Where Were the Neighbors?

We Americans like to think of ourselves as individuals to the max, making our own way for better or worse in the world. Yet, as I think about the tragedy of 4-year-old’s Eric Dean’s death, reported Sept 2, 2014 in the StarTribune, I find myself asking, “Where were the neighbors?”

Eric’s childcare workers brought frequent reports of the child’s abuse to the Pope County’s Child Protection services. Yet, little was done. The boy was bitten by his father’s girlfriend, bitten many times, as well as punched, bruised, thrown down stairs which led to his arm being broken. And finally he was inflicted with sufficient bodily harm to lead to gastro-intestinal death. No wonder his former childcare workers feel guilty.

Yet, why didn’t they go to the police. Were none of the neighbors suspicious of the boy’s trauma? Was his house so isolated that no one except his childcare workers saw much of him? As I mull the difference between city and rural life, I’m aware of events in my St. Paul Lex-Ham neighborhood that took place about ten years ago.

The “incident” involved a very friendly, full-bred Siamese kitten named Bandit. Anyone walking past Bandit’s house, as I often did, would find him coming to be patted. He seemed to have a limp. A month later he began walking the neighborhood meowing for food. When he came up on our porch and yowled, I fed him and he purred a thank-you.

Word about Bandit began to circulate–his friendliness, his limp, his desire for food, his being outside in all weathers. A neighbor closer to Bandit’s house reported that his owners were keeping him as a “stud.” They wanted him inside only when it was time to impregnate their female Siamese.

His limp got worse. He looked thinner and thinner. I along with a few others knocked on the owners’ door and told the surly man who answered that we were concerned about the cat. “I’ll be happy to adopt him if you don’t want him,” I said through the screen and gave him my name.

The owner threatened to call the police if Bandit went missing, and slammed the door in our faces. The next afternoon a very polite Saint Paul policeman rang our bell. We stood talking on the porch for a few minutes. The gist of his message was that the owner had called, threatening to do damage to anyone who showed any interest in Bandit. The policeman urged me to stay away from Bandit. He also said he’d told the owner it was his job to feed the cat, and keep it indoors if he didn’t want it wandering the neighborhood.

A cat is not a child. Yet we often treat our pets the way we treat our children. Some are pampered and indulged. Some deprived like Eric of a most basic human rights–safety. Bandit might not have been older than a four-year-old boy, but he knew how to survive up to a point. Within a month, however, we heard that his owner had run over him, whether on purpose or not, we never knew. Some of us were very sad for Bandit.

Six years later when Bandit’s home burned, his surly owner died of smoke inhalation. Few of us grieved. But we were shaken. The fire seemed like retribution far beyond the misdemeanor of neglecting or abusing a pet.

If Bandit had been a child, I like to tell myself, our neighborhood attempt to help him might have made a difference. It certainly eased my distress over Bandit’s neglect, and gave us the support of like-minded neighbors and a kind, sensible city policeman.

I wish the same had been true for Eric’s childcare workers who tried so hard to protect him but were stymied by the family’s stone-walling, by limits on Child Protection follow-ups, by fear that going to the police might lose them their jobs. Some things, like limits on the number of abuse reports kept active, will change, so Minnesota officials promise, but no change will bring back a badly and repeatedly damaged child. I wish there had been neighbors to sound the alarm. I wish someone had called the police.

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