Shocked, sad, speechless, sickened: none of these words quite describes how I felt on reading about a Minnesota couple who made their 15-year-old son who has Asperger’s Syndrome live under constant video surveillance in a basement room with no lights and foam over the windows. The teenager was only allowed out when he was doing “military-style” exercises, performing chores or using the restroom.
The boy’s stepfather and mother, Gregory and Angela Danner, have been arrested and face one count each of malicious punishment of a child and neglect of a child. They could each be jailed for up to two years and charged with fines of up to $6,000.
Life in the Basement with One Peanut Butter Sandwich
As Minnesota Fox affiliate KMSP-TV reports, on April 2, the boy told police that not only the lights but also his bed had been taken from his room as a punishment and a video camera installed to watch his every move. An investigation of the Danners’ house confirmed what the boy said.
The Danners took the foam off the windows and put the light back into the boy’s room. But, as he told police in ongoing interviews in April and May, he still did not have a bed; his meals consisted of a peanut butter sandwich that his sister brought to him; he was rarely allowed to shower; he was told that his biological father had to provide detergent for him to wash his clothes in the sink or bathtub.
When social service workers spoke to the boy in early May, he told them the Danners were planning for him to run three miles a day as “therapy.” He was also often forced to do 1,500 to 2,000 pushups each day as well as a “wall chair” exercise for 20 minutes to an hour and miles-long runs in the cold. According to criminal charges filed, he had been made to do all this since he was 12 or 13. His stepfather had at one time spanked him 40-50 times, “once for each swear word found in some lyrics he had written down.”
Noting that he felt “very angry” with Gregory Danner due to what he was subjected to, the boy said that when he told this to his mother, she “threatened not to speak to him again if he said something bad about the family.”
“He gets to have a good childhood now”
The boy, who has turned 16 years old, is living with his biological father, David Nalls. Nalls now has custody of him and tells KMSP-TV that “He gets to have a good childhood now. He’s not in a dark room, he can shower when he wants, he has clean clothes — not just a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of water.” His son, who is 5 feet 9 inches tall, weighed only 120 pounds when he came to live with him.
“This is a 15-year-old boy, not a Marine recruit being put through that type of discipline on a daily basis. That is an unusual circumstance that crossed the boundary of what is appropriate under law,” Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom.
Neighbors recounted that the Danners had seemed “unusual,” with Gregory Danner “working in the backyard while wearing only a pink thong” and yelling at the boy while making him exercise.
One has to wonder, how such abuse of a child, and one with disabilities, could go on for so long?
We were living in St. Paul, Minnesota, when my own son Charlie, who is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum, was diagnosed. Charlie is 15 and just around the same age as the Minnesota teenager. I can’t help wondering if we might have crossed paths with him, or with his parents, years ago.
Caring for Autistic Children and Cultivating Unique Abilities
I’m stunned at the cruel and inhumane treatment the teenager suffered. It is especially abhorrent for me to read about this as, just a generation ago, parents were blamed for causing a child to “become” autistic due to mistreating him or her, by being so emotionally “frigid” that a young child lapsed into an “autistic withdrawal.” Parents of autistic children still often feel they have all eyes watching and accusing them for being bad parents and, therefore, bad people.
In reality, the parents we know are like those described in a New York Times Magazine article about 16-year-old Lars Sonne. His father, Thorkil, is the founder of Specialisterne, a Danish company that seeks to draw on the unique talents and abilities of autistic adults to train them for jobs in fields such as software testing. Speicalisterne has now opened offices in the U.S..
Software testing would not be suitable employment for Charlie, who has yet to master control of a computer mouse and, so far, reads only a few words. But like Sonne, my husband and I are ever at work cultivating Charlie’s particular abilities — his powerful memory, ability to place things in a precise order with attention to the minutest of details and athletic prowess (Charlie is a graceful runner and an avid bike rider). As a parent of a child so very different and yet singularly capable, we feel called to do all that we can to prepare him for the future.
I do not know what happened among the Danners that they decided that basement isolation, video camera surveillance and military drills — abuse — were how to treat their teenage son with Asperger’s. While there are certainly numerous challenges in raising Charlie, his toughest moments have taught us the power that more love and understanding always provide in caring for him.
I hope the Minnesota teenager can indeed have, as his father says, the “good childhood” that he more than needs and, even more, a good life among those who love and care for him.
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Photo by madc0w