Psychiatrist evaluated and worked with surviving Davidian children

A News Summary/May 14, 2007
By Rick Ross

In 1992 psychiatrist Bruce Perry became the vice chairman for research in the department of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) in Houston. He also served as chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital (TCH) and director of the Trauma Recovery Program at the Houston Veterans Administration Medical Center (VAMC).

In 1993 Dr. Perry worked with Branch Davidian children taken out of the cult compound during the standoff by law enforcement and then placed by Texas Children's Services (CPS) at the Methodist Children's Home in Waco.

Perry published his observations and findings regarding the Davidian children within a book titled "The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog" with Maia Szalavitz, a senior fellow at the media watchdog group STATS, and a journalist who covers health, science and public policy.

As a result of his first-hand observations and work with the children this psychiatrist was uniquely afforded an inside look at life within the compound and its internal group dynamics.

Perry wrote that the "children lived in a world of fear" and that "even babies were not immune."

Vernon Howell, later known as "David Koresh," according to Perry "believed that the wills of infants—some just eight months old—needed to be broken with strict physical discipline. Koresh "was mercurial: one moment kind, attentive and nurturing, and the next, a prophet of rage."

The cult leader's followers feared "his volatile temper and fearsome anger" and he "excelled at using irregular doses of extreme threat—alternating with kind, focused attention—to keep his followers off balance," the psychiatrist reports.

Perry goes on to describe Koresh's "iron grip, controlling every aspect of life in the compound." He would separate "husband from wife, child from parent, friend from friend, undermining any relationship that could challenge his position as the most dominant, powerful force in each person's life."

The so-called "Sinful Messiah" was seen by his followers as "the source of all insight, wisdom, love and power; he was the conduit to God, if not God himself on earth."

Perry says that "he was a god who ruled by fear. Children (and sometimes even adults) were in constant fear of the physical attacks and public humiliation that could result from the tiniest error, like spilling milk."

The punishments they might receive included, "being beaten bloody with a wooden paddle called 'the helper.' And the children "also feared hunger...deprived of food for days or put on a bland diet of only potatoes or bread."

Minor girls were targeted by Koresh for sex as "child brides." Perry calls this practice "a unique form of sanctioned sexual abuse" He says that "girls as young as ten were groomed to become Koresh's sexual partners."

Still under the influence of Davidian teachings the oldest girls while under the psychiatrist's care at the Methodist Children's Home still saw themselves as "brides of David" and they "would draw stars of David on yellow Post-it notes" or write "'David is God' on them and put them up..." around their cottage.

Koresh also instilled a deep abiding fear regarding the "Babylonians." This was a word he used to describe "outsiders" such as "government agents, nonbelievers," the doctor reports.

Davidians were also taught "that it was okay to deceive 'Babylonians' because [they] were the enemies of God."

Koresh also perpetually preached about a coming "final battle."

Branch Davidians and their children were kept constantly in the state of readiness for battle through "military drills, interrupted sleep and one-on-one fighting." And if the "children did not want to participate or were not vicious enough in battle training, they were humiliated and sometimes beaten."

Perry writes that within the armed camp known to its inhabitants as "Ranch Apocalypse" even "the youngest members were taught how to handle guns."

The children were also taught "the most lethal suicide techniques with firearms, being told to aim for the 'soft spot' in the back of the mouth if they faced capture by the 'Babylonians.'"

Koresh told his followers that after the "final battle" "they would be reunited with their families in heaven and Koresh—God—would return to earth to smite his enemies."

Perry concludes that the Davidian children "had essentially been marinated in fear."

Before the tragic fire that ultimately took the lives of the remaining Davidians and concluded the 51-day standoff with federal law enforcement the psychiatrist asked the children what was going to happen at the Ranch. The responses he received would become chillingly accurate.

Children asked about their parents within the compound repeatedly said, "They're dead," or, "They're all going to die."

Even the children's drawings reflected the strange twisted world within the cult. Perry summarized the pictures they drew as little more than an "elaboration of things that Koresh valued" with an "impoverished sense of family."

One girl's drawing depicted the "compound building with flames everywhere" and at the top "a stairway to heaven." "The children all pointed to a shared belief that the siege would end in death," Perry said.

The doctor came to believe during the standoff that there was a "high probability of a mass suicide or suicidal terror attack on the officers surrounding the compound" and shared his observations with authorities.

However, the psychiatrist lamented that "just as the group dynamics within the cult pushed them toward their horrific conclusion, so too did the group dynamics within law enforcement. Both groups tragically disregarded input that did not fit their world view, their template."

Perry saw "the response of the Davidians to the final assault" as sadly "predictable." And he believes that "the loss of life could have certainly been mitigated if not entirely prevented" by a better handling of the situation by the authorities involved.

Eventually, about half of the children Bruce Perry worked with would end up with "relatives who still believed in Koresh's message." Some "went on to college and careers, and have had their own families; others have led troubled and chaotic lives," he says.

In conclusion looking back on the treatment and care of the Davidian children that survived Perry observed that those "who did best...were not those who experienced the least stress or those who participated most enthusiastically in talking with us at the cottage. They were the ones who were released afterwards into the healthiest and most loving worlds, whether it was with family who still believed in the Davidian ways or with loved ones who rejected Koresh entirely."

Summarizing the care of child trauma victims Perry states, "anything that increases the quality and number of relationships in the child's life" is meaningful in their road to recovery.

Note: This news summary is based upon an article that appeared in "Psychotherapy Networker" by Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz titled "Stairway to Heaven" published March-April issue 2007

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