Nasty, Brutish and Short


New York. -- Shayna Bryant's four siblings say that when her parents wanted to punish her they gave her a choice of a beating or going without food for two days.

After she was found dead on her fourth birthday on a Formica table in her family's Bronx apartment, an autopsy revealed that she had died of blunt impact wounds to her head and torso, which also showed signs of healed wounds. Her face and hands were scarred by cigarette burns. The four surviving children say the father often used his fists, the mother a shoe.

The children say Shayna received the fatal beating because she sipped water from the toilet. The police, called by the father, who claimed Shayna had an asthma attack, say there was no food in the apartment. The children say the parents would sit them in small chairs in the darkened hallway, sometimes overnight, their arms tied with cloth. Two of Shayna's siblings say the mother poured scalding water over her. Her sister Joy, 5, has just been released from the hospital where she was treated for a severely burned hand and beating injuries.

The parents have been indicted for murder.

Shayna died more than a month ago. Recently some Legal Aid Society lawyers gathered in their office opposite city hall to explain why the city knew so little about the children's passage of pain, until it was too late.

Because three of the children, including Shayna, tested positive for cocaine at birth, they were put in foster care for a while, a fact unknown to some of the city child abuse and neglect specialists who have had intermittent contact with the family since 1988. When in 1991 the father of all five -- at that time he had never lived with the mother -- won custody of the children, neither the judge nor anyone else involved in that decision knew he had served a prison term for drug and assault convictions. The abuse and neglect personnel who last had contact with the family, in December, did not even know how many children there were.

Part of the problem is a confidentiality system that compartmentalizes information and inhibits oversight, even by the city council. Part of the problem is normal bureaucratic creakiness. But most of the problem is the mismatch between the mounting social disintegration and the social-services personnel struggling to stem the tide.

There is mandated reporting by doctors and teachers of suspected child abuse and neglect, but non-mandated reporting, as by neighbors, is vital. Unfortunately, shouting parents and crying children often attract no attention because they are part of the standard soundtrack of life in many poor neighborhoods.

Abuse and neglect investigators, among whose ranks there is an understandably high turnover, are required to have only a college degree, in any subject, and a few weeks of training. Then they are sent out into often dangerous situations to make life and death decisions. They walk up to apartment doors where they are apt to encounter adults weaving about or otherwise manifesting drug use. To those adults, and to children, the investigators are supposed to ask pointed questions.

In 1984 the Legal Aid Society, a non-profit organization, handled 3,310 abuse and neglect cases in the city. By 1989 it was handling more than 24,000. What happened? Crack did, beginning in 1985. Sixty percent of abuse and neglect cases involve drug allegations.

The society's lawyers are almost nostalgic for the era when heroin was the drug of choice. Heroin, they say, does not always annihilate the feelings essential to mothering. Crack produces volatility, or stupor, that causes loss of emotional contact with children.

Babies testing positive for cocaine often are immediately put in foster care until the mothers undergo treatment. That can take 12 to 18 months, by which time the babies often have bonded with the foster mothers. Furthermore, children exposed to cocaine in the womb have behavior problems -- often they are volatile, even unable to make eye contact. They lack the attributes that cause parents to fall in love with children. So a fragile mother reacquires custody of a difficult child who is further disoriented by broken bonds.

This is a setting for child abuse. It also is a reason for parenting programs, where mothers learn what many mothers, especially very young ones, do not know, such as that when a child cries, the correct response is not anger acted out.

Small things, such as children, can fall through even small cracks, and the cracks in the abuse and neglect prevention system are not small. Caulking them requires resources of money and hope that are scarce and rapidly becoming scarcer relative to the growing need for them.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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