Thursday, February 28, 2008

Taking Responsibility

Stories like this one piss me off.

For those not wishing to read the WaPo article, here's a quick rundown: In early January, federal marshalls went to the rented home of a woman named Banita Jacks to serve an eviction notice. In the process of evicting Ms. Jacks, the badly decomposed bodies of her four children were found in an upstairs bedroom. The oldest child had been stabbed and the three younger children starved to death. The story horrified the city and Mayor Adrian Fenty launched an investigation wherein it was discovered that the city's social services mechanism had broken down and failed to alert proper government agencies to the plight of this family.

Now it seems, the family is looking to sue the city and hold it responsible for the deaths of four girls. And that's where I get pissed off.

I'm getting tired of hearing story after story after story where some young person dies--either because of neglect or violence--and the family lays the blame at the feet of the government. I can't tell you how many stories I've heard where bereaved families have said something akin to "it was the school's/social service's/health department's responsibility to look after my baby and now s/he is dead."

And that's where I say, "Whoa! Back up the train parental unit." Responsibility for the health and well-being of your child is yours and yours alone. And, in a broad, sweeping generalization I'm about to make, if you can't handle it, you need to be in closer contact with your extended family. Granted, in Ms. Jacks' case, it's been shown she wasn't mentally competent and I'm sure there are many cases with similar circumstances. But, as an extended family member, if you haven't heard from someone in a while, don't you think you should reach out to them and find out how they're doing and how you can help? If you can't or the family member won't allow you, then and only then, should you enlist the aid of government agencies whose job it then is to serve and protect its citizens--especially its voiceless ones--from harm.

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." Perhaps this is an extreme application, but one of the problems with so many in our country (and in others. There was recently a story out of the U.K. about a device that emits a sound that repels children and young adults from congregating in front of stores and certain public areas in an effort to combat loitering. The solution to that problem is a) parents need to know where their kids are and b) kids need to be home and not out loitering) is their lack of personal responsibility for the lives they bring into this world. Many of us have developed a mindset that nothing is our responsibility and we can pass the buck again and again and again without consequence to ourselves.

The family of Banita Jacks shouldn't be suing the D.C. government for failure to save her daughters. The family of Banita Jacks should be gathering together and looking inward and asking themselves, "Where did we fail in our responsibility?" and "What are we going to personally do to ensure something like this never, ever happens again?"


Sickness update: SSDD. The worst part is the perpetual headache and fever I've been fighting all week. I think it's time to call the doctor.


Adriana Velez said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cele said...

Tewkes you are so very right on. I get sick and tired of people disconnecting themselves from potential trouble and then blaming others. As my dear friend Natalie would say, these people need to put their big girl panties on and step up to the plate and take responsiblity.

I am tired of the government getting involved, I am tired of the government being blamed for our own failures. Apparently this woman should never have had children, did the father (ha ha ha) step up? No. Did the grandparents (at least four people) step up? No. Did anyone step up? No. Did she ask any of them for help? Honestly, I have no clue. What I do know is that four little kids are dead. One was violently MURDERED.

Blaming social services, sheesh, we can only be made victims if we allow ourselves to be made victims of the system. In response to the above comment, you have to take responsiblity for your choices, is it hard to walk out and be responsible, darn right it is. Where as sitting back and being a bad mom is an effort of no effort at all.

This goes right along with blaming God for things that happen. What bunk.

Soapbox anyone?

Adriana Velez said...

This is my second attempt at commenting. Discussions about personal responsibility can really raise my hackles so I want to get this one right.

I'll start by getting really personal. For about a year Jasper was on Medicaid. It was a fluke -- we applied for a health insurance program for freelance, middle-income families and the agency misinterpreted our income statement. It was a real eye-opener.

Once we were on their radar Medicaid began treating us like helpless ninnies who couldn't do a damn thing for ourselves. AND they made it nearly impossible to get Jasper OFF their rolls, when you'd think that would be the goal.

Lesson learned: if you are in the welfare system you are systematically taught to rely on "experts" and social services rather than on yourself or your family. NO ONE is modeling personal responsibility for you. You never learn what that looks like.

Second story: my youngest brother is a total fuck-up. Without going into the details of how and why I'll just say we've all tried (except my father) to help him and we've all decided all we can do at this point is keep sending him the message that we love him and hope for the best. With every tragedy we feel sorrow and sometimes reach out to him. But we have complicated lives of our own and don't know what else to do.

I suspect that Benita's family members 1) have never had "personal responsibility" modeled for them, don't know what it looks like, and especially don't know how to do it.

I also suspect that 2) Social services trained them to rely on a flawed system and on "experts" (even including lawyers, in this case) rather than on themselves and each other. Yeah, I AM blaming social services.

And I suspect that 3) her family probably did try, in their imperfect way, to intervene in some way but they felt that their daughter's problems were too big for them to solve. They probably have massive issues of their own to deal with. No doubt they had the wrong tools and whatever they did backfired. Now they're angry, frustrated, and feel powerless.

This family belongs to a class that lives outside the mainstream. We cannot place our world view and expectations on them. "Personal responsibility" is a vague abstraction to them.

It's a privilege of the middle and upper classes that we totally take for granted because it was part of our upbringing. We were taught it every single day by competent parents, teachers, church leaders, etc. Not everyone gets this training! And we can't expect descendants of generations of fucked-up-ness to get "personal responsibility the way we do!

I'm asking for some compassion here. Save your outrage for a more privileged member of society. Or, direct your outrage by volunteering or getting involved. Go out and model personal responsibility in a real, authentic, personal way for somebody. Get involved. Find out WHY these people are so fucked up.

I'm saying this because you're a friend of mine and because I know there's more compassion in you than what I see in this post.

LG said...

To me, it's a perfect storm. You have people in the world (from all walks of life) who simply shouldn't ever have had kids. This has been going on since the beginning of time. It's just that folks who are well-off can get a nanny and chef and send their kids to summer camp to cover that up, but those who have less to work with don't have that advantage.

The other problem is a social services system that is undertrained, understaffed, and underpaid. When I lived in Cincinnati, I worked closely with the county government on family services issues, and it was honestly so discouraging to see the state of affairs. I knew several social workers who quit to work for private agencies because the pay was better for their sometimes 18-hour days.

I believe that until some serious attention and money (especially money) is put toward social services, there will be more stories like this because the fact of the matter is - we can't stop people who shouldn't be having kids from having them. Sad.

LG said...

P.S. - If you have a fever, call the doc. You need to nip that shit in the bud. Keep us posted.

Di said...

What Adriana said. She articulated it better than I could have at all, but I totally agree with what she said.

I hope you feel better soon -- all this illness is crazy and you need to get better. I really hope your doctor can fix you up and that you'll be back in the pink posthaste!!

Phoenix Touch said...

Tewkesy... I am with you on this post. "Suing" is completely out of hand in this country. Ugh... what a waste of time and money and energy...

People! Come on! Focus where it matters!

Okay... that is all. Oh... wait... THIS is all: get better friend. sending you love.


oh... wait, again! I just read Adriana's post. Damn! She is GOOD! And now that I have read that point of view and my eyes have been opened to another aspect of this debate I am totally on the fence. I don't like being on the fence.

All I know is SOMETHING needs to change in this country. All I can present is my view of the problem, though. I have no concrete solutions. (My former husband hates that about me, btw)

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

All: I suppose I should apologize for raising so many hackles and for giving the impression that my characteristically compassionate personality is no longer to be found.

Adriana, you responded ably and appropriately and I appreciate your feedback. You're right to call me out on my harshness.

I pride myself on being someone who tries really hard not to judge others and to ask myself what I would do in similar circumstances. I'd like to think I'd rise above any given situation and act responsibly, conscientiously, and immediately. In truth, though, most responses to any given situation arise out of the immediacy and/or priority of whatever is going on. In other words, I might not act any differently than Ms. Jacks' family acted.

I know that many of these behaviors are ingrained as a result of historical circumstances and ongoing precedence, but it still galls me. I'd like to think as humans we could be better than our basest selves. I realize that's an ideal that is largely unrealistic.

That said, though, your point is well-taken. If I'm so enraged by this, I should try channeling my privileged energy into positive outlets for change.

Adriana Velez said...

Hey Tewkes, I know you try not to judge -- and I'm sorry if I come across sounding like I'm judging you! I was just taken aback because it didn't sound like you.

Yes, suing is foolish and counterproductive. I suspect, however, that it wasn't even the family's idea. I wonder if some opportunistic or crusading lawyers sniffed an opportunity and decided to exploit the family's feelings of betrayal. The tell-tale sign for me is that it's a joint suit from three people who probably don't cooperate on much ordinarily.

Anyway, you've heard way to much from me already. I hope you get better soon!

Anonymous said...

So depressing.

Hey, Tewkes -- I hope you get better.

- Phoebe

Di said...

Adriana said:

I wonder if some opportunistic or crusading lawyers sniffed an opportunity and decided to exploit the family's feelings of betrayal. The tell-tale sign for me is that it's a joint suit from three people who probably don't cooperate on much ordinarily.

And again I say: me too. This was my thought when I first read about it.

At any rate, there are no easy answers.

I hope you're feeling at all better, Tewkesy.

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

Adriana: You didn't judge me; you were right to call me out. I placed the bulk of my anger mostly on the wrong set of people and circumstances here. Really what frustrates me is the breakdown and cycle poverty and dependence our current social services system perpetuates. That said, though, I'm with you. Underlying this story, I think, is a group of opportunistic, slimy lawyers who see a chance to make a quick buck and are manipulating the emotions and saucer-size eyes of a group of vulnerable people.

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

Di: Still feeling like crap, but now I have meds, so it should all be good. My one worry: I have some inflammation in my good ear. I never like hearing that, since it's the only working ear I have and I do all I can not to have it become infected.