Breaking the cycle
On a snowy day last January, as Malcom and Rebecca Engle celebrated the birth of their first son, the state’s child welfare system moved quickly into action.
That afternoon, a Spokane court commissioner signed an order preventing the young couple from taking their son home from Sacred Heart Medical Center.
For Malcom Engle, a 24-year-old Spokane man raised in the state’s foster care system, it was a devastating blow: For the third consecutive generation, state social workers had seized an Engle child.
“I may be an ex-con, juvenile troublemaker, but now I’m a dad,” Engle said, sitting in his north Spokane apartment, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette to calm his anxiety. “I don’t have a problem if they want to come and check on him every couple of months for the rest of his youthful life. But I didn’t even get to take him home.”
In the court documents, social workers cited Engle’s own history – first as a victim of violent sexual abuse, and then, in a familiar arc, as a 12-year-old perpetrator who improperly touched his sister. Engle blames the assault on prepubescent exploration and behavior learned from his father, a convicted child molester who raped and abused him for years.
“I didn’t know I had done anything wrong,” said Engle, who is a registered sex offender. “The state didn’t have a place for me. My mom didn’t want me back. I figured I’d go to jail and try to figure out what I did wrong.”
For decades, a legacy of abuse and neglect has run through the Engle family, beginning with an abusive and alcoholic grandfather, himself the son of a West Virginia moonshiner.
“I guess they think I’ve got a genetic mean streak,” Malcom Engle said.
Studies have consistently shown that childhood victims of abuse are more likely to abuse or neglect their own children. But the majority of them – studies suggest as many as 75 percent – do not become abusive parents.
“I think (the state) looks at Malcom as the boy he was 10 or 12 years ago, not as the man he is today,” said Jeff Goldstein, an attorney who defended Engle last year on a misdemeanor charge for threatening a state worker. “There’s no way for him to make amends for what happened when he was 12 years old.”
From the outset, the dependency of Malcom Engle Jr. boiled down to a simple question: Would Malcom Engle – victim and youthful perpetrator – abuse his own son?
Risk factor, not a guarantee
In 1980, Oregon researchers began tracking 109 primarily low-income parents. The parents were divided into four categories based on if – and to what extent – they suffered abuse as children.
Of those who suffered abuse, researchers found, 1 in 4 became an abusive parent.
“A history of abuse is a risk factor – it is not a guarantee,” said Katherine Pears, a research scientist and psychologist at the Oregon Social Learning Center in Eugene. “The good news is that there are parenting programs out there that have been shown to be effective.”
Looked at another way, roughly 3 out of 4 abused parents managed to break the cycle. Their children reported no abuse.
“We know that intervention and treatment can work with abused children,” said Lucy Berliner, director of the Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
“Some kids are not that severely affected and others are practically ruined. If you are trying to prevent abuse from happening again, obviously the sooner you can intervene the better.”
The case for early intervention has been aided by a 2005 study from the University of Chicago, which addressed some pressing questions for public policy: Were certain people genetically predisposed to abuse their children? Or did they learn that behavior as children and then apply it as parents?
To answer the question, the researchers turned to rhesus monkeys, which, like humans, can exhibit child maltreatment across generations.
As in previous studies, the researchers confirmed that abused monkeys were more likely to abuse their offspring. But when the infant monkeys were removed from their biological mothers and reared by “foster” monkeys, the cycle stopped. The group of younger foster monkeys did not go on to abuse their own offspring.
But outside the environs of a laboratory, the variables are far more difficult to control.
To measure which children are at highest risk of abuse, researchers have developed a list of contributing factors: Poverty placed the child at greater risk. So did young parents, substance abuse, and a history of mental illness or depression. Even the severity of abuse suffered by the parent appears to increase the risk to the next generation.
For the Engles, the results were foreboding. Malcom’s history indicated his son might be at a high risk of suffering abuse.
But probabilities make for messy policy. For example, if there is a 1 in 20 chance that a parent will be abusive, should they be allowed to keep their child? What if the risk is 1 in 10? Or 1 in 5?
“It’s very hard to predict on an individual basis,” said Penelope Trickett, a professor of social work and psychology at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work. “Child welfare agencies are so often damned if they do, damned if they don’t. But our whole system of justice has to do with presuming innocence.”
In the history of Washington’s foster care system, few wards reached the tragic notoriety of Malcom Engle.
A 1992 crisis center’s report summed up the history of the then-10-year-old boy: Physical abuse. Severe and regular sexual abuse by his father. Sexual acting out. Severe neglect. Suicide attempts and a threat to kill a staff member. Heavy exposure to drugs in utero. Fire-starting. Bizarre and psychotic symptoms.
“I go by my own rules,” he reportedly told staff. “I pretty much use manipulation and bribery to get what I want.”
Minutes later, he broke down in tears, expressing fears that he would be abandoned.
Engle arrived in state care in 1990 via a psychiatric hospitalization, after he put a noose around his neck. He was 8 years old. His father, Kurt Leroy Engle, had repeatedly sodomized and molested Malcom from age 3 months to age 7, according to Child Protective Services’ documents.
In 1994, Malcom testified against his father, who was sentenced to more than 45 years in prison.
The Engle family’s troubles stretched back even further. Malcom’s grandparents were abusive and alcoholic, according to medical records that Engle provided to The Spokesman-Review.
His grandfather, who allegedly raped Malcom’s mother, killed himself in a fiery car crash in 1980, taking three other lives in the process.
“He was a mean son of a bitch, and he had no business being around kids,” Malcom’s mother, Connie Gay Engle, said of her biological father. “There’s a hell of a lot of people a hell of a lot better without him.”
Herself a victim of childhood sexual abuse, Connie Engle entered foster care in 1973. Once in foster care, Engle said, her adopted grandfather molested her at age 11.
Her traumatic upbringing provided few parenting role models.
As an adult, Connie Engle said, she was unable to care for her violent and aggressive son.
Malcom Engle’s own experience as a victim – the lack of boundaries, the predatory behavior explained as an act of love – left him with no moral compass as he navigated his adolescent years.
At age 12, he completed a familiar cycle: The victim became the perpetrator, and Malcom Engle molested his younger sister.
Washington’s child welfare system invested heavily in Malcom Engle, at one point paying $10,000 a month for specialized and secure care, according to CPS documents. He received intensive therapy, sex offender counseling and psychiatric assessments.
But there was one thing the state could not provide Malcom Engle: a parent.
’No one wants him’
After the abuse, Malcom often retreated to a fantasy world.
The boy relied on wizards for protection and discussed an invention that would allow him to fly and make him invulnerable to nuclear warheads. He sometimes communicated with animal noises and told stories of parents killing their children and eating them. He expressed fears that his father would kidnap him and starve him, according to the reports.
“I can’t sleep,” the boy told one psychiatrist, “because I imagine too much.”
But he showed signs of promise.
Though his schoolwork lagged, his IQ was on the border between above average and superior. One psychiatrist found him to be a “cheerful, obviously bright” boy with a good sense of humor.
Yet he continually lashed out in anger, threatening counselors and engaging in fights. He ran from placements and acted out sexually.
Adoption was out of the question. Specialized group homes deemed his behavior too aggressive and dysfunctional. One group home required that he wear a yellow jumpsuit to identify him as a potential threat.
According to court filings, before age 18, Malcom Engle had stayed at two juvenile institutions, five psychiatric hospitals, six group homes, four crisis residential centers, five juvenile detentions and one relative placement. When one home after another refused to accept him, a social worker raised the idea of placing Engle in a home by himself, under 24-hour-a-day supervision.
“I never seen kindness,” he said in a recent interview.
“I never seen the touchy, feely emotion-type thing. I never seen people come up and say, ‘Hey, what’s wrong?’ or give a hug. I was raised by a system, not people.”
Internal state records show that a social worker eventually concluded that “there is nowhere else to put him. No one wants him.”
Minor problems – the loss of dessert privileges or a perceived slight – could quickly undermine months of progress and lead to violent outbursts.
In his teenage years, Engle underwent years of intensive counseling.
By the time he turned 18 and left the state’s foster care system, he had “not acted out sexually in many years.” State documents indicated he was a minimal risk to sexually re-offend.
At a meeting on Aug. 15, 2000, the state of Washington agreed to terminate the 18-year-old’s case. Malcom would move into a trailer home. A social worker helped arrange a state payment of $500 to help him transition to the outside world.
After the meeting, a social worker reminded Malcom to head to the Sheriff’s Office to register as a Level 1 sex offender.
Social workers worried
Today, Malcom and Rebecca Engle live in north Spokane, in a sprawling apartment house with green paint that has peeled from the clapboard siding. Their welfare check barely covers the $450 rent.
On a recent weekday, an empty baby seat sat at the base of a massive basalt fireplace, around which Malcom had arranged more than 1,000 pages that document his life in the state’s child welfare system. On a bookcase, a half-dozen books on child care lined the shelves.
“My biggest way to learn something is by reading,” Engle said. “One thing you can do when you’re locked up is read books.”
He had a chance to do more reading last June, after he was charged with intimidating a public servant, which was later dropped to a misdemeanor. Engle reacted angrily after state social workers removed Rebecca’s daughter from the couple’s care, citing an incident in which the newborn girl was taken outside in cold weather while Malcom smoked a cigarette.
Short and stocky, Engle can appear menacing. He has piercings in his ears, his tongue and through the bridge of his nose – courtesy of a safety pin. The tenor of his voice approaches a growl. Abruptly, his conversation can veer to obscure physics, such as a “photoelectric residency field” that he believes could cure homelessness, hunger and environmental problems.
“It’s a very advanced theorem,” he said.
At other times, he seethes against the state system.
In February, he asserted that Rebecca’s daughter was being abused in foster care. If true, Malcom said, a family member would deal with it harshly.
“People’s gonna die,” he said in a phone message to a Spokesman-Review reporter. “That’s all I got to say.”
Malcom’s history with the child welfare system, first as a child, then as a caregiver to Rebecca’s daughter, worried state social workers. State policy allows social workers to assess the risk factors for a child, even before they leave the hospital.
In its dependency filing, which authorized social workers to take 8-pound, 2-ounce Malcom Jr., the state quoted a 2004 psychology report that found Engle had a delusional disorder, generalized anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and a paranoid personality disorder.
In a previous visit with his wife’s daughter, he had talked about the need to protect himself, and discussed “nuclear physics” and “plasma guns” during visits, according to court documents. He said he was going to shoot an officer in the head, the documents said.
Rebecca, the 19-year-old mother, “did not have knowledge of how to handle a baby, and keep a baby quiet.”
Even more damaging, another report surfaced, this one dated two months after Malcom Engle left the child welfare system. At the time of his discharge, Engle’s longtime counselor, who praised his progress, also warned that Engle may be at moderate to potentially high risk to re-offend.
Engle was crushed.
“I feel like I did what they asked me to do,” he said. “If I could go back and change what happened I would. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Court Commissioner James Triplett sympathized with Engle’s “horrific history” and found no evidence to indicate that either parent used illicit drugs or abused alcohol. But he found that neither parent was capable of caring for the infant boy.
“There is more to parenting than changing diapers and bottles,” Triplett wrote.
The Engles retreated to their apartment, where they roll their own cigarettes and sit with the shades drawn. Each week, they have supervised visits with their son. After a recent visit, Malcom Engle proudly showed off a spot on his shirt where his son had thrown up on him.
“It was great,” he said, beaming. “I actually got to see him without a security guard present.”
On the door to his apartment, Engle posted a lengthy note to any social worker seeking to inquire about his son. In marker, it warned that his was a Native American home, and as such, had certain protections under federal law. It warned that contact must be made through tribal offices, as Malcom’s grandfather was a member of the Cherokee Tribe.
It made clear that Malcom Engle wanted no further contact with Washington’s child welfare system.
But by that point, his son was already gone.