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Thursday, May 26, 2011
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I see that my office has another gruesome murder / child abuse case on its hands. I’m just a support worker who doesn’t get involved in the day-to-day investigations and prosecution work, and so I don’t take much notice of the average shooting death anymore. After ten years on the job, they all start blending together. (Yes, I know that if something happened to me or someone I care about, it would NOT be just another violent crime; I realize that there are real people involved in these cases, and I apologize for being so jaded to their suffering).

However, when I saw the press releases regarding what happened last week to 8 year old Christiana Glenn from Irvington, I knew that we had a VERY bad one. The child stopped breathing and someone called the police. EMS medics found the child dead at the scene. An autospy later found that she had a broken femur bone that was never treated, and was severly undernourished. Her mother, Venette Ovilde, along with the woman she shared the apartment with, were soon arrested and charged; the mother with murder, the apartment mate with endangering the welfare of a child.

Unfortunately, this brings back memories of another child who died in Irvington not so long ago because of intentional family neglect. That was 7-year old Faheem Williams, found dead and hidden in the household of his mother’s cousin in 2003. The details of that case are complex and differ in many respects from the Christiana Glenn case. But in both instances, able-bodied adults in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s who live in declining low-income urban neighborhoods treated children with extreme cruelty and disregard. Two cases in eight years do not make a trend, but I can safely say that children living in low-income urban neighborhoods today are subject to more family abuse and disregard than occurs in higher-income areas (the 2009 average rate of child abuse/neglect investigations per 1000 children for New Jersey’s top 5 median income counties was 28; for the bottom 5, the average rate was 67, per info on the acnj.org web site).

Our State child welfare agency, the Division of Youth and Family Services, is staffed with many good and caring people, from what I can tell from my career experiences (grantwriting and grant administration). Unfortunately for both Faheem Williams and Christiana Glenn, DYFS had initial warnings of caregiver problems and responded, but weren’t able to substantiate neglect or abuse and thus took no action. I personally don’t blame DYFS; they have a huge population to cover and are hardly given adequate resources to accomplish a very tricky and tough job. That there weren’t more Faheem and Christiana cases can probably be attributed to them. From what I can tell, however, gruesome child murder cases are not unique to Essex County; there are plenty of crime stories on the news these days about filicide occurring throughout the country.

The ways that children are raised are heavily influenced by social trends and currents. The human race, like almost all other living species, is hard-wired by nature to take care of its children. However, we are much more complex than most living species, and sometimes our natural priorities are twisted and distorted by our theories and schemes and social “memes”. These ideas gain social momentum through various circumstances and coincidences, and then go on to shape our behavior. Many times these popular ideas seem rather peculiar to an outsider, or when looked back upon after many years (e.g., Lady Gaga and Wayne Newton, respectively).

Apparently, certain “social memes” that disfavor child welfare are in circulation amidst our poorer groups; i.e., it’s OK to put the child’s needs in context against one’s own problems and frustrations. It’s not so bad to think that if I’m going nowhere, my kids are in the same boat (i.e., no redeeming hope for the next generation). The Amy Chu “Tiger Moms” are miles away, in the affluent suburbs. OK, there are many exceptions to this theory; but clearly it’s tough growing up in the inner-city, and getting tougher and tougher.

Was it always like that? I don’t have the facts and figures to say for sure, but I can’t help but wonder if growing up in poverty, at least here in America, is more dangerous than it once was. I have heard many stories about people growing up in the 1930s when there was a lot of poverty, and they usually paint a rosy picture of family cohesion in the face of adversity. I suspect that this picture is a bit too rosy. But one of these stories came from my mother, and in that case it was probably true; the duty to put childrens’ interests above all else was clearly a major theme amidst my ancestors.

Poverty doesn’t necessarily equate with social breakdown; but poverty in the middle of affluence is tough on the soul. It’s tougher still in an era of cheap electronic devices providing sounds and images where ever you go, songs and advertisements and movies celebrating the rich and powerful. I honestly believe that a real psychological burden is placed on the poor in America, a burden that may not exist in impoverished nations such as Somalia and the Congo (well, not to the same degree, anyway; somehow, stories and images of western affluence make their way today into even the most remote villages). No, it wasn’t “bling-envy” encouraged by techno-media that killed Faheem Williams or Christiana Glenn. But what could have saved them, the hope that our children will do better than we did because of our sacrifices, seems to be in short supply these days.

P.S. — not just in the ghetto. The national political scene seems increasingly paralyzed in the face of multiple problems that clearly threaten the well-being of future generations. E.g., mounting debt, global warming, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, resource shortages, wealth imbalances, etc. The Democrats and Republican parties are more skilled than ever in winning elections, taking full advantage of modern communications technology. But as a result, they have lost all interest in reaching compromise solutions that could avoid the worst of this (but cost us some comforts today). If the poor are neglecting their children while focusing too much on their own lives, they certainly aren’t being given a noble counter-example by our leaders.

The digital revolution was supposed to foster a “global village” according to its proponents; and yet, it seems as though we are being shattered into tinier and tinier worlds, fostering an “every man and woman for him or herself” ethos. Again, it wasn’t ethos that killed two children in Irvington, nor in Newburg NY (Lashana Armstrong case, van driven into river) nor in Houston (Andrea Yates, bathtub drownings), etc. But as Hillary C. said, it takes a village to raise and protect a child. Without the right ethos, there can be no village at all.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:34 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, It certainly seems that an entire generation of children has literally been killed off in the last few years. Random shootings on the street, “cases” such as Christiana’s, and other horrific situations seem to be taken for granted. There is no respect for life, and it is certainly cheap.

    Your tho’ts on the “why” of this terrible breakdown in our society reminds me of the movie “Precious”. (That’s a shortened name; the actual name is longer, but I don’t remember it immediately.) This movie starred Mo’Nique and Gabourey Sidike (sp?). A quick review of the movie: It is the story of a child who is terribly misused and abused by her mother and allowed by her mother to be sexually abused by the mother’s boyfriend/husband/love. (Can’t remember exactly which he was.)

    One significant point in the movie I think gives an “answer” to the “why” of such horrific situations in the raising of children among the last few generations. The child (played by Gabourey) breaks away from her situation when she herself has a child. The mother (played by Mo’Nique) explains “why” she allowed her child named Precious to be sexually abused by the mother’s lover. The mother says (I paraphrase) if I didn’t let him sexually abuse Precious, he wouldn’t love me; and I’d be alone and have no one to love me.

    It seemed clear to me that the difference between the mother and her child Precious was that Precious “escaped” from the conditions under which she was forced to live; the mother had not escaped and did not escape from those conditions. “Not escaping” made all the difference.

    It turns out the horrific situation of the child Precious developed because of the Mother’s perverted (what other word can one use?) search for love for herself. The mother herself had never been loved, didn’t know what was real love, and thus allowed her child to be misused in her skewed/distorted search for love for herself.

    In addition to the above I think so many people who are seriously poor live only in a survival mode; it comes as a kind of shock to them to realize that there may be other ways to live than simple survival.

    Then too, all of this is not helped by the consumer approach to life today. Recently, I’ve become painfully aware of how all pervasive ads are in our life. A simple thing like checking in on almost any website (yours one of the few that does not suffer from this problem), watching a TV program, no matter how “educational”, driving to the store, fill in the activity of one’s life and it results in one being bombarded by ads–almost like an infestation of flies that one has to keep swatting away from one’s consciousness. That ever pervasive mode of being in the presence of “buy this” or “buy that” does not help people in their search for anything beyond survival mode, to say nothing of a search for someone who will genuinely care and love them for who they are as they are.

    Can’t say I have any solutions, just observations as above. The only solution I can think of is to make one’s own small contribution by refusing to live the kind of life our society would have us live. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — May 27, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

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