When four sisters were discovered dead in a Southeast Washington, D.C., rowhouse on January 9, the community and city were shocked. According to newspaper reports, the girls’ bodies had been decomposing for many weeks before their discovery. Compounding the tragedy is the fact that for the better part of a year, numerous agencies in the District of Columbia were aware of disturbing signs that the children were in danger. But no one was successful in reaching out to the children or their mother to prevent this appalling calamity. The girls’ mother, Banita Jacks, 33, has been charged in their murders.
This case is a loud alarm bell for all of us and serves as a reminder that in cities and smaller communities across the nation, there are children, sometimes just next door, who need our help. Neighbors suspecting something was wrong could have been more aggressive in inquiring about their well-being. Several local agencies failed to persist to get help and follow up on what was happening to the children.
Sadly this case is not unique. Many thousands of children have died or been grievously abused or neglected in communities in every region of our country. Every 36 seconds a child is confirmed as abused or neglected. Many of these children remain invisible to those who could help them.
How do we stop the neglect and abuse? We start with the understanding that protecting our children is everyone’s responsibility, and not solely that of public social service agencies. Caring vigilance—child watching—should be the watch word for all of us.
As individuals, we can begin by reaching out to relatives and neighbors struggling to care for children—even when familial tension makes that uncomfortable. Get help for a child you believe is being abused or neglected. Become a foster parent or adoptive parent. Offer to give a break to grandparents who have taken in their grandchildren by caring for the children several days a month. Volunteer to stand up for an abused or neglected child as a court-appointed special advocate. Be a mentor to a child who is still at home or in foster care. Contribute your time or money to a program that helps prevent family crises or protects and treats children when abuse has occurred.
We must get our own faith and community-based organizations to do more. Educate your congregation about protecting children and take action to help. Find ways to support parents who need help. Offer space in your facility for special events. Make sure that children in foster care are involved in your youth activities. Arrange for scholarships to colleges or universities with which you are affiliated. Support national, state and local policy initiatives that will keep children safe and in permanent families. If just a fraction of the faith congregations in our nation found an adoptive or foster care family for a child, we wouldn’t have children alone in the world without loving families.
Employers can also make valuable contributions. They can make sure their leave policies recognize the needs of foster and adoptive parents. They can provide internships and longer term employment for youths in foster care. Businesses also can adopt local agencies or groups that serve children who have been abused or neglected.
Just as important, we must push for significant improvements in our child welfare agencies, our courts, and our schools to better protect children in communities throughout our nation. And we must invest in the health care and mental health and early childhood development programs that will help give our children a healthy start in life.
As a memorial to the Jacks girls and for the sake of millions of other neglected and abused children, all of us must recognize that keeping children safe is everybody’s business.