RECENT news reports have been filled with accounts of the abuse and murder of 9-year-old Rita Fisher of Pikesville. Rita's unsmiling, swollen face stared out at us from newspapers and television screens, evoking horror and outrage that a child in our midst could be so maltreated. How could it happen was the echoing question. Give them the death penalty, was what people said after Rita's mother, sister and sister's boyfriend were convicted of Rita's murder.
I have other questions, equally disturbing and difficult. My questions hold a mirror up to us all: Would our horror and outrage be as great if Rita Fisher had not been white and lived in the suburbs? Would there have been as much media attention for a black child from Baltimore?
A chilling account
I recently read "Homicide, A Year on the Killing Streets," by David Simon, the book that inspired the television series. Near the end of the book, there's a passage about another child murder so chilling I had to read it in stages. When the mother is told that her boyfriend has beaten her baby to death, she says, "I don't think he'd do that. He loves Michael." The 2-year-old had bled internally from a brutal act by the mother's boyfriend that's too gruesome to describe here. The boyfriend, after killing the child, dressed the body and took it to a hospital emergency room, claiming the child had fallen in the bathtub.
As the homicide detective assigned to the case rides back to headquarters, he struggles to deal with the horror perpetrated on the child. In his effort to steel himself and thrust aside the graphic image he has just seen on the autopsy table, he thinks, "It ain't my kid. It ain't where I live. It ain't nothing to me." The passage goes on to describe the detective's urge to punish the suspect when he is arrested. After all, nobody would stop him or report the matter because everyone else at the station house is equally outraged, but he restrains himself as he proceeds to conduct the business of a homicide investigation.
As the pages of "Homicide" tell, children are severely beaten and abused in our city daily, and some of them die. And my questions keep coming. Is it because they are African-American and "live down in that neighborhood" that we don't see the kind of public clamor as we did with Rita Fisher? Is it because we don't find out about other children who are abused? Is it because we just don't want to know? Is it because of our own ignorance that we really do not know how prevalent violence against children is? Is it because we expect that to happen more to "those kinds of people" than ones who live next door to us?
Aren't all children worthy of our protection and love? Shouldn't we be outraged and concerned for the kind of abuse that is happening to the children of our cities just as we were for Rita Fisher? What restrains us from an outpouring of raw emotion when it involves children who don't live in our neighborhoods, who don't look like us?
Maybe it's because in all of us there is the same sentiment that the detective experienced as he tried not to think about the horror of still another murdered child. Maybe inside us there is a voice that says, "It ain't my kid. It ain't where I live. It ain't nothing to me."
I don't have any answers to my questions. But until we keep asking them over and over there won't be many answers -- just more children in danger.
A collective outrage
We need to find answers. We need to feel that collective outrage every time this kind of tragedy happens to a child. All of us -- parents, friends, family members, neighbors, teachers, social JTC workers, doctors, police officers and the media -- must accept responsibility for children who are abused. We all need to be someone who will watch over the children -- all children.
Anne Werps is a Baltimore County school teacher.
Pub Date: 5/13/98