Neighborhood Round-up: On a Scale of 1-10

It’s a beautiful morning in this small part of the Upper Midwest–skies “couple-colored as a brindled cow,” to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins. Brisk breezes counteract humidity. Sun dazzle makes a row of poplars wink and glow. Within a tall stand of golden glow, taller than I am, wrens and goldfinch rasp and tweet. Raising babies.

It’s hard to hold onto horror on such a lovely morning. Yet here it is. The horror of a young mother’s death, the agony of a young child’s slow torture and final murder. One of these is rather personal. The other not.

The personal is occurring just beyond my three-generation family circle. The daughter-in-law of friends has 4th stage breast cancer. She’s no more than 41 or 42. Tomorrow her parents will leave for London to visit her one last time, and help the husband, their older son, manage two grandchildren aged 2 and 4. Do we call and speak our shock and grief to the parents who used to be better friends, possibly because for several years as this young woman’s breast cancer spread, and she suffered through surgeries and chemo-therapy, our friends were distracted by grief, anxiety, and fear. And by frequent visits to her and her family.

Their grief and the young woman’s impending death seem particularly frightening to me this morning because I just spent a happy afternoon with my own daughter, about this young mother’s age. It’s a vulnerable time, late 30s, early 40s. Many come into their own, earn more, expand families. Others can be struck numb by loss, disappointment, error. It can be a time of reassessment, of taking stricter account of oneself. Of shedding destructive habits. Of making big moves. I shucked a destructive relationship and moved with my daughter into a little house with an eyebrow window. The alcohol abuse which had precipitated the break-up was curable. I was lucky. There was Al-Anon.

The other horror amid the glow of this late morning arrived via the Sunday StarTribune as a long report about a 3-year-boy whose child-care workers repeatedly reported bruises, face bites, and toward the end, a tell-tale broken arm to Minnesota’s Pope County child protection agency. Tell-tale break because when adults physically abuse young children by twisting their arms or legs, the bones break in recognizable patterns. The County did nothing. Over and over, when these reports arrived, child protection workers did nothing. Or the one time they questioned the step-mother, and she denied or prevaricated, that was that. Now she is going to jail for life.

Beyond the obvious facts, what went so horribly wrong here? Over and over as I walked through this morning’s beauty, the naked refusal of those employed in Pope County to protect, search, question, build a case, who “Did Nothing” made a tattoo of disgust and shock to the time of my footsteps. Why did they routinely do nothing? Why did the child care workers who saw the boy hurt over and over and took the time to report this, why did they not go to the police? Would the local police have done better? What would it have taken to rouse these officials into action? What kept them so criminally unresponsive?

I could make a case for neighborhood, and small-town connivance in shielding perpetrators through fear of “rocking the boat…we have to live with these people…who’s to say these child-care people know what they’re talking about?”

Yet small-town connivance was broken when the women who took care of the boy reported his bites and bruises, and finally his broken leg. Imagine a step-mother biting the face of a three-year-old. Biting his face. It makes me shudder. Poor thing, poor neglected, hurt small creature. His father evidently shielding the brutal step-mother, the child-care workers not sufficiently empowered to go to the law. And this woman rampaging over the body of a pliant boy of three.

I say Pope County needs to clean out its compliant abettors. Replace them with stern, determined experts who care nothing for community pride and connivance. Who care for innocent children. Who are determined to get to the bottom of reported abuse. Who do something until the doer of such crimes is behind bars and the hurt child, instead of being dear, might have a chance to recover.

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