A 13-year-old holds her baby brother as he dies after he was beaten by their mother’s boyfriend. A 7-year-old lies in the top bunk as her father strangles her mother underneath. A 3-year-old is present in the stroller, and found covered in blood, when his mother is shot, allegedly at the hands of her husband and a female associate of his. A 16-year-old and 5-year-old discover their mother shot three times in the abdomen and three times in the head by her ex-boyfriend.
After reading the headlines of these news stories, have you ever wondered what happened to these children? Who is taking care of them? Were they placed in foster care? Do they have the emotional, familial and financial support that they need?
Some of the most complex cases that our office, the Children’s Law Center New York (CLCNY), has worked on have involved the death of one parent allegedly at the hands of the other parent, frequently in front of the children. In such cases, the maternal and paternal families quickly square off, staking their claim on the child. Often, the child’s relationship with the other family is minimized and the children’s feelings, during a time when they should have the love and support from everyone, are lost or ignored. In such traumatic cases, children’s overriding desire is generally for a stable home and to maintain relationships with all members of the maternal and paternal families. However, a decision often needs to be made quickly about whom the child should live with as the court case over their future plays out.
In the last year I have personally worked on and represented children in five such cases. In addition, I have represented children in child protective proceedings related to parent and child fatalities. I have observed that the level of attention in the media and reaction in community, including offers of financial support, are drastically different depending on the neighborhood the children lived in, their race, and how sensational or dramatic the murder was. With respect to fatalities in child protective proceedings, the media and community generally seem to focus on high-profile cases in which the Administration for Children’s Services is accused of dropping the ball. Yet, many other cases are filed in family court in which the child or parent has been killed and little attention is paid. Why?
I believe that there is a racial and socio-economic imbalance in how the media and community views and reacts to such violent deaths, which in turn, results in dramatically different amounts of support for the families. Almost 20 years ago Robert Entman, then an associate professor of communications at Northwestern University, conducted a study and found that, on average, stories about white victims of violent crimes lasted 74 percent longer than stories about black victims. The total time given to white victims was 2.8 times more than the total time devoted to both black and Hispanic victims. There is no current research to show that there has been any improvement in reporting.
This dramatic difference in reporting has serious consequences for the children and other victims of these crimes. A child whose parent is murdered in a wealthy neighborhood, where such a crime is “unexpected,” is more likely to be the subject of extensive media attention. He or she is then more likely to receive an outpouring of financial and community support that can allow them to begin to recover and move forward. A child whose parent is murdered in Brownsville, a neighborhood which in 2011 had the highest murder rate in the city, is less likely to be the subject of extensive media coverage, and thus less likely to receive the necessary financial and community support.
Perhaps we are desensitized because yet another death of a black woman at the hands of a black man, or a child at the hands of a parent, in a neighborhood such as Brownsville is not considered out of the norm. It is disheartening to know that these type of deaths have become commonplace such that little to no attention is paid to the survivors – the children.
It’s unlikely that the media will change, so their readers and viewers must. After reading about or watching a horrifying news story involving innocent children, follow up. Search for their names. Ask for more information. Oftentimes there are community events or funds that are set up to support the child victims of crimes in poor neighborhoods, but without media attention, such campaigns won’t garner as much support as they could. Those who care must take it upon themselves to look for ways to help.
I urge you, the next time that you learn about a violent death in the City involving children who are left behind, ask yourself the questions and take the steps posed here. It is time that we pay attention. It is time that we cared.
Contributions by Sarah McCarthy, Kirkland & Ellis Fellow. The views expressed are of those of the authors and not of the organization.