Sunday, January 13, 2008

Tragedy to the 5th Power

The photos show four cute girls, ages 5 to 17. Each is described in terms apropos to any beloved child and each had her life snuffed out by the woman who gave them life. The horrific details make for a lurid tail of psychosis and unthinkable violence. Family, friends and neighbors seem unable to comprehend how this tragedy could have unfolded without their knowledge. Oh, they suspected that the young mother was not herself after the death of her partner. He had provided not only food, shelter and clothing, but stability for a very fragile woman and her children. Her semblance of a functioning life ended when he died of cancer last year. At that moment, her mind shut down and she lost her tenuous grip on reality. Rather than mourning her loss and trying to move on, she sank into the deep recesses of her frail mind. This seems to be the only way to understand how she was able to live in a house with the decomposing bodies of her children for 8 months. We may never know what triggered her actions but the outcome is unforgettable. Meetings and hearings will try to determine where the system failed. There will be plenty of finger-pointing and head-shaking, but, in the end, the girls are gone and a community questions how it could have happened. Why didn't family and friends know what was going on? How did neighbors not notice that the girls were there one day and not the next? What did people think when the woman moved all her furniture into the back yard and left an expensive toy in the front yard for anyone who wanted to take it? Have we become a society of people who just don't want to or are afraid to get involved? Thanks to some human rights groups, persons with mental diseases were de-institutionalized years ago because it was their right to live as they wished. How humane is it to allow people to live on heating grates or park benches, wandering the streets, suffering from delusions that medications used to mitigate? We Americans have become so isolated and insulated from our fellow humans for fear of intruding on their rights or having to get personally involved. We park our children in day care, our elders in senior communities, and our mentally and physically challenged folk in special programs. It's a type of segregation that is as harmful to our society as racial segregation. I hope that this tragedy will stimulate thought on what it means to be a community member, not just a resident. Our population is diverse and somewhat transient. Perhaps those factors could be catalysts to make D.C. a different kind of community: one that embraces newcomers and takes care of its own.

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