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love

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7 thoughts on “How the “System” Nearly Turned My Son into a Sociopath

  1. Love the details that you shared. What strikes me is some of those critical junctures, but especially the first one when he went into middle school. I can see how easily that could happen and I think often about how to pave the way for my three who Will have to make that same journey as they get older. All of these things are so important to the conversation about how to help traumatized children grow up safe to themselves and others

  2. We have not adopted yet, but are currently getting our home open. I am reading and talking to as many people as I can. Your story is beyond sobering — I don’t feel like I have a good word for it. Is your story common? Not so much your son’s behavior because of trauma and all that goes with that, but the system being that broken and really pretty against you. I had liked to think that whatever we might face there would be options for help. Do you think that things are getting better or still the same or worse even?

    1. My oldest son had a troubled past before his adoption, so his challenges didn’t emerge from nowhere. Several of my other children had difficult starts but not the same extent. The earlier the intervention, the likelihood of overcoming the odds increased. Obtaining a thorough history is essential. Most importantly, we weathered the storm as a family – and all of my children have a decent – not perfect – relationship with me as young adults.

      1. Thank you for your reply. Do you think overall getting a thorough history is doable if you are upfront about that being mandatory? It seems like I’ve heard stories where people do not feel issues were fully disclosed.

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