Dead Wrong About Frank

Frank was an angry, violent 9-year-old on his way to becoming a sociopath. Jim Holland saw something else.

He was a well-built, 6-foot-tall social worker, and yet Jim Holland's arms ached from holding the flailing, angry 9-year-old boy. But he wasn't about to let go. "I'm here and won't let you hurt yourself," he said again and again while he tried to stop Frank Coutts from beating his own head on the floor.

Frank had spent more hours in the concrete confines of the isolation room at Edgewood Children's Center than he had outside them. The room, with its tile floor, bare mattress and observation window, resembled a prison cell. Violence-prone children were sent there. "They looked very normal on the surface," Jim says. "They would run and play and do their kid stuff. Strangers would pass and say, 'Oh, look at those cute children. Why are they here?' It was the rages and really difficult behaviors that we got to see. That's why they were there."

The first time Jim saw the boy, in the spring of 1997, Frank seemed like just another energetic, active child with a story Jim didn't know. His trained eyes could see what most didn't. "He was this kid with an intense and driven look," Jim says, "the look of someone who is really trying to keep moving and stay busy to keep from feeling." Even after a year at Edgewood, Frank's outbursts continued. Festering inside the little boy with full cheeks and chocolate eyes was red rage. Frank was his own angry volcano, frequently spewing a string of foul words and thrashing fists, demanding distance. The staff had numerous scars and bruises from their many dealings with him. One worker ended up at the hospital when Frank's small-balled fist delivered a powerful blow that fractured her cheek. "He was a very aggressive kid, one of those that we thought was a sociopath -- he seemed not to have a conscience," says Jim. "Some people there thought he would be the next Jeffrey Dahmer."

Jim Holland says Frank had "the look of someone who is really trying to keep moving and stay busy to keep from feeling."
Jennifer Silverberg
Jim Holland says Frank had "the look of someone who is really trying to keep moving and stay busy to keep from feeling."

Not Jim. In the many hours he spent with Frank in the isolation room, Jim held the boy tight until he calmed down. Later, when he went home, Jim thought about Frank, had nightmares in which the boy was trapped in a burning building and Jim was helpless to save him. "I couldn't stand that he hurt so much and that he had nobody else," Jim says. "I felt connected with this kid who couldn't be comforted. He would be in a rage, and all I could do was move my head back so I didn't get my teeth knocked out and just hold him. Eventually he would stop. He had a lot of sadness and grief, and he expressed it with rage. It just felt more powerful than being sad."

Neither Jim nor anyone else at Edgewood knew what had led to this.

"You wanted to take him out of the feeling because he didn't understand it," Jim says. "You knew something bad happened. You just didn't know what it was."

Whatever it was, Jim knew that Frank's family background might explain his violence. "I was always fascinated with how families work because my family didn't work very well," Jim says. "If my family was a business, it would have gone under."

Jim spent years trying to reckon the public face of his father the firefighter with the drunk he saw almost every night, trying to grasp how his mother, a registered nurse, could stay in the 25-year marriage. "He'd arrive home drunk in the evenings, and my mother or I would wake him up 30 minutes later and help him out of his truck," he says. "He'd often pass out during dinner and slump at the table. My mother, with pursed lips, would say, over and over, 'Wake up, get up.'" Jim did what he could to stop the drinking. He poured bourbon and beer down the sink. "Once, I checked out a library book on living with an alcoholic and left it on the dining-room table," Jim says. "I left it where my father was sure to see it.

"The family of my childhood organized itself around my father's alcoholism and my mother's depression," he continues. "There were good times, but the hard times are more deeply ingrained in my memory and more deeply felt." Outrunning his family dynamic, however, proved much harder than putting miles between him and his parents.

In 1996, at the age of 25, Jim realized that he carried in him both the best and worst of his parents: a desire to help others and a thirst for alcohol. While employed at Edgewood as a child-care worker, in the midst of getting his graduate degree in social work at Washington University, Jim found himself buckling under the stress. His drinking spiraled out of control. With the help of friends and co-workers, he checked himself into an outpatient dependency program at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. After successfully kicking the alcohol habit and realizing that a social-work career stretched out before him, Jim thought he had finally reached a peaceful place in his life.

Then he met Frank, and he felt unsettled all over again.

Frank Coutts was always on the move. The first child of a teenage mother, he was born in Florida, but by the time he turned 2, he had lived in three different states. When he was 3, his family settled into a trailer in Overland, but the oldest of Sheri Coutts' three children kept moving. Frank roamed the trailer park, eating Froot Loops off the ground and doing the best he could to care for his younger brothers, 2-year-old Alex and 7-month-old Stephen. His mother was neglectful, but her boyfriend was physically abusive, often hurting Frank. When a worker from the Missouri Division of Family Services arrived on April 24, 1991, she reported bruises and bite marks all over Frank's body, along with a fresh red handprint on his face. Alex was thin and dirty; his collarbone had been broken and was healing on its own. He was developmentally delayed. The baby, Stephen, had no injuries. All three boys were immediately removed from the home and placed in foster care. Alex, who had special needs, was placed in the home of Mark and Shelia Wheeler, experienced foster parents. Frank and Stephen went through two foster homes before being placed with Michael and Lisa Anderson (not their real names) in North St. Louis County. (By December 1993, the boys' mother had shown no signs of improving her life, and her parental rights were terminated.)

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