BOULDER, Colo. _ It's 2 a.m. I'm in a condo by the Roaring Fork River in Aspen, trying to sleep. Just as I begin drifting off, a faint sound frays the air, the unmistakable hiccuping scrawl of a baby's cry. As I listen, it becomes louder, more persistent.
Any minute, I think, pushing my face into the pillow, the mother will come, the baby will be comforted.
The crying intensifies.
For anyone who's ever been a parent, there's no sound on Earth more disturbing than a baby's cry. I feel it in my breasts even now, almost two decades after the birth of my own daughter.
I get up and peer through the blinds. Faint light and the shapes of buildings. I have no idea where the crying comes from. Should I dress and go in search of it? Should I call the authorities? Is this baby neglected, weeping alone in the dark? Is he a victim of his parents' beliefs about discipline and bedtime? Or is she safely cradled in the arms of her mother, who walks from room to room trying vainly, tiredly, to ease the pangs of teething or colic?
Finally, there's silence. It takes me a long time to fall asleep.
Children have been much in the news lately. The papers are full of stories about the fact that Renee Polreis, a Greeley, Colo., woman who beat her 2-year-old adopted son, David, to death with a wooden spoon, has been released on bond until sentencing in September _ and, if her attorneys have their way, through a lengthy appeals process after that. She is now home taking care of a second adopted son, Isaac.
``I never found words to explain to this 5-year-old where his mom is,'' husband David Polreis is quoted as saying.
If the newspapers are to be believed, Renee Polreis has at no point uttered the faintest murmur of remorse. When David was dying in the hospital, she declined to visit him, saying that hospitals made her phobic and that she needed to get a lawyer. She has made every attempt to shift the blame for his death onto the murdered child himself. David was adopted from Russia, suffering from what Polreis and her band of therapists and well-wishers call ``reactive-attachment disorder'' _ which means he was neglected, damaged and difficult. In a nauseating strategy, her attorney, Harvey Steinberg, suggested before the trial that David _ whose genitals were injured by blows and whose beating was described by doctors as particularly brutal _ had inflicted the damage on himself. This strategy was modified in the courtroom, where lawyers argued that the child had indeed hurt himself, but that it was illness that had caused his actual death.
There are certainly troubled children in this world, and adoption is more fraught with difficulties than most proponents admit. It's also understandable that an overwrought mother might snap _ particularly if she's immature and unstable herself. What's troubling about this case, and one in Boulder, Colo., a few years back where church members rallied round a man accused of shaking a baby to death (though in that instance it was at least possible, with some effort, to believe the man innocent) is the implicit community acceptance of violence against children.
It was her minister's wife, Lynn Roche, who taught Renee Polreis to discipline David with a wooden spoon. The minister still defends this approach, expressing neither horror nor shame at the use to which the instruction was put.
Indeed, far from being ostracized, Renee Polreis seems to have been embraced by many in her church, as if the current doctrine were not only to love the sinner but to embrace and justify the sin. (I imagine the women Polreis will meet at the Colorado Women's Correctional Facility _ on the off-chance that her husband's money and connections fail to keep her out of there _ will have a clearer moral vision.)
Still, I suppose if you believe that humans are born evil and only beating can exorcise that evil from our bodies, the occasional infant death is a necessary price.
While Polreis tends her surviving son, two very young Lakewood, Colo., women _ 19-year-old Marie Stallworth and her 20-year-old sister, Yolanda _ have been issued a summons for sheltering two little girls they found shivering in the rain. The children said they'd been kicked out of their home and were looking for a new one.
``We asked them if they wanted to call their mother,'' Marie Stallworth is quoted as saying. ``They said they just wanted to stay the night.''
As we're so often exhorted to do, the sisters chose to believe the children.
They will appear in court in September, where they could receive anything from a deferred judgment to a $1,000 fine or a year in jail.
The children's mother _ unlike Renee Polreis _ has lost custody of her children, at least temporarily.
In a pompous editorial, the Denver Post applauded the summons, pointing out that the Stallworths' silence had caused an hours-long hunt for the children. Let the sisters worry a bit, it said, then show them lenience.
I think about Marie and Yolanda, barely into adulthood, coming across these simulacra of their younger selves, pajama clad in a pelting rainstorm. I think about what would have happened if they had called the police immediately: Brittany and Camey would have been sent back to their troubled home in the middle of the night or plunged into the frightening and incomprehensible world of social services. Instead, the Stallworths decided to give the children one night of peace, warmth and safety before talking to their mother.
In a world that contains Renee Polreis and her friends, I am touched by the goodness of Marie and Yolanda's hearts, by their instinctual understanding that there's only one decent and humane response to a child in trouble.
(Juliet Wittman is a columnist with the (Boulder, Colo.) Daily Camera, and the author of ``Breast Cancer Journal: A Century of Petals'' (Fulcrum Publishing). Send your comments to: Juliet Wittman, Daily Camera, P.O. Box 591, Boulder, CO 80306.)