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The mistake that just keeps on taking

by Barbara Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 10:08:39 AM EST

In the past few weeks I have been involved as an interpreter in a rather gruesome case. A 43-year-old Slovakian woman is seeking to foster her two-year-old grandson as both of his parents are suspects for murder of his baby brother who died last September. The baby suffered a cracked skull, a broken rib and a dislocated arm, and died of his injuries on the very same day.


I have been interpreting for the social worker to help her determine whether the grandmother is suitable to foster the child. I also met with the mother, last week. I was quite horrified at what happened to the child and of her indictment. Sure they must have done it... it couldn't just be an accident! So many grave injuries don't just happen like that. I was, however, quite surprised when I met her: a tiny, quiet, polite, heartbroken girl of twenty-one who looked adoringly at the image of her elder son on the computer while we talked to her about him. I tried to imagine her as a murderer, performing this unspeakable violence against her child, but I wasn't able to. From her we gathered that the baby fell while she was in another room taking care of the older one, and at first it wasn't clear the injuries were so serious. She did not want to tell us very much, though, as she had probably been advised by her solicitor not to speak about it to anyone by herself.

The day that her son died has forever changed her life, and not just because she lost a child, which in itself is a horrendous ordeal. Her two-year-old was taken away from her and placed in foster care where he got recently injured (he stuck a curtain string hook into his eye) and had to be hospitalized. She said he has been frequently sick and walks around in dirty clothes. He feels his parents betrayed him by leaving him with strangers. The mother and her partner are allowed to see him for two hours a day, supervised, and they don't miss a single visit, but he gets angry at them each time they leave and sends them away, pretending he doesn't need them. If the mother is convicted, these visits will be reduced, and if the child is placed with his grandmother, she won't be able to visit her either.

The social services, however, are not happy with the fact that the grandmother and her partner smoke, as they are not allowed to place a child under five with a smoker (as a result of complaints of fostered adults with respiratory problems who sued the government for being placed in a smoking environment as children). If she doesn't manage to quit before the beginning of February when the court decision is due, the child might be placed permanently with a stranger. There is also the possibility of his Slovak grandparents fostering him, and the social worker is preparing for a trip to go and assess them as well. (I might end up going if they don't find an interpreter based there.)

If the mother is convicted of neglect, she will spend two years in prison. She won't be able to care for her son, most likely until he's eighteen and then he won't need taking care of. If he gets placed with his grandmother, she will have severely restricted contact with her, which will be probably very difficult as they are very close. And God only knows what her partner thinks of what happened, but I'd imagine he must blame her for it - she said he's supportive, but even the most supportive partner would feel some serious resentment against someone who allowed his child to die. If they ever have another child together, they will be subject to strict supervision and will be relentlessly monitored for years.

I don't know what exactly will happen if she's convicted of murder, but I can only imagine the picture will be a lot bleaker - is that even possible?

It is hard to believe one mistake can cost someone so much: not one child but two, contact with mother, trust of partner, future opportunities for a decent job and a good standing in the society. I cannot imagine what agony she must be going through.

After these appointments, coming back home felt as if I had just woken up from a nightmare back to my good, happy life. But I realized, with a shudder, how many times I could have ended up exactly in the same situation. Looking back, I feel I (or we) was just very lucky. How many parents can honestly say "my child was ALWAYS safe"? When Jonathan was a toddler, he managed to escape from our house in Riverside at least three times. Once the gardeners didn't lock the gate as I always did and our dog ran away, and Jonathan chased after him. I found him three blocks down the road at someone's yard - they are very, very fast, dogs and toddlers. Another time he figured out, being not even two years old, how to unlock two sets of doors without anyone noticing (there were three of us adults in the house and Miguel was about three meters away from him reading a book while I was showing something to Pilar in the study). Jonathan walked out and dutifully closed both doors behind him to cover all traces. After I searched in panic under beds and in kitchen cabinets, I ran out onto the street barefoot in my pink stained bathrobe, only to find Jonathan in the arms of neighbours who had already managed to call the cops. I almost cried with relief, but to the almighty cop who came to investigate I was a low-lifer, trailer-trash junkie living perpetually in a stained pink bathrobe and not giving a rat's ass about my son.

In addition to his escapist stunts, during the course of his childhood Jonathan overdosed on Baby Panadol, got his arm caught -- up to his armpit -- in the guillotine type window so popular in the US (what do you do when you live in an old house?), and almost swallowed a needle (I only found out he had one in his mouth after he wouldn't stop smiling from ear to ear). He fell off my bed numerous times when I passed out during nursing every frigging hour of the night and didn't manage to get him back to his own bed, and one time we realized he rode all the way from San Francisco to Riverside, California, strapped to a seat that, however, was not strapped to the car. There you have it. Maybe I was a terrible mother. I have a feeling, though, that every parent could come up with a few stories like mine. I believe that in many ways, we are all just lucky.

Thinking of this young girl who might soon be going to prison and lose even more that she already has, I am wondering whom the court system actually punishes the most while trying to "protect society (and other children such person might have)". The mother will have to live with her loss and terrible guilt until the day she dies. This is the cruelest punishment. Is taking her son away really a solution (if she's convicted of neglect, not murder, of course)? Does the court really believe she would allow for this to happen again? I think that having such an experience would produce a parent who would be, if anything, overprotective and paranoid, certainly not a careless slacker. It might not be easy to live with such a parent, but I'd still think it would be much better for the child than foster care. Her son is already suffering a lot, and it seems it will only get worse.

This is such a difficult moral and ethical issue, and I'm probably not being very objective. I don't know what really happened. I'm just trying to put myself in the girl's shoes. Doing this, I realize how precariously parents of little children teeter on a blade between happiness and despair, and how all we care about can be gone in a flash.

Display:
A very poignant story, thanks Barbara.  My various escapades were recounted to me often enough and I remember plenty of tumbles that could have lead to serious injury.  

One did as a matter of fact - I came running into the living room, before I was 3 years old, and tripped. As I fell, I hit my face on the edge of a glass coffee table, cutting open my face below and above my eye.  When rushed off to casualty by our guest who verified the story my parents told the doctors, I was not allowed home and instead placed into emergency foster care.  Their view was that I had been hit and my face cut by a ring.  Fortunately I was allowed back home within a few days although remained registered as at risk.

Unfortunately, when I was older and family circumstances changed, I was subject to willful neglect and domestic violence. Absolutely nobody picked up on the signs and social services failed to protect me (remember that I was still on the register).

It has always felt like one extreme or the other - where accidents have happened, social services over-react and people's lives are ruined. Where there is genuine cause for concern, social services don't intervene and we end up with dead children in the headlines.

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 10:33:59 AM EST
Thank you for sharing this, IW. I'm sorry about your difficult past. I have to say that I'd hate to be the judge in cases like these... it's so hard to know where the truth is.

I completely agree about the extremes...I see it in other parts of the system, too, i.e. the welfare system. Some people receive vehement assistance in turning into welfare queens, and some that work night and day trying to support their numerous family members wait to have their benefit applications processes for years. It's quite sad really.

"If you cannot say what you have to say in twenty minutes, you should go away and write a book about it." Lord Brabazon

by Barbara on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 02:08:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And some end up neglecting their child because of having to work too hard to support their families, and the children end up in foster care - the cost of which, given to the family, would have solved the problems.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misŤres
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 07:32:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My brother in law was adopted at age 18 months. During those 18 months he had been in several foster homes, and was abused in at least one of them.

During his life he never was able to form a proper attachment to women. He never managed to recover from the first 18 months of life.

My wife's family was desperately hoping that he would be gay. Unfortunately that did not happen. Even though his father is a pacifist he repeatedly expressed hope that his son would join the military - some form of structure that would help him function in society. That too, did not come to pass.

We buried him a few years back. He died of a heroin overdose.

If you are a bad parent, so are my mother and father. At age three I was found by police quite some distance form home wandering through an uncompleted building complete with open elevator shafts.

With the woman you talk about, I hope that great care is taken. I hope that they are able to show compassion and wisdom. I hope that they understand that everything they do is harming the child - and will temper what they do not on the side of justice, but on the side of care for that child. The rules over smoking (I am a very militant anti smoker) make it sound like they may have partially lost their way.


aspiring to genteel poverty

by edwin (eeeeeeee222222rrrrreeeeeaaaaadddddd@@@@yyyyaaaaaaa) on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 10:50:06 AM EST
Apparently low-income families are more likely to be foster carers. Either because there is an adult that doesn't work already, or because of the perverse incentive that the Child Benefit payments (a meagre 70 pounds a month) make to the family's finances.

The idea that foster parents may be doing it because they get 70 quid a month from the government is horrifying to me.

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 11:03:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A heartrending diary.

I often think how all of us teeter on that knife edge, and how just one little lapse - one moment's inattention - with children, in the kitchen, at the wheel - and a child is lost, a loved one hurt, a stranger killed. Who can ever be as vigilant as we all need to be in this life?

For this poor woman, prison would not be the worst thing; the worst thing has already happened to her.

And there is no guarantee that it won't happen to us as well: the briefest moment of inattention - on our own part, the part of someone we love, or even a complete stranger - can make it all go away.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 12:39:49 PM EST
My younger brother was 2 or 3 when he opened the garden gate, and walked off along a main road to a children's playground one kilometre away. My mother told of receiving similar treatment as you got from the cop.

My mother also fell down a chair with my sister and let me fall from a tram when we were babies. Those could have turned out worse, too.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 01:18:19 PM EST
fell down a chair

staircase. [why oh why do I mess that up so often?]

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 01:43:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
you were too busy thinking about the tram? ;-)

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 04:22:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
:-)

Actually I spoke with my mother and turns out I mixed things up. It was the incident with me after which passers-by scolded my mother, and what happened was that my mother went to the grocery with me in a babycar, parked the babycar outside, but the babycar rolled away and fell over on the tram tracks. My mother was perplexed because she remembered braking the car. So, maybe it was really me?...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 04:52:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
you were always a train wreck waiting to happen!?!

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 04:54:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No, I trained hard!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 05:02:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you for writing this, Barbara!  I just have to hope that everyone in 'the system' has the open-minded, full perspective that you have, before another´s future is destroyed, as in edwin´s example.

The law is so cut and dry, so totally unemotional, it can be inhumane, it can mark lives forever and never find anything resembling balance.  I´m really glad this family has you working for some equilibrium, some sense,...

Most all of us have been really ´lucky´ as children and as parents, haven´t we!

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 01:24:40 PM EST
I suspect every parent has horror stories to tell - if they are honest.  Our son had relatively minor accidental falls two weeks in a row.  When we brought him to casualty the second time there was a natural suspicion of NAI (non accidental injury).  My wife was a social worker and knew the drill well.  It didn't take from the embarrassment, even hough no problems ensued.

There is a myth that you can and should provide a totally safe environment at all times and that someone has to be at fault for every accident - probably perpetrated by our legal systems and compensation cultures.  Life isn't always safe.  Accidents will happen, and whilst many can be prevented, that is not always possible.  Imprisoning parents does more damage to a child's development that all but serious neglect and of course abuse.

It is very very difficult to get the balance right between protecting and harming a child by blaming the parents.  Techniques for detecting willful harm and abuse are anything but fool proof.  But fostering children is almost always harmful - especially as most fostering is short term and children are passed on and on.

The presumption of innocence has to favour parents unless really significant evidence emerges.  Otherwise far more children are hurt by the process rather than saved from abuse.


Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 01:41:23 PM EST
There is a myth that you can and should provide a totally safe environment at all times and that someone has to be at fault for every accident - probably perpetrated by our legal systems and compensation cultures.

I think both you and metavision take it too easy on people by blaming law. I think the coldness comes from a more general human attitude in easily judging others, and the easier the less well known. The passers-by who scolded my mother for allowing my brother to run away, or methinks even the cop who scolded Barbara, weren't motivated by law. I also fear that the 'resolution' of the case Barbara wrote about may turn out cold not due to following the letter of the law, but due to legal decisionmakers following their cold hearts when judging strangers (especially a foreigner).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 01:47:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
DoDo:
I think both you and metavision take it too easy on people by blaming law. I think the coldness comes from a more general human attitude in easily judging others, and the easier the less well known.

On the contrary, in my experience, bystanders were concerned and helpful - at worst alarmed and then helpful

But there are an awful lot of legal horror stoies and children damaged by the place of safety care process

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 02:18:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I should have said that cases of suspected child sexual abuse are another matter entirely

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 02:22:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sorry if I missed it, but did you meet the father?  

I mean, I obviously have no clue what truly happened to the child.  How could I possibly know?  But in cases of abuse, it is not uncommon for partners who are being abused (any form) to deny that their children have been abused.  It sounds unconscionable, but is not unusual.  Of course, it may very well be an accident.  And who would not want to believe that?  Who could intentionally harm their own child?!  And those who have, surely are monsters, with tell-tale signs of monsterdom : lack of remorse, lack feelings, anti-social behavior.  No one who believed they loved their child could hurt their child, right?  ...Er, wrong.

I have no children, but have done a lot of baby-sitting, and totally sympathize with the kinds of close-calls your describe.  

I am just saying, on the one hand, we give parents the benefit of the doubt because ... who are we to judge? what if we are wrong and ruin someone's life in the process?  etc.  But adults can advocate for themselves, whereas children can't and have infinite reasons not to.  

Not all people who have done terrible things have "Bad Person" stamped on their heads.  

This is a truly tragic story.  I guess I am a bit more ambivalent about the situation, taken in whole.  

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 02:26:34 PM EST
Yes, I agree with you, Poemless. Earlier this evening I had a chat with my friend in CZ who's studying medicine, and has just gone through a forensic medicine class. I wanted to see what she thought of these injuries. She said that the elbow dislocation was probably not caused by a fall. It may be that she did harm the child. My friend also suggested that she might have suffered from postpartum psychosis. We all know too well about the case of Andrea Yates and what even apparently completely normal women are able to do.

I know that even innocent-looking people are capable of awful things. After meeting her, though, I have no doubts how very sorry she is for what happened, and that she would do anything she could to take it back.

The father was allegedly at work, so I'm not sure why the accusation stands against him as well. I don't know much about his involvement in the case. I'd find it strange if she were willing to take the blame all upon herself, though, having said that she was alone at home with the children. But again, who knows.

"If you cannot say what you have to say in twenty minutes, you should go away and write a book about it." Lord Brabazon

by Barbara on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 03:56:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Postpartum depression/psychosis are also very possible explanations.  Fortunately, it is now very treatable.  Unfortunately, you have to admit to it before you can get treatment...

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 04:00:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The combination of an expected condition with a such a severe disease shocked me, so I had to look it up.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postnatal_depression  

Postnatal depression (also called postpartum depression and referred throughout this article by the acronym PPD) is a form of clinical depression which can affect women, and less frequently men, after childbirth. Studies report prevalence rates among women from 5% to 25%, but methodological differences among the studies make the actual prevalence rate unclear.[1]

Rates of PPD decreased as income increased...

Postnatal psychosis or PNP, is a mental illness, which involves a complete break with reality.

Only 1 to 2 women per 1,000 births (.1% to .2% of births) develop postnatal psychosis.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 05:56:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That's interesting.  I've known 3 women with postpartum depression, as in, they had to be hospitalized because they were afraid they wanted to hurt their children, and they were all upper-middle class white women.  I suppose the distinct difference lies in the irrational desire to hurt your child and the actual doing it.  Theoretically, the treatment of the depression could prevent the psychosis...  

I'm not a doctor.  But I do know that mental health diagnosis is more of an art than a science, and a very crude art at that.  Nor would I rely on Wiki or accept concrete numbers when it comes to mental health diagnosis.

That said, I did not intend to suggest all women who suffer from postpartum depression might kill their children, and I'm sorry if I offended you.

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 06:14:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No offense taken.  I just wanted to make sure that the extreme reaction was not common because there are enough inaccurate labels applied to women already.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 08:22:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
IMHO the best that can happen is that they send the child to his paternal grandparents in Slovakia.

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 04:20:59 PM EST
Wow - she's been found guilty!  And the fathers alibi has been believed without checking!  Or she's been diagnosed with post partum depression without medical examination.  And nobody has yet checked out the paternal grandparents - abuse, statistically, often runs in families.  In the absence of a medical diagnosis it is also statistically more likely to have been the father.  

It is very dangerous to apply generalisations (or statistics) to such a situation.  The best that can be done is a close examination of the circumstances and assessment of the parents by trained and experienced professionals - not fool proof, but the best we can do. Unfortunately the low pay such work commands means that the work is often done by inexperienced, poorly trained professionals, or in a very hurried manner due to excessive caseloads.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 04:45:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree.  Decisions in cases such as this are not made lightly or without the best investigation possible.  I once experienced a similar situation as an investigator when living in the UK.  I didn't conduct the law enforcement part of the investigation because it occurred off our military installation and the civilian mother (an American) was suspected in the child's death; however, I did work with the British authorities to keep the American side up to date on what was happening. The British system, at that time, dealt competently and compassionately (law enforcement, social services and medical) with all issues.  Medical evidence made it clear that trauma was not likely the result of an accident and that the mother was a proper suspect in the death. She was charged, tried in Crown Court, and convicted.  Other children in the family were sent back to the US to live with their grandparents and the mother served a year or two in prison.

I can make no judgements about the genuineness of the mother's remorse or other feelings about what she did (speaking of the convicted).  I'm sure no parent in their right mind wants to harm or neglect their children.  However, raising children is not easy and life's stresses can be great. Evidence of guilt or innocence is often difficult to determine when single (even fatal) incidents are involved, so I empathise with the child's parents and with those who are charged by society to make decisions in these cases.  Let us all hope they make the right ones.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears

by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 09:49:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Decisions in cases such as this are not made lightly or without the best investigation possible.

I can't speak to the quality of these sort of investigations in the UK, but I (and Ivonne) can testify in detail to the sort of work that epitomizes them in both Florida and Ohio--

They are often beneath contempt.

-- The time and funds expended are almost always inadequate, and relate powerfully to the skin color and socioeconomic position of the victim and the accused.

-- As has been stated (correctly), the pay scales for investigative personnel are so poor that it is hard to fill the positions at all, let alone with competent people.

-- Emotional numbness is the only defense possible (other than a different job) for a case worker with a workload so huge that real justice is a bad joke.

Because of the above, these positions tend to select for people who can (or who already have) adopted that detached position. When hiring young social workers to fill such nightmare jobs, one has the feeling of being an emotional executioner.

A good friend of mine is a PhD psychologist with the  state of Florida, who has made it his business to represent the interests of the child in such cases. He must not become involved in the whole question of justice as it applies to the defendant or the parents, but seek only the best for the child. Considering the quality of the investigative work and the "justice" of the results in the  courts, he has told me that this detachment is very, very hard.  

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.

by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Sun Jan 13th, 2008 at 09:30:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, I'm sure many situations are less than ideal. Social work, in my experience, is poorly paid and there is entirely too much work for the staff employed.  The increasing ills of society together with less and less funds(in many locations) allocated for social programs does not make for a good mix.  There are constant reminders here (in the Wash DC area) in the press of cases where children have been repeatedly abused or neglected, often fatally so, while in the care of natural parents or with foster ones.  The social services are often blamed for inadequate supervision or followup in cases with a history, probably with justification, but my contention is that we get what we pay for and social programs are usually the first to get the budgetary ax when times are hard and the last to have funds restored.  I would guess that those of non-white skin color suffer the most on a per capita basis, but race and color don't make better parents nor do they guarantee a child's welfare. All too many children of all colors are subjected to abuse or neglect.  Although I did not investigate the fatal case I experienced in the UK, I did investigate quite a few other non-fatal ones, and I can assure you that my law enforcement portion of the matters was the easy part; and I don't mean to say that it was easy because I happened to be particularly caring or competent. The fact is that the real difficult problems lie with justice and social services decisions and their followup.  I don't have answers for these areas.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears
by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Sun Jan 13th, 2008 at 08:39:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Did you mean to attach this to Mig's post?

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman
by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Sat Jan 12th, 2008 at 05:35:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I can't see why not.

Maybe I'm quick to judge, but I can't see how she can escape a jedgement of at least "neglect" or "negligence" which according to the diary carries a 2 year prison sentence. I think it's unlikely the grandmother will quit smoking before February, and I think the child's own relatives on Slovakia might be better than foster care - apparently the child has already suffered a serious accident while on foster care.

Life sucks all around, what can I say?

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Jan 12th, 2008 at 05:50:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Migeru:
Life sucks all around, what can I say?

let the mother be presumed innocent until found guilty

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Jan 12th, 2008 at 11:13:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There are two legal principles that need to be balanced here: the presumption of innocence and the welfare of the child.

Guilty or not: this nuclear family has been devastated; it can no longer function. Placing the child with the maternal grandmother would necessarily constrain her contact with her daughter - just when the daughter is in most dire need of this.

Placing the child with the Slovakian grandmother might well be the best solution for all concerned.

As far as guilt goes, this story certainly has a there-but-for-fortune aspect. Life, law and society demand the impossible of us - that we be relentlessly vigilant. We all of us lapse in our vigilance from time to time; mostly it doesn't matter, nothing happens. Sometimes (surprisingly rarely, really, considering) it does matter - the half-second of inattention, the 10 seconds of distraction, and shit falls on us like a ton of bricks. Then life, society or the law - or any arbitrary combination thereof - punishes us. That is the fundamental unfairness of life.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Sat Jan 12th, 2008 at 01:08:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh, Barbara...

This heart-wrenching story brought back so many things. So many hurts and forgotten tragedies. I can't thank you enough.

As a U.S. Certified Court Interpreter for the State  of Florida, I had the opportunity to see these sort of trials on a regular basis. I interpreted for years for the legal system that dealt out "justice" to the indigent, illiterate, mentally-ill, disillusioned, and mostly invisible segment of society. Those whom we notice only as a headline or statistic. Often, their court appearances were brief and my level of involvement almost none at all- traffic violations, shop-lifting charges, you know, nothing too dramatic. One day, though, I was handed the docket for a murder trial that would last a few weeks at least.

It was a case of a young, educated Puerto-Rican man who had been living in Florida for five years and had no previous criminal record. He was charged with first-degree man-slaughter after he backed his 18-wheeler into a loading dock and killed a fellow worker. The "victim" was an 18 year-old who was hired by the company as an ex-parolee and was doing community service instead of a fourth jail sentence. He had no family, other than his grandparents, no friends, was rehabilitating from long-term drug use and had actually left a suicide letter in his locker. "Our" defendant had a future, a wife and young baby and everything to lose. Was it an accident? Of course it was, and it was to change his life forever. The conviction would get him jail time, the wonderful education that only inmates can get in reduced spaces of jail confinement and bring his world crashing around him and his family.

Needless to say, I became pretty emotional about the case. In discussing it with a veteran interpreter,I asked her how she coped with these cases and how she managed to keep her sanity after so many years. She gave me some words of wisdom.
"Don't worry", she said, "after a while you'll just treat him like a memory before going on to your next assignment. It won't hurt at all. You just learn to not get involved."

I knew right then that I had to get out of that job, because if I succeeded in getting past the involvement stage, then I would have no feelings left.

Thank you for caring, and for sharing this story. It really touched me. In the end, "caring" is why we live.

Ivonne Miller

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.

by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Sat Jan 12th, 2008 at 04:12:54 AM EST
Your experience reminds me of the film ...And Justice for All.

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Jan 12th, 2008 at 06:05:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Dear Ivonne,

So good to hear from you :) and thank you for your kind words. In your comment you echoed many of my observations and sentiments. I find that being an interpreter is pretty tough, especially as we, as you said, often end up dealing with very underprivileged people, many at the end of their rope. Even interpreting over the phone can be very unpleasant. I interpret for all the benefit offices in the UK, and I wish I never took part in some of the conversations. Indifferent "helpline" workers telling people with seven children who are on the brink of eviction, making minimum wage, that their "case is being processed" and that they have to wait... not one month or two, but often it's years!!! The frustration of people who send their application only to find out it has been lost, or the office lost their and their children's birth-certificates, or their info "has not yet been put into the system". I cringe when I have to interpret these stupidities. I've had people burst into tears from the frustration of not getting any help, and not receiving the money they were entitled to for their families.  

I'm sure you will remember that interpreters' job is to be, first and foremost, impartial. And everyone drills it into us during our training. No matter what you think or how you feel about what's going on, you can't have any of your own input. Even if you KNOW something's wrong (i.e. a man saying he's just arrived in the country when you remember interpreting for him 6 months ago, as it happened to me.) I find that infuriating, and for that reason I prefer yoga as a job to interpreting... I get to create a meaningful contact and help someone instead of being just a word-processor. A good interpreter is supposed to be the one who is so inobtrusive that it's as if he/she were not there at all... and "not being there" is a pretty hard thing to do, especially when this "not being there" challenges all your basic values.

"If you cannot say what you have to say in twenty minutes, you should go away and write a book about it." Lord Brabazon

by Barbara on Sat Jan 12th, 2008 at 06:26:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Barbara,
Good to hear your voice here. ET needs you, and stories like this very much.
We exist, we write because we believe we know more than the people who make policy. We resent the self-satisfied smug confidence of the mouthpieces on FT, for example. Yet sometimes it seems to me we sound awfully smug ourselves.
Our entire thrust here is critical of the status quo ----yet largely oblivious to--outside of-- the lives of the "ordinaries".
It is also a rare event when one reads a diary in which the writer questions him/herself, --ideas, confidence ---or (gasp) feelings.

If the criminal justice system were "just", that incident probably wouldn't have happened. Yet, as you read in Ivonne's comment, in order to survive in the "system", we must learn to ---not feel. Yet--without feelings, we can't fix it, because people who do not feel are not interested in "justice"--it does not concern them, beyond it's utility as a gateway to the human warehouse.

Thank you. Keep it up, please.

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.

by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Sat Jan 12th, 2008 at 04:36:55 AM EST


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