The residents of Blackstone, a town of 9,000 near the Rhode Island border, are not abnormally callous or detached. Many are distraught that they hadn’t noticed or voiced suspicions about the dilapidated house on St. Paul Street where police recently discovered three bodies of newborns or fetuses. Almost two weeks earlier, police had removed four children — a 13-year-old girl, a 10-year-old boy, a 3-year-old girl, and a 5-month-old baby — from the abysmal home.
The most experienced social workers who have worked with the most challenging clients say they have never seen anything so disturbing as the case of Erika Murray, the 31-year-old Blackstone mother who is being held on several charges. It was the intervention of a neighbor that finally led to the discovery of children living in deplorable conditions . But the horror had been going on for months, if not years. Foul odors could be detected from the street. The shades were always drawn. Murray, according to authorities, prevented visitors from entering the home. The children displayed poor hygiene at school. The list goes on.
Yet there’s a natural tendency to mind one’s own business, to view the sight of children in soiled clothes as worrisome — but not necessarily as evidence of something ghastly. There’s the fear of confrontation; fear of entanglement with police or child welfare authorities; queasiness over intervening in another’s affairs; and the belief that privacy is sacrosanct.
Each of these reservations is understandable. But in the Blackstone case, the result of such thinking can be measured in animal corpses, soiled diapers piled 2 feet high, children coated in feces, vermin infestations, and the remains of three babies. And it could happen anywhere that people decline — or don’t know how — to exercise collective responsibility for children’s well-being.
The most practical lesson from the Blackstone case is that anyone can make an anonymous report to the state Department of Children and Families, which is responsible for intervening on behalf of abused and neglected children. Individually, such reports may not be a high priority, due to the large number of bogus claims filed by jealous exes and embittered family members. But a pattern of such reports could save the life of a child, and they cost the reporter virtually nothing.
Other, more active approaches are also possible. The American Humane Association, based in Washington, D.C., designed its Front Porch Project as a way to replicate the spirit of the day when neighbors shared news — and family coping strategies — on their porches. The program, which is now located in the Butler Institute for Families at the University of Denver, offers training and technical help to communities that want to strengthen their response to child abuse and neglect. It provides methods that protect children while at the same time allowing neighbors to feel more confident when intervening with struggling parents or families.
Such an intervention can be as subtle as catching the eye and offering a sympathetic smile to a parent who is on the verge of losing control with a misbehaving toddler in the grocery store. The point is to communicate to the parent that someone is watching, which might have made all the difference in the Blackstone case. Other times, it might involve direct offers of help with child care. The underlying message of the project is that social workers and police alone can’t prevent child abuse and neglect. Neighbors have a role to play, and can do so both safely and effectively.