Young Deaths That Diminish Us All

Date: 2008-10-04

Young Deaths That Diminish Us All

October 4, 2008
By Colbert I. King

The discoveries of the bodies of two girls encased in ice this week and of the decomposed bodies of four sisters earlier this year raise questions that go to the heart of what we mean when we speak of community.

Two mothers, Renee Bowman and Banita Jacks, are now jailed in connection with these ghastly events.

Bowman is suspected of killing two of her adopted daughters and hiding their bodies in a freezer; she is also charged with abusing a third daughter.

Jacks has been indicted on charges of first-degree murder in the deaths of her four daughters. She has pleaded not guilty; her trial is set for Dec. 1.

Bowman's and Jacks's stories have yet to be told. We don't know exactly what happened. We don't know how, perhaps, those mothers arrived at the point of deciding that their daughters' lives were not worth living.

We also don't know why Bowman and Jacks, if the reports are true, put innocent children through such unimaginable suffering.

Jacks's youngest daughter, age 5, was strangled and beaten. Two of her sisters, ages 6 and 11, had been strangled. The oldest daughter, 16, had puncture wounds on her abdomen. The girls had been dead for as long as six months when their bodies were discovered in January.

Bowman's two daughters, who would now be 9 and 11, may have been in that freezer for more than a year -- one wrapped in a rug; the other in a plastic garbage bag.

Those women will have their dates with the law.

But given what is known now about the circumstances of those deaths, we, as a community, need a date with ourselves.

How can seven girls disappear from public view and not be missed?

The discovery of the two frozen bodies this week happened only because the dead girls' 7-year-old sister was found wandering a Calvert County street wearing a mud-caked nightgown.

The girl, covered with bruises, managed to escape from her mother's house. She told a neighbor that she hadn't eaten in three days, that she had two sisters and that "my mother beat them to death."

Earlier this year, we learned about the Jacks girls because U.S. marshals went to Jacks's Southeast rowhouse to serve a routine eviction notice and she told them about the bodies.

Were it not for the 7-year-old wandering the streets or the marshals serving an eviction notice, those frozen bodies in Calvert County and decomposing corpses in Southeast D.C. would probably still be where they were found.

The girls weren't missed.

How can that be?

Horrible child deaths, to be sure, aren't part of some modern-day urban nightmare.

Before I reached my teens in the Foggy Bottom/West End neighborhood where I grew up, one friend had drowned in the Potomac River and another in the C&O Canal. A third died from a broken neck in a truck accident, and a fourth boy, who lived nearby in a Foggy Bottom alley dwelling known as Snows Court, was gang-raped and fatally stabbed.

Those boys were known.

Sure, they weren't the community's sole focus from day to day. Grown-ups had lives to lead and struggled to make do for their families. But children weren't isolated from their neighbors. And they didn't have to manage by themselves.

My neighborhood didn't have any Taj Mahals, but kids living there had something to eat, a place to sleep and people who knew they existed.

A child had value. When one died, people for blocks around mourned.

A child dropping out of sight and not being missed was next to impossible.

Not today.

At a time when many in the community are focused on the possibility of America electing its first black president, when so many eyes are on Barack Obama, following his every move, it's even more sad that some black children have become isolated, forgotten by the rest of the world, unseen and uncared for.

They are the children who were found in the freezer this week and in those bedrooms in January.

The city, of course, bears much of the weight for those gruesome deaths. The D.C. Child and Family Services Agency recommended Bowman as a suitable adoptive parent. The agency failed to investigate reports of child abuse by Jacks.

The weight, however, also belongs on our shoulders.

We, as a community, didn't see those girls. We didn't even miss them.

To paraphrase John Donne, their deaths diminish us all.

kingc@washpost.com

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