An attorney friend of mine keeps me up to date on the horrors of Richmond – the city that she commutes to everyday for work. She peppers her face book page on an almost daily basis with wise cracks about the gang bangers, hookers and drug addicts that she encounters at the courthouse as she heads off to trial or mediation. Her depictions of working out there are flippantly outrageous, shocking and utterly unenviable. I used to wince at some of her remarks – but over time I have become more jaded. So when she posted last week that she was “glad to see that Richmond was still making national news,” I didn’t think much about it. Some random shooting, a car jacking or just your garden variety murder I assumed. If only.
When I finally flung myself into bed a few nights ago and switched on CNN to escape the ravages of my child-centered day, I realized that this wasn’t just any Richmond crime story that she was referencing. Instead of some story about another missing foster kid, or some young promising athlete gunned down in his neighborhood, (admittedly tragic but all too common), I learned about a crime that was qualitatively different both in its depth of brutality and also scope of perpetrator involvement. The facts, as far as we know them, are stark. A 15 year old girl was led outside of her high school homecoming dance and gang raped by ten different young men while numerous others watched, laughed, took pictures and videos. This took place over the course of two agonizing hours and evidently no one came forward to try to stop it or call for help. She was eventually found unconscious and was hospitalized for four days in critical condition. Five young men have been arrested so far and there is an ongoing investigation to find the others.
Those are the facts and to call them shocking would be a gross understatement. They deal with the unmentionable on so many levels. In conversation this past week, I found myself struggling to find words to express the horror of this story. Upon reflection, I realize that these facts require no elaboration. My attorney friend’s ostensibly flippant comment about how “Richmond made national news again” is as good a description as any.
Today, on National Public radio numerous hate crime experts, psychologists, counselors and school administrators used this incident as a springboard to discuss a wide variety of issues including hate crimes, mob mentality, violence in today’s youth culture and the overall desensitization of cruelty through media images and video games. I listened intently to what each of these commentators said on these topics and thought hard about how they applied in this instance. And while most of it made sense to me, there was something disturbingly clinical and detached about their analysis that made me feel like they weren’t quite getting it. As someone who has worked with foster youth (through my trial work as a dependency lawyer and now as an appellate lawyer), I had a visceral reaction to this incident. I know all too well the type of kid that is capable of committing such a heinous act as I sadly come across them in my work with regularity. No, they haven’t gang raped anyone; in fact most of them have never committed any crime. But the elements and potential are all there, just wait.
The cases I work on involve boys and girls whose have faced so much turmoil in their short lives, have seen so much ugliness in their family and neighborhoods and have received so little support that their sense of humanity (to the extent it ever existed) have left them long ago. Children who have survived incest or beatings or burns or just garden variety neglect. Children who from a young age stopped dreaming of anything and have just accepted life as disappointing, hurtful and empty. Children who have raised themselves, while being shuffled back and forth from house to house with nothing constant in their lives except the constancy of change. I would bet good money that the boys who perpetrated these crimes, like the observers who did nothing, have histories that are similar to the ones my clients have. They were frustrated, hate-filled, lost children who never developed any tools for self-empowerment, empathy or self-acceptance.
Ask my seven year old son what he wants to be when he grows up and he will rattle off a million different possibilities – from astronaut to bacteriologist, from super hero to artist or dishwasher (huh?). Ask one of my clients (the same age) what they want to be when they grow up and they invariably shrug their shoulders, mumble “nothing” and turn away. How does a child who has never experienced love or nurturing develop any sense of optimism, generosity or hope? How does a child who grows up in a household without parents, a household where drugs or mental illness or both is a way of life, develop a true moral compass or sense of right and wrong? How does a child who is surrounded by other disenfranchised wounded children learn to develop emotional intelligence or empathy for others? I certainly don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, but I am pretty sure that they don’t involve monetary incentives to report crime, extra police patrols or better lighting in alley ways.
Let me be clear, I am not trying to make excuses for the atrocity that happened the other night in Richmond. Clearly, something is broken with those boys and unfortunately the time to figure how to fix them as individuals has long past Beyond the outrage and the theories and questions however, we all need to stop for a moment and reflec.. This wasn’t simply an aberration or some inexplicable “wrong place wrong time” situation. This isn’t about “mob mentality” or the influence of video games on our youth. The issues raised through the incident in Richmond hint at something far more primal about what is missing for these and other children in our communities – a steady loving presence in their lives that gives security, time and space to believe in a better way. It sounds trite and idealistic and perhaps ridiculously simple. But its what I think about every time I work on a child abuse case. I think about how my small role in trying to piece together a broken family with a child in the middle might some day prevent a crime such as this. I try to remind myself that for every child that gets out of the foster care system and back into a healthy home that really wants them, I am helping give that child a second chance at reconnecting to his identity and community.
I have no doubt that there will be more crime in Richmond. I also have no doubt that my attorney friend will continue to make nonchalant comments about the situation on face book as her way of processing the horror. I can’t quite manage the same casual shake off. So instead I process this experience through blogging and working (for now) on my few child abuse cases with understanding, compassion and a sense of higher purpose – qualities that were sadly lacking in that alley in Richmond that night.