On Jan. 2, 2002, seventh grader J. Daniel Scruggs was found hanging by a tie in his closet – dead by his own hand at the age of 12.
The small town of Meriden, Conn., was stunned by one of the youngest suicides in state history, especially when it became known that Daniel was the victim of relentless bullying.
But the story took an unexpected twist when the question of who is to blame moved from the schoolyard into Daniel’s own home, and then into a court of law.
And while there may be enough blame to spread around, there’s only one person being prosecuted, and it’s the person you’d least expect – the little boy’s mother. Judith Scruggs talks with Correspondent Vicki Mabrey in an exclusive interview.
From the outside, there is little remarkable about the house in Meriden, Conn., where 12 year-old Daniel Scruggs was growing up with his sister, Kara, and his mother, Judith, after they were left by his father when Daniel was 3 months old.
On a January afternoon last year, his mother stopped home between her two jobs.
“I went home. Checked the mail. Asked my daughter where her brother was. And so she went into his room and found him in the closet. He'd hung himself,” says Scruggs. “Best as we can figure, he killed himself around 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning. So he'd been hanging there all day.”
Scruggs says she hadn’t seen him that morning.
“I went to bed with two kids in the house. I got up with the assumption I still had two kids in the house,” says Scruggs, who went off to work that morning. “Unknowing that he was … he was hanging in the closet.”
Why would a little boy who’d just turned 12 take his own life? His mother says she knew her son was having trouble fitting in. He was tiny, weighing only 63 pounds, and although he was exceptionally smart with a high IQ, he had a learning disability.
“He was a typical 12 year-old. He was small for his age. He was into science and magic,” says Scruggs.
“People would push him off bleachers, put ‘kick me’ signs on his back, push him around and yell at him,” adds Melissa Smith, who went to Washington Middle School with Daniel.
Melissa says he was a lonely kid who was tormented at school. The other kids say he wore mismatched clothes, acted strangely and smelled like he rarely bathed. He was hit, kicked, spit on, laughed at, thrown down a flight of stairs, and sometimes made to eat his lunch off the cafeteria floor.
“Every day, every day, he was in school he was bullied," says Melissa. “Sometimes teachers would tell the bullies to stop, but other times, they would just dismiss it. They would act like nothing was going on.”
Daniel’s mother worked at the school as a teacher’s aide and says she complained. But she says she was shocked after his death when she found out how severe the bullying really was.
“He didn't wanna bathe. He tried to use this as an excuse not to go to school. ‘Well, I didn't take a shower. I can't go to school.’ I said, ‘Well, wash up.’ I'd say, ‘You're going to school,’" recalls Scruggs. “He was trying to save himself. And I-- and I didn't recognize it. I just didn't know.”
Scruggs blames the school for not protecting her son. And she’s not the only one. Jeanne Milstein, the child advocate appointed by the governor to make sure the child protection system is working, launched an investigation after Daniel’s death.
“The school never acknowledged that he was being bullied. They never held the ‘bullies’ accountable. They never got this child the kind of help and support that he needed,” says Milstein. “Teachers knew it. Guidance counselors knew it. Nurses knew it.”
By seventh grade, his mother could hardly get him to go to school at all. The case was turned over to a caseworker from the Department of Children and Families, whose responsibility it is by law to step in when parents can't deal with their children. The caseworker suggested that Daniel change schools, but, according to Milstein, failed to see how serious the case was.
“If a child, an 11-year-old child, comes to school with mismatched clothes, if he smells, if he's not doing well in school, if he's soiling himself, if he's acting hopeless and helpless, these are all signs of suicidal risk,” says Milstein. “They missed all of the signs. The child protection system missed the signs.”
The case was closed six days before Daniel’s death. By then, Daniel had missed or was late 73 out of 78 days. A truant officer had gotten involved when he’d been absent only 11 times, but failed to follow up. Neither the school, which disputes Milstein’s findings, nor the Department of Children and Families, would talk with 60 Minutes II about Daniel Scruggs.
Who does Scruggs blame for Daniel’s death? “The bullies,” she says. “And the non-action of the school.”
Scruggs planned to sue the school and contacted a lawyer. Then, four months after Daniel died, she was called down to the police department. She assumed they were going to tell her what they’d uncovered about her son’s suicide. Instead, they took her fingerprints and her mug shot.
“They were putting me under arrest. I said, ‘You're telling me that you're arresting me for my son's death,’” says Scruggs, who claims she had no idea that she was going to be charged criminally after her son’s suicide.
She was eventually charged with three counts of risk of injury to a minor and one count of cruelty to persons - offenses ranging from an unhealthy home environment to not getting Daniel the proper medical or psychological care he needed.
“This wasn’t a case about Daniel’s death. This was a case about Daniel’s life,” says Det. Gary Brandl, the lead investigator on the case. He says Scruggs was charged for conditions leading up to Daniel’s death. He was one of the first on the scene on Jan. 2.
“It was a cute little house for that area of town, and appeared to be well kept and well cared for. However, when we opened the door, my opinion changed 180 degrees,” says Brandl.
What shocked Detective Brandl, as he wrote in the arrest warrant, were conditions that he described as “appalling and unsafe.” And there was also the odor.
“To best describe it would be as if you stuck your head in a dirty clothes hamper and include like fermented garbage on top of that,” says Brandl.
He says a cramped path about two feet wide was the only way to get through the house, and that it was buttressed by towering piles of debris, clothing, junk and other clutter: “There were items of clothing and bedding and Christmas presents and mirrors and glass items that were buried under heaps of clothing. In some areas, it was as high, if not higher, than the actual bed itself.”
And then there was the closet where the little boy played, where he slept and where he died. This is where detective Brandl found four kitchen knives and a homemade spear.
Scruggs says she knew about only one knife: “I was slightly concerned, but he was afraid because there had been break-ins in the neighborhood.”
Does she think she should have paid more attention to Daniel and the knives?
“No. No, I felt if he kept it between his mattress and his box spring, it would give him security, then it was all right,” says Scruggs, who admits she didn’t know about the homemade spear or the other three knives.
So exactly what does the Scruggs house look like? Three weeks ago, she showed 60 Minutes II where she and her 19-year-old daughter, Kara, still live.
Almost two years after Daniel’s death, although the house has been cleaned up, every surface is still covered with dishes, boxes and other odds and ends.
“It’s cluttered,” says Scruggs. “I admit I’m not the world’s best housekeeper.”
But police say it was a lot more than that. They wondered why Daniel wasn't getting any psychological help. Ironically, his mother had called to arrange counseling the day of his death, but the school told Det. Brandl they'd recommended she get him help nine months earlier.
“She never picked up the phone,” says Brandl. “She told me initially that she tried to make contact with this agency. And so I asked her, ‘What do you mean you tried? Did you call?’ And it went from, ‘I tried calling’ to ‘I was gonna call’ to ‘I thought about calling’ and finally it was, ‘I never called.’”
“I told him I called earlier because I tried to convince Daniel that, you know, go to counseling. He said he wouldn't. And I just, I didn't feel he needed counseling,” says Scruggs. “He needed to get away from the bullying. And once he got away from the bullying, then I would ascertain whether he needed counseling or not.”
Scruggs says she realized that Daniel wasn’t bathing, but she says that he was wearing clean clothes when he went to school: “I figured it was rebellion. People say, ‘Why didn’t you make him wash.’ He’s 12 years old. I’m not going to stand over a 12 year-old, make sure he gets in the tub. He’s not 2 or 3.”
Reese Norris, Judith Scruggs attorney, says parenting is subjective – not a black-and-white issue to be determined by a court of law.
“She's not the Mother of the Year. She's not the perfect mother. She's not the perfect housekeeper. But she's not a criminal,” says Norris.
“This is about taking a situation where a child has taken his life and then looking at the parent in hindsight and saying you should have done more. If you're going to look at a parent and say, ‘Well, listen, I wouldn't deal with it the way you did. And therefore, you're a criminal,’ is this the forum, the criminal courts, where we resolve those types of issues? I don't think it is.”
Scruggs went on trial last month. It was one of the first times a parent has been charged in connection with a child’s suicide. On Oct. 6, after deliberating for three days, the jury found her guilty on one count – risk of injury to a minor for an unhealthy home environment.
60 Minutes II spoke with four of the six jurors, who say there was one piece of evidence that led them all to convict.
“This case was whether or not this child was put in a situation where he could harm himself. And I think what our decision was based on was the fact that he slept surrounded by kitchen knives," says juror Paul Kirschmann of Meriden, Conn.
What's the message that the prosecution and the jury tried to send?
“The prosecution tried to send a message to the people that this is a bad mother. This is a cruel mother. This is a mother who has no care about her children,” says Scruggs. “Walk a mile in my shoes.”
The jurors say counseling would do Judith Scruggs more good than time in prison, but she's facing up to 10 years behind bars when a judge sentences her in December.
Daniel's short, unhappy life has led to a new law in Connecticut that requires schools to report bullying to authorities. But for all the people who knew about Daniel's problems -- from his school to the child protection agency to the juvenile courts to his own mother -- no one intervened.
“I think we all failed him at some point,” says Scruggs.