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Jewish World Review July 31, 2002 / 22 Menachem-Av, 5762

Bob Greene

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Why you will see
more of these stories | If you hate reading stories like this -- if they start your day off wrong, if they keep you awake at night -- there's something you should know:

You will be reading more of them, not fewer, in the years to come. Wherever you live in the United States, these stories are going to increase in your local newspaper, on your TV and radio.

We'll get to the reason why in a moment. But first, three current examples:

In Hillsborough County, Fla., a motorist was on his way to work when he thought he saw a child's blanket by the side of Interstate Highway 275, near a treeline.

The motorist couldn't get the sight of the blanket off his mind all day. So that evening he drove back, and saw that the blanket was still there. He got out of his car to have a look.

The blanket was colorful -- it had pictures of dancing dogs, from the movie "101 Dalmatians." The motorist opened the blanket and found Alfredo Montes, 2, who was dead.

Police in Florida say that a man named Richard Chouquer, 23, beat the child to death because the child had soiled his pants. Investigators say Chouquer told them he had slugged the boy in the face at least five times "with all the force I had." Chouquer and his girlfriend reportedly had been given Alfredo to care for by the boy's mother, Jeanna Lynn Swallows, an alleged drug abuser. Florida child-protection officials had received reports that Swallows herself had beaten the boy in the past.

According to police, Chouquer (who has been charged with first-degree murder) wrapped Alfredo in the blanket and put him in the trunk of his Ford Taurus. Chouquer, his girlfriend and three other children drove north toward Georgia, stopping to dump Alfredo's body. It lay by the woods until the motorist found it.

Here in Chicago last week, a 7-year-old boy jumped from the second-story window of a house where, he told police, he had been locked in a pantry for two days. Authorities said the boy lived with two adults who were not his parents, that he had not been to school in two years, and that conditions in the apartment were utter filth and squalor.

The child's mother reportedly gave him to the couple; as with the boy in Florida (whose last name authorities were uncertain how to correctly spell), the Chicago child's background is unclear. Authorities said he jumped from the window to escape.

Also in the Chicago area last week, Shanecia McClellan, a 9-year-old Harvey girl with cerebral palsy, allegedly lay dead in her bed for up to three days before anyone in the apartment noticed. Shanecia weighed 38 pounds.

In her case, and in the case of the child by the highway in Florida, state child-protection agencies had been told that there were problems. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had recently closed its case on Shanecia's family, after determining in 1999 that she was being medically neglected. In Florida, a caseworker has been arrested and charged with falsifying records in which she allegedly lied about checking up on Alfredo.

Which brings us to why you will be reading more, not fewer, of these stories.

Most states are undergoing severe budget tightening. Especially since last Sept. 11, funds are scarce, and governors and legislatures have been asked to squeeze every penny.

This is across the board -- and it means that child-protection budgets are going to shrink. In some states, there will be fewer caseworkers; in almost every state, workers will have more children added on to already unreasonably high caseloads. What sounds like a matter of numbers -- figures on a spreadsheet -- is going to translate to children who will be hurt or who will die. It's a virtual certainty.

When it happens, the public will become angry for a day or two--and then, somewhere, it will happen again. This country's child-protection agencies are far from perfect, but in many cases they are the only hope children who are being tortured or neglected have.

Someday we will have to explain it to the boys and girls who survive:

The reason we had to cut back on child protection is that we are going through very tough economic times. That's what we will ask the children to understand: that we, the taxpayers, have it really tough.

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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