David Benson-Bobby Benson Center
A Troubled Life
A new drug treatment center is dedicated to saving youngsters from the fate of its namesake
March 19, 1991
Six months ago, the Bobby Benson Center, a residential drug treatment center for adolescents opened on 13 acres in Kahuku on Oahu's North Shore. The center is named for 15-year-old Bobby Benson, who died in 1984 after a short life troubled by drug abuse and brushes with crime. Bobby's father, Honolulu Police Maj. David Benson, spent four years working to make the center a reality so that others would get the help that his son did not. This is the story of one family's pain.
Bobby Benson's story begins long before he tried his first illegal drug. It begins in preschool. He was restless, aggressive and unable to learn. The preschool bounced him.
It was the first failure and set a pattern for the rest of his life, says his mother, Brenda, a school nurse who herself often works with problem youngsters. (For personal reasons, Brenda, who is divorced from Bobby's father, asks that her new surname not be used, and the school where she works not be identified.)
Testing in first or second grade showed that Bobby had a learning disability, was hyperactive, and had an attention deficit disorder. But even after that diagnosis, Bobby's school experiences were rarely successful.
"These children need to be in small groups," said his mother. "When he went to private school (in first and second grade) they nurtured his self-esteem and he got onto Ritalin (a drug for hyperactivity) and I was real hopeful. But he couldn't keep up with the work."
The Bensons moved him back to public school where he ended up in special education classrooms grouped with emotionally handicapped and retarded children, said his mother.
About the same time—Bobby was eight or nine—his parents filed for divorce.
"He was a sensitive child," said his mother. "The combination of the two was too much."
"He got beat up every day (at school). He had low self-esteem. It was like nothing was working in his life. When you're going through a divorce, you don't always meet the emotional needs of your children."
A family torn
Bobby and his younger brother Michael stayed with their mother. Weekly visits with their dad were arranged, but as time went on and other demands took over, the visits became more irregular. The children's friends began changing.
"You could start to see Bobby spending time with friends and not so much time at home," remembers his father, Maj. David Benson, head of the Juvenile Crime Prevention Division of the Honolulu Police Department. "You start to see him moving from this one group to the other. They'd leave the house and not come home."
Even though the Bensons both work with troubled children in their careers, they were stunned when they discovered their 13-year old son was using marijuana.
"I knew how to arrest people, how to seize drugs," said Maj. Benson. "But I didn't know what to do with a kid in my own family."
Neither parent had attributed the changes they were seeing—staying away from home with new friends, sullen behavior, and withdrawal from old routines—to drug use.
"A lot of it is misconstrued as adolescence, spreading their wings," said Maj. Benson. "But if I had known what I know now about drugs, I would have know he was dabbling in marijuana."
On the heels of Bobby's drug use came another shock: the boy had stolen from a neighbor. Bobby's parents decided to make it a police matter. In retrospect, they think they made a mistake.
"I thought the consequence would make him stop, but it didn't work out that way," said his mother. "The desire to have the drug must have been more powerful than the fear."
Now Bobby had a police record.
The Bensons tried private counseling, even sent Bobby to a psychiatric hospital for a few weeks. But they felt they were flailing about in the dark, as Bobby reacted with hostility and sullen anger.
"He wasn't the kind of teen-ager who would yell and bang doors," said his mother. "He'd listen but then he'd go and do what he wanted to."
Trouble escalated. Bobby got into fights in intermediate school, didn't complete his school work, was suspended, then expelled. At the same time, he was arrested at least twice for burglary, and at 14 for attempted murder after a high-speed chase with a motorcycle officer.
The officer fell off his bike and sustained minor injuries when the car in which Bobby was riding with a friend collided with the bike, said Benson's father. Bobby maintained he wasn't driving, said his father, but the police report disagreed.
Bobby spent several weeks in Koolau Boys' Home, only to have the charge dismissed with prejudice. His crime history led a Family Court judge to prepare papers that would have sent the boy to Koolau until he was 18.
But the judge didn't serve those papers, said Maj. Benson, warning Bobby instead that he'd give him one more chance.
Bobby typically had a tender heart for underdogs. "He felt for other people," said his mother.
That was especially true about the emotionally handicapped and retarded children in his classes at school. "He was really kind to them," she said.
The memories of that other, gentler Bobby hidden under the problems, are the ones his parents still treasure. Dave Benson remembers the quick-witted kid who once insisted on cooking what he called a "gourmet" dinner.
"It was Hamburger Helper," his dad recalled with a chuckle.
To Wilbert Holck, a teacher and counselor at the Alternative Learning Center where Bobby Benson was attending classes during the last months of his life, the boy appeared to be trying to put his life back together.
"He was actually doing really well," said Holck. "He was improving. He told us he was trying to clean up and do better and go back to the main campus."
"I heard he was into drugs, into ripping off homes," said Holck, who has since left teaching, "but when I met him he didn't seem like that kind of kid. He seemed like a real nice kid."
That's why his death from a gunshot wound to the head, classified suicide by police, came as a shock.
Even today, seven years after Bobby's death at age 15, his mother believes it was an accident, not suicide. Her son had a fascination with guns, she said. She learned later, from some of his friends, that he like to play with a gun he had apparently stolen. He'd put it to his head, or a friend's, and pull the trigger.
But his father believes it was suicide. The night before his death, Bobby told friends "'I'm not going to see you guys anymore,'" said his father. When they asked him why, he said, "You'll find out," said Maj. Benson.
He tries not to dwell on these memories because they are so painful, but he knows there were times he let his kids down. He still remembers how many times he was too tired to go out and shoot baskets with Bobby and his younger brother Michael—who would himself toy with drugs and die young in an auto accident; how he'd sit with a beer and watch TV instead.
"We're our own worst enemies," he says now. "What needs to be done—and I didn't do it—is pay attention to your kids, he said. "Sit down and have dinner with them. Listen to what's in their heads."
"More than that, set good examples, follow rules. Make sure your values are very clear. If we have double standards, what's the message we're giving our kids? If your life is in a shambles, how do you expect your kids' not to be?"
"There's no magic a parent must do to make sure a kid doesn't get into drugs, but there's a way to stack the odds. You pay attention."
In the four years he spent raising money for the Bobby Benson Center, Maj. Benson has often spoken to community groups. Sometimes, listeners ask how he dare give advice. "Your whole family was screwed up," one man said. "How can you talk to us?" Others have accused him of self-aggrandizement.
But Benson has persisted, saying he hopes Bobby's story will help save others.
"I try to tell them it's not impossible to quit drugs, to quit drinking, to turn your life around," he says. "I tell people don't cry about it, do something about it."