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Scratching the Bitch

Joseph Paiva was born defective, but prosecutors stamped him a habitual criminal.

Powers says she could tell right away that something was "not right" with Joseph, and her son underwent his first psychological evaluation when he was only six years old, still in kindergarten. A Denver Public Schools evaluator noted that Paiva had been referred for hyperactivity but that he also had "recently been on medication, and this may account for the extreme changes in his behavior." Paiva had already been prescribed several popular drugs to treat his unruly behavior: Dilantin, an anti-convulsant; Dexedrine, speed; and Ritalin, a stimulant.

Despite Paiva's manic classroom behavior, the psychologist noted that the boy's behavior under observation was characterized primarily as torpid: "He was extremely slow reacting in his speech and movements.... Joe entered willingly into the various tasks but it usually took him a very long time to respond. He would just sit for several seconds before attempting to answer or react to performance items."

Judged to be at a learning level about a year below his chronological age, Paiva was referred to a special-education class in a Denver public school. There he received Cs in every subject except art; he earned an A in that class. The following year, his disruptive behavior prevented him from receiving any grades except one: a B in art.

A Joseph Paiva sketch.
A Joseph Paiva sketch.
Attorney Neil Silver believes Paiva's background ought 
to earn him a break.
Anthony Camera
Attorney Neil Silver believes Paiva's background ought to earn him a break.

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"Joey has trouble remembering or interpreting what he hears," one teacher wrote, adding, "Joey is very sensitive to failure or teasing." Another note reads: "Joey is learning to accept the consequences of his actions in terms of avoiding hurting other people." Despite such concerns, during his third-grade year, his special-education teacher recommended that Paiva be mainstreamed back into a regular classroom.

In November 1972 -- it would have been right around Paiva's eighth birthday -- a clearly exasperated teacher observed that "Joey is like a whirlwind, hitting a typewriter, swinging at kids in the hall." A home visit by one of his teachers at this time revealed "a small, well-kept one-bedroom" home, although the teacher noted that the "children look pale and tired. The baby rocks continuously. Parents are 'nervous.'"

It was a benign assessment compared with what happened when no one was watching. Later records reveal a violent household, as well as one in which the Paivas seemed ill-equipped to deal with a child as demanding as Joseph. In May 1970, Paiva -- then five years old -- and his younger sister had been removed from their parents' trailer home after a neighbor observed the children chained to a tree in the yard.

A new place to live was not the answer, though. Paiva's erratic behavior made him difficult to control, no matter where he was. Over the next six months, he was moved in and out of three foster homes before being returned to his parents' custody.

By the time he was ten years old, Paiva's behavior problems had become more pronounced. His mother remembers one incident in which he walked out onto a window ledge at school and threatened to jump off. Paiva himself recalls "one time I tore a lot of tiles off the roof there." There is some evidence that he set small fires, and he and his mother verify that he ran away from home with regularity.

"His teachers said I should get more help for him," Powers remembers. So in March 1975, with his mother's grateful permission, Paiva was admitted to Fort Logan Mental Health Center with "severe emotional problems." For all intents and purposes, it was the end of his life at home.

Paiva stayed at Fort Logan for a year. "Joe was in constant motion, talking, making noise, looking around, or doing something with his hands," a counselor wrote that summer. When the year was up, he was released to Wallace Village for Children, a residential treatment facility in Broomfield for emotionally disturbed children. He lasted there only nine months before being released as "incorrigible."

By the end of 1976, just after his twelfth birthday, Paiva was back at Fort Logan. An assessment found him to be a troublesome resident, even for the facility's trained staff: "Joey's aggressiveness was unpredictable and it was difficult to tell how far he would go with his anger," a psychiatrist's note from that period reads. "Firm and consistent limits needed to be set."

"Joey has a very low frustration tolerance, which he demonstrates daily," another note from this period states. "When he is dissatisfied with his performance, he begins to cry, scream, and curse because he did not do well or he lost the game and someone laughed at him." For the first time, psychiatrists performed an EEG -- a neurological exam that maps brain activity -- on Paiva. It revealed abnormal patterns, suggesting an organic explanation for his behavioral problems. But the discovery didn't provide any fresh solutions.

A half-year later, Paiva was referred to yet another treatment center. Still months before he became a teenager, he was already a veteran of the social services system, with no real reason to feel optimistic about his future. "Joey has a long history of institutionalization, with poor treatment progress," his Fort Logan discharge report reads. "He is in need of long-term treatment in an intensive treatment situation. A referral was made by the Denver Child Welfare Department to the Brown School in Texas."

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