In late February, Rosie Costello, a mother from Vancouver, Wash., pleaded guilty to Social Security fraud and conspiring to defraud the government. Her crime? For 20 years, Costello had been forcing her two healthy children to fake mental retardation to collect disability benefits.
Parents such as Costello, who criminally exploit their children for money, may be responsible for more juvenile lawbreaking than our society currently recognizes, according to experts such as forensic psychologist Kathryn Seifert of Eastern Shore Psychological Services in Maryland, who has been studying youth delinquency for 30 years.
“Children don’t just wake up one day and say ‘I want to be a thief when I grow up,’” Seifert says. “It is, at least in part, learned behavior.” Of the delinquent youths Seifert works with in her clinic, 62 percent have parents who are either antisocial, mentally ill or substance abusers.
Some of these kids could simply be imitating their parents’ behavior, says David Brandt, a psychologist at the City University of New York. Seifert, however, maintains that some parents do purposely teach their kids criminal behavior—such as shoplifting or prostitution—for their own financial gain. “I’ve certainly had a number of them in my practice,” she says.
According to Seifert, the first steps in stopping such abuse are raising awareness about it and identifying exploited children early on. If these kids can be helped when they are still young, they can be prevented from developing long-term problems that could lead them to abuse their own children in the same way, she notes.