ST. JOHNS - A boy who was 8 years old when he killed his father and a family friend is on the verge of living a more normal life after showing significant improvement in recent months in his court-ordered treatment.
The boy's nearly three-year stay at a Phoenix-area residential treatment center had been rocky, with prosecutors alleging earlier this year that he violated probation by issuing death threats, damaging property and assaulting others. But the past eight months have been a different story as the boy came under the care of a new psychologist and learned to verbalize his feelings.
The probation violations brought him back to court on Thursday, where Superior Court Judge Monica Stauffer said moving him to a group home would help him build on improvements he's made since being charged in the 2008 double homicide.
The boy had pleaded guilty to negligent homicide in the death of Tim Romans, who had been renting a room in the house the boy shared with his father and stepmother in St. Johns. Prosecutors did not hold him criminally responsible for his father's death.
Earlier this year, the boy acknowledged twice leaving the treatment center without permission and smashing a wall clock, and the rest of the alleged probation violations were dropped.
After hearing about how much the boy enjoyed school and excelled at schoolwork, the relationship he's formed with psychologist Dr. Alan Lewis and the desire of his family to see him more often, Stauffer pledged not to fail the boy by making a quick decision on where he should be placed.
She instructed probation officials to look further into two Phoenix-area group homes to see if they'd accept the boy, would allow for daylong visits with his family and possibly let Lewis continue counseling him.
"I want you to know I'm very proud of you," she told the boy, who was seated beside his mother in court. "I'm proud of the progress you've made and want you to continue to have an attitude of making the changes you need and establishing positive relationships."
Attorneys were struggling to find a suitable placement for the boy since the Youth Development Institute where he's being treated indicated it didn't want to keep him long-term. A school for troubled boys rejected the boy's application, foster-care agencies said they had no room for him and experts said placing him in the state Department of Juvenile Corrections would put him on a path to becoming a sociopath.
Lewis testified at a September hearing that he considers the boy to be proactive aggressive but said that behavior is typical for a boy his age and that he does not see him as a risk.
Ann Mastergeorge, a developmental psychologist who studies risk and resilience in young children, said she didn't believe placing him in residential treatment was the best option to begin with and would rather see him placed with a family than a group home at this point.
"Developmentally, what would have been best for this boy would have been to be in treatment but living in a family and going to school, having friendships," said Mastergeorge, a University of Arizona professor who is not connected to the case.
"It's an isolated incident that was very traumatic and obviously very serious. But to remove him from everyone he knows is another abandonment that creates more loss and more disassociation."
Romans' family has said they prefer the boy to be in jail. The boy's family said they would like to care for him in their own homes but recognize that he needs more therapy and that it would be difficult to have him remain anonymous among a larger community or classmates.
"If you don't have that encouragement and someone believing in you and loving you, then what do you have to work toward?" said his grandmother, Liz Castillo. "My concern is that no matter where he goes, that whatever happens or where he is placed that something be implemented to have family be able to spend time with him."
Beth Rosenberg, the director of child welfare and juvenile justice for the Children's Action Alliance in Arizona, is familiar with the case but not involved in it. She said keeping him in a facility that limits time with family and a larger community would not be in his best interest.
"You don't want to let him out at 18 and say 'go for it,' " she said. "He needs to transition back to the community at some point and have the support he needs to be successful as an adult."
The boy's attorney, Ron Wood, said he believes that his client has a chance of becoming a "very exceptional young man" if he can get help dealing with the root cause of the crime and the fallout.
The boy has a more limited vision for his future that, for right now, includes wanting to spend his 13th birthday at the residential treatment center on Dec. 29, when he will be rewarded for his schoolwork, behavior and progress with counseling.
Stauffer ordered him sent back to the treatment center until the next hearing in January, saying, "Happy early birthday."