Can Bad Housekeeping Kill?

Cathy Arnst

Children do best with structure, we're always told--regular schedules, consistent rules. They also do better if they don't live in chaos, yet I'm sure there are times when every working parent feels that that's just what their home has turned into, clutter-wise. After all, house cleaning is one of the biggest challenges facing us, and we've all probably come to the conclusion at one point or another that a little mess never hurt anyone. But a lot of mess--well, that might be doing the kids some serious damage.

Consider the sad case of David Scruggs, who killed himself in 2002 at age 12. A year later, a Connecticut jury found the child's mother guilty of contributing to the suicide by keeping an extremely cluttered and dirty home. An appeals court overturned the verdict this week, ruling that many factors could have caused Daniel's suicide, including bullying the child was subjected to at school. But no one is denying that the house was a mess. Daniel frequently went to school dirty, and one of the police officers who responded to the reported suicide (he hung himself in a closet) testified at the mother's trial that the apartment was "extremely messy and dirty, very cluttered," with piles of debris and laundry and a foul odor. After the jury returned its guilty verdict, Scruggs' trial attorney asked the presiding judge to order an acquittal. The judge declined, saying "any layperson with common sense could conclude that the squalor and home living environment here created a risk to Daniel's emotional health."

I'm certain that the bullying was devastating, but the squalor he lived in certainly did not provide Daniel a safe haven. I have one friend that lives in something close to squalor, and I can see the affect on her young daughter. Only six, she is one of the most anxious and unhappy children I know. I've heard her refer to her apartment as "crappy" several times and she rarely invites friends over.

If you think your clutter is tipping over to chaos, there are plenty of resources you can call on. You might try a professional organizer, many of whom are trained to deal with the psychological factors that can lead to squalor (ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression, to name a few). The National Association of Professional Organizers can help you find one. Also check out the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization . It's website with a clutter/hoarding scale that might help you figure out how serious a problem you have. For some online sympathy, go to Squalor Survivors, a community of people trying to overcome their own problems with cleanliness. Read some of the stories, and you might feel better about your own home.

If you think you are one of the one million or so Americans whose inability to throw things could be considered hoarding (or if your parents qualify) click on Children of Hoarders , a web site whose name says it all. It contains lots of information and resources, including a national list of therapists specializing in hoarding. And if you think your own sloppiness doesn't affect the kids, read some of the personal stories on this site. They will break your heart.

Now, I realize most of us are just a little bit messy. If you want to get your home into better shape, order Apartment Therapy, an eight step quide to whipping your home into shape by NY designer Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan. Or at the very least check out his fabulous website,, one of the best home-oriented sites I've seen.

And now--I think I'll clean up my office!

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