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Human Psychological Development in ‘Feral Children’ – The Case of Betty Topper

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In September 1999 police found six-year-old girl Betty Topper chained to a bed with ‘what appeared to be’ a dog leash, after they got a tip from an anonymous caller who said the child had not been seen in years. Her mother Cyndi Topper later confessed that she had been chained there for five years.

When police searched the house (located in Norco, California), it was covered with garbage from the floor to the ceiling and there were human and animal faeces everywhere. Police made their way to a back bedroom where they saw a small girl, chained by a dog leash to a brass bed with a harness around her waist. She had nothing on but a nappy. She was covered with faeces and filth and had over-grown hair down to her waist. She was extremely malnourished and pale. Police officers described her as looking as “if she had never seen the light of day”.

The child was taken to Loma Linda Medical Centre where she was treated and evaluated. She was listed in serious but stable condition, and was suffering from malnutrition. A month later she had gained 4.5 kilograms to weigh a total of 18kg, and was becoming more interactive with other people, although she could still not speak.

Psychological and development deficits of this child;

Betty Topper’s physical development was severely delayed. She weighed around half the weight of an average six year old. This was due to malnutrition and maybe even psychosocial dwarfism. In the psychosocial dwarfism syndrome, the failure to grow is caused because the production of growth hormone is suppressed due to extremely high levels of psychosocial stress. Once sufferers are removed to a normal (nurturing) environment, there is usually rapid catch-up growth; which is true to Topper’s case. It is not just growth that is affected by this syndrome, but also the onset of puberty meaning Betty might hit puberty later than normal.

The girl also lacks many abilities that normal six year olds acquire such as; the ability to walk, run, skip, jump etc. Many of these skills would be almost impossible for Betty to learn because her muscles and bones would be extremely underdeveloped due to being chained to her bed, not moving, for five of her six years of life.

The only two people Betty had contact with for five years were her mother and grandfather and these relationships weren’t close or loving. Betty would have no skills in developing close relationships or in interacting, cooperating and communicating with others. Her ability to function in a group would also be extremely hindered as she would have no experience.

The effects of one’s childhood environment interact with all the processes of neurodevelopment (neurogenesis, migration, differentiation, apoptosis, arborization, synaptogenesis, synaptic sculpting, and myelination). Betty’s cognitive development would be extremely obstructed. Her mental abilities such as learning, memory, thinking and problem solving would not have improved since she was one, because she was not allowed to function in society or live a normal, well adjusted life. She wasn’t even treated as a human being, never receiving enough encouragement, nourishment or social interaction to learn. She would never have improved decision making abilities because she was never faced with any decisions; in fact she was faced with little (if any) mental stimulation.

Finally Betty would have very little conception of the way she experiences or expresses her emotions. Being kept in such cruel and unusual circumstances for so long, Betty might not have developed the full range of emotions (possessed by most people) and would not understand why emotions were felt.

Ways improving this child’s socio-emotional functioning in society;

Betty would need to be kept in clean conditions, fed and looked after properly. She should be cared for by a small, constant group of adults so she can get to know them, learn to trust them and hopefully create some emotional bond with them. The same should be done when she is introduced to children. Too many children could distress or confuse her but if there was a small group of children that visited her, she might form a friendship with one or more of them. This would also familiarise her with people closer to her own age. It might be appropriate for the children she interacts with to be mentally disadvantaged (but still friendly and harmless) because they would be closer to her mental level than other children. These meetings with other children must be supervised in case anything goes wrong.

If it was possible, it would help Betty to learn some language, or if not, taught some sort of sign language so she can communicate with others. She should also be placed in positive, enjoyable situations so she has the chance to discover human emotions such as joy and excitement.

Ethical issues that would arise in the attempt to re-socialise the feral child;

If she was introduced into society Betty might suffer from the stress of co-existing with people for the first time. Betty does not have the same mental, social or physical abilities as other children her age. She wouldn’t be able to relate to other children and might be isolated from her peers because of this. Other children might abuse her verbally or even physically. She may feel like an ‘outsider’ or a ‘freak’ and stop trying to learn develop or communicate with others.

Betty may also be mentally disturbed due to her abusive up-bringing. It may not be worth re-socialising her, if there is the chance of her acting psychotically, maybe even harming others. Even if she is not psychotic; feral children are usually entirely unaware of the needs and desires and others. The notions of morals, property and possessions are unfamiliar to them, so they can’t understand other people.

She also may suffer the stress of learning how to do everyday activities such as; walking, chores, shopping etc. She might not ever be able to completely independent and if she is forced to be, she might end up harming herself.

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