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A Child's Tragedy Is a Grown-Up's Failure


A 6-year-old Richmond boy is charged with attempted murder in connection with a brutal attack on a tiny baby. Even before the nausea subsides, we wonder: What kind of parents raise such a child?

A 7-year-old Pescadero girl is killed when the apparently overloaded plane she is "flying" goes down in a Rocky Mountain storm. Again: What kind of parent puts a child in such a position?

The newspapers and airwaves are full of advice and ire on the topic of good parenting versus bad, proper versus improper ways to guide the children whose paths we are charged with lighting.

On a recent cover, Time magazine asked: "Who Killed Jessica?" The answer inherent in the very phrasing of the question: Grown-ups did.

Last week, Times reporters searched for clues in the home and neighborhood of the 6-year-old and discovered what many might have guessed: an absent father, a mother with great struggles of her own, and a grandmother with a drug conviction who, according to neighbors, sometimes lost track of the boy when she was supposed to be looking after him.

Who caused this tragedy? The answer is implicit: Grown-ups did.

What is undeniably clear, as the dust settles on Jessica's story and just begins to fly in the Richmond case, is that you can destroy a child just as surely by manipulation as by disregard.

Too much direction can be as deadly as too little.


Maybe a common thread in these stories of unraveled and unraveling lives is indifference on the part of parents toward their children, a subordination of children's needs to parent's desires or shortcomings. Perhaps these tragedies are the result of parental intentions run amok in a world that often doesn't consider it its business to intervene.

The care parents give can be thought of as something that occurs along a continuum--with abuse and neglect on one end, and over-identification with the child's accomplishments and cruel demands on the other. At both extremes, you end up with a parent who comes first and kids dead last in the great derby of emotional fulfillment.

In some cases, the tragedies make a kind of crazy sense--single parents, struggling in or close to poverty, operating in a society that gives little and expects much.

In others--such as the pilot pushed too far, or the young tennis star who ends up strung out and burned out before her 18th birthday--the tragedies are self-imposed; they make no sense at all.

We see both phenomena time and again--juvenile courts burst with examples of the first; therapist's offices (and courts, too) with the second.

And either way, the children who end up in the heartbreaking headlines have been victimized by people who were supposed to have their best interests at heart.


Naturally, everyone has theories about how and why these things happen.

One public defender theorized that the Richmond tragedy was a result of a "toxic society." Children, she seemed to say, are the canaries in the American mine shaft. The nastier it gets out there--the drugs, the violence, the lack of community cohesion--the earlier kids will feel the toxins, absorb them and be destroyed by them.

And much has been said in the last month about the kind of values we encourage when we cheer a small child to her death without raising questions about why the adults in her life are driving her to perform a task with risks she can't possibly fully grasp.

But all of it, every single bit of it, comes down to adults failing in their obligations to children.

On Tuesday, The Times reported that a group of Los Angeles neighbors finally called in authorities after repeatedly warning a mother to stop neglecting her three small children. When the police arrived, they discovered the children covered with lice, drenched in urine, smeared with feces. The mother, four months pregnant, has been charged with child endangerment.

Who cared enough to step in?

How sweet to give an answer we ought to be able to give more often: Grown-ups did.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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