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Jewish World Review Aug. 12, 1999 /30 Av 5759

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Why wasn't anyone watching his brothers? --
THERE'S A LITTLE BOY sitting in my office right now. He's 6; his name is Mike. He has soft, questioning eyes and he is very quiet. He's in my chair, playing with some things on my desk.

The reason he's inside the office is that I walked outside for a moment. I had to talk with his father, Michael Higgs, and I didn't want the child to hear what we were discussing.

Michael Higgs works in Chicago's Tribune Tower, down near the old loading docks. He does messenger work, carrying advertising proofs around the city.

At the beginning of the summer, he had two other sons. Jorie was 3; Dallas was 2.

One weekend the boys' mother -- her name is Diane Powell, 40 -- dropped Jorie and Dallas, two of her nine children, off at a house in Rockford. She was heading to Chicago for the weekend, where -- according to police -- she lived but had no permanent address.

So she left the boys at a house where six people were staying. One of them was her oldest son, who is 19; the relationship of the six people in the house in Rockford is unclear. Some were over 21; some were as young as 17.

On an oppressively hot morning, the boys, along with another 2-year-old, were left to their own devices. No one was watching them.

Some time later, someone in the house noticed that the children were missing.

A neighborhood search was begun. After a while, all three boys were found in a car -- a Mercury Topaz, parked near the house. It belonged to one of the six people who were staying there.

The temperature in the car, police said, was 130 degrees. The windows were all the way up. Jorie, the 3-year-old, was dead when he was found. His 2-year-old brother Dallas was rushed to a hospital, where he later died. The other 2-year-old, from another family, survived.

The two brothers essentially were cooked to death.

And the question is, how did they get in that car? Did they get into it themselves, and then not know how to get out? Or did someone put them there?

"We have no evidence that anyone put the children in the car," said Rockford Police Lt. Dan Gray. "In fact, we don't think that that happened."

Lt. Gray said that 3-year-old children of fellow police officers were used to see if children that young could get into that particular car by themselves. The answer was yes.

No charges have been filed against anyone. Winnebago County State's Atty. Paul Logli said the deaths of the two boys are being considered accidental.

As for whether children that young should ever be left unsupervised for long enough for something like this to happen -- and for no one to notice their absence -- "Bad parenting? Yes," Lt. Gray said. "Illegal? Probably not. Someone should have been watching these kids."

Lt. Gray saw 3-year-old Jorie at the hospital, where he was officially pronounced dead. "He was in a cubicle in the emergency room," Lt. Gray said. "He had a pair of shorts on and no shirt. He looked like he was sleeping; he looked like a child who might wake up at any moment. . . ." His voice trailed off.

Michael Higgs does not believe his two youngest sons walked out to the car themselves and let themselves in to die: "They're not like that. They would have just sat there in the house. Go outside, and get into a car? Not them."

He is haunted by an awful thought. He fears that one of the people in the house -- not wanting to bother with watching the children who had been left there -- may have put them in the car, just to get away from them for a while.

And then forgotten they were there.

He can't prove it -- but he can't shake the thought. And in the end, all that matters is that the boys are dead because no one was looking out for where they were. The little boy in my office comes to work with his father every day now. He is only vaguely aware of what has happened to his brothers.

"I tell him that they're in heaven, with his grandma, but I don't know if he understands," Higgs said.

"We were walking down the street, and we saw some flowers, and he said he wanted to pick them and give them to Jorie and Dallas. He saw some clothes in a store window, and he said he wanted to buy them for Jorie and Dallas to wear. . . ."

No one is sure what will become of the 6-year-old. Will he be returned to the woman who dropped his brothers off in Rockford? Will he also be left to stay with the people his brothers were entrusted to? The sweltering summer wears on.

Even the police admit that no one really knows for certain what happened that day the children died.

It would be nice to find out. There's a sad-eyed little boy in my office, sitting in the chair, saying nothing, waiting for the afternoon to pass. Someday he's going to want to know the answer. He deserves to have it.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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