By Kathi Bliss
As is my habit, I found myself cruising the national headlines on Sunday evening, just to keep up with what’s going on in the world. Most of the time, I find something to get fired up about. This week, I found something that made me physically ill. Literally.
This weekend in Marietta, Ga., a couple was arrested and charged with neglect, after investigators found two little ones and an elderly woman living in conditions of unimaginable filth – with black mold and trash, bugs and spiders, the youngest child in a urine-soaked diaper and the oldest child with head lice visible to the naked eye. The children and elderly woman were, of course, removed and taken into state custody, and the “offending couple” arrested and later released.
While the frame of the story is horrible enough, it gets worse. The younger child, the one found in a filthy diaper and nursing a bottle, was four. Her older sister, the one with the head lice, who weighed in the neighborhood of 160 pounds when they were taken into custody, was five.
How does this happen? Who lets this happen?
If a 5-year-old bulks up to the point that her weight is such that might make grown women swear off cake and make daily trips to the gym, someone had to notice. If kids live in a house laden with black mold and insects that make grown men cringe, it can’t be a surprise. Worse still, I saw at least one news report that had an interview with a neighbor who said something along the lines of, “it’s clear there was a problem over there.”
Okay. If it was clear, why didn’t you DO something?
Five year old children do not grow to 160 pounds overnight. Four year olds grow. But a 100-pound four-year-old had to get someone’s attention, before she gained that much weight. Vines grew up over the windows, and trash piled up in the yard, and I simply don’t buy that no one in the neighborhood saw it happening.
Being a big advocate of personal responsibility, I lay the blame for the children’s situation squarely where it belongs. The parents do not deserve to see their children, or the light of day, ever again.
But as much as a prison term is too good for these parents, neither should the neighbors – those that saw this happening to these two little girls and did nothing – be able to make eye contact in polite society again.
Yet, how often do we do this? How often do we see something we perceive as unacceptable happening, and do nothing? Have you ever heard the screaming and fighting next door, seen the bruises on the neighbor child’s arm, or on his mother’s face, and looked away, thinking your failure to give notice was somehow helping her save face?
In this life, we have to accept what we can’t change. That acceptance does not mean facing the unacceptable and doing nothing. Looking the other way makes us, in a way, an accomplice to things we know shouldn’t be happening.
Those neighbors, in Marietta, Ga., are accomplices. If they saw what was happening to those little girls, and kept their mouths shut so they didn’t have to get involved, they are responsible, too. They are as culpable for the neglect and abuse of those little girls as if they’d perpetrated it themselves – because they knew it was wrong, and opted not to lift a finger to stop it.
That goes for us, in little, bitty Lockhart, Texas, too. Bad things happen here, to those who are too small and too afraid to speak for themselves. If we see it happening, aren’t we obligated to say something? As much as we don’t want to make a report, as much as we don’t want to make it worse, isn’t it our responsibility – as neighbors – to do what we can to make it better?
Avoiding eye contact never made anything better. Pretending that nothing is happening helps to hold up the status quo. In the status quo, the abuser always wins.