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By Helen Silvis of The Skanner News
Published: 10 December 2012

At the same time that the boys were threatening a woman in the Foursquare church parking lot, just a block away the Rosewood Initiative was holding a holiday party for neighborhood children and families

On Saturday, Dec. 8, two boys aged 7 and 11 were picked up by police after trying to rob a woman at gunpoint outside the Freedom Foursquare Church on Southeast 161st and Alder St. When police caught the boys, they found a loaded pistol.
Dec. 11, UPDATE: Police investigating  the carjacking arrested 34-year-old Joseph Charlton Tuesday, after the Gun Task Force searched a residence near S.E. 161st and Alder St. They charged Charlton with having an unsecured firearm where children could find it. He is the first person to be charged under this new city gun ordinance. At the same time, the Department of Human services took two boys aged 11 and 9, and a girl aged 4 into protective custody.

It was just after noon when police were called out.  Inside the church, other children were attending a free art class open to kids aged 5 to 18. And just a block away, at 161st and S.E. Stark St., the Rosewood Initiative was holding a holiday party for neighborhood families.

Joseph Daniel Charlton was charged with endangering a minor through access to a firearm, endangering a minor, unlawful possession of a firearm and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

The boys could have been playing hula hoop, decorating a Christmas tree, or telling Santa what they wanted for Christmas. Instead they were threatening 22-year-old Ami Garrett with the loaded gun, and demanding she surrender her car, money or a cell phone.

Too young to go to juvenile detention, the boys were returned to the care of their parents. Garrett and other commenters have expressed dismay that they were not kept in custody.  UPDATE: Neighbors tell The Oregonian  the boy is  "a bully"  and say they have reported him to police before.

So what's going on and what should be done about it?

Dave Austin, communications director for Multnomah County, says the law states that children aged 11 and under should not usually be admitted to juvenile detention. However police have the power to call a judge and ask for special permission to do so if they believe that the child poses a continuing risk.

"The law is very clear," he says. "If we want to take them into custody, we have to have special permission from a judge. There has to be a reason. You don't just lock up an 11-year-old.

"So, if somebody is so much of a danger, police can call and a judge can make that order. But in cases of children 11 and below, there is a very high likelihood that there are other issues going on, maybe with the family. In this case the investigation is still going on."

Austin said public safety is always the highest priority. During an investigation, police look at each case individually, he said, and resources, such as mental health counseling or other services, can be directed to families and children as needed.

"We have to look at all the information out there and treat each case on a case by case basis," Austin said.

Once police finish their investigation, a report is forwarded to the county's Department of Community Justice for additional information or comment, and then to the District Attorney's office. The DA decides whether the case is primarily about dependency –meaning some kind of parental negligence or failure—or whether it is about delinquency.

The public safety system has been dealing with about two or three weapons cases involving children aged 12 and under each year since 2009.

"In 2009 we had two weapons cases in Multnomah County (involving children aged  12 and younger)," Austin said. "In 2010 we had three. In 2011 we had two. And this case is the second in 2012."

While it doesn't justify the conclusion that violence among pre-teens is increasing, it does raise concerns, Austin said.

"Anytime a child gets their hands on a gun it should be a concern," he says.

Andrae Brown Ph.D., an associate professor at Lewis and Clark College, who has researched youth violence, says children must be held accountable for their actions, but it makes no sense to treat them as if they are the same as adults or older teens.

 "Most 7-year-olds and 11-year-olds don't have the mental capacity to think about the consequences of doing something like this," he says. "They're short-sighted. Their brains aren't even developed enough to make choices based on reality.

"At 7, children's understanding of reality is very, very limited. A cartoon might be more real to them than it really is. They can't distinguish well between what is real and what's fake."

The law says children as young as these boys can't babysit, or even stay at home by themselves. In fact, researchers say the human brain doesn't stop developing until around 25 years of age, and the last part to be integrated is the frontal lobe, which helps us make good choices.

Brown says the boys should face consequences that help make sure they don't repeat the crime: consequences that match their age and stage of development. The facts made public so far are not enough, he says, to be specific about what should happen to the boys.

"The main goal should be to deter this kind of behavior in the future," he says.

And the first priority should be to find out where the gun came from, and how it got into the hands of children in the first place.

"Whose gun is it?" he asks. "Is it a registered gun?  Because, if so, that person is responsible for keeping it out of the hands of children. Is it stolen? Did they find it in the bushes? Or did somebody give them the gun?

"Somebody has to explain where these kids got this gun. Whether it's registered or not registered, if you have a gun then it is your responsibility to secure it."

Brown says our culture of violence has a role in the problem, because children are surrounded by violence, in media and often in their real lives

The University of Michigan Health System makes the same point in a factsheet about media violence.  An average American child will see 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on TV by age 18, the factsheet notes.   Our media glamorizes that violence, and often shows perpetrators getting away without any consequences. And children's television is more violent than adult television.  

"Children imitate the violence they see on TV.  Children under age eight cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy, making them more vulnerable to learning from and adopting as reality the violence they see on TV," it says.

"Even 'good guys' beating up 'bad guys' gives a message that violence is normal and okay. 

"Literally thousands of studies since the 1950s have asked whether there is a link between exposure to media violence and violent behavior.  All but 18 have answered, 'Yes.'   The evidence from the research is overwhelming."

Antoinette Edwards, director of the Office of Youth Violence Prevention, sees it the same way.  

"This is a symptom of what is happening in our society, where violence, and gang violence, is normalized," she says. It doesn't have to be this way.  "I see this as a crisis and an opportunity for us to work on prevention. How do we wrap our arms around these very young boys and make sure they get the services they need?"

Brown says the larger question is what we all are doing to reduce the violence in our environment.
 "The culture we have is one of violence and it has to be addressed at every level of society," he said.

No court date will be set until the investigation is complete and the DA's office has decided how to proceed.

This article was changed Dec. 8 at 9:50 p.m. to correct an error and to include a link to the Oregonian's article.  

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