December 3, 2008

Suburban communities are reeling from two cases of horrific long-term abuse of kids that took place without neighbors apparently knowing

News reports were filled this week with the tragic cases of two teen-agers who had been imprisoned in suburban homes for nearly a year or more and brutally beaten and neglected--in one case leading to the death of a 14-year-old girl. Meanwhile, neighbors of these teens are despairing over the fact that these children were essentially being tortured at the house next door, across the street, or down the road.

It doesn't seem as though these neighbors should blame themselves for failing to act on obvious red flags. By all accounts, it sounds like the adults arrested in these cases were very good at keeping their alleged abuses secret and locked behind closed doors. Maybe some neighbors heard a bit of yelling coming from one of the houses, but, perhaps understandably they dismissed that as a typical family argument.

In general, from what I've read, neighbors were not ignoring any glaringly bright red flags. In the case of the 14-year-old girl, she apparently told a friend she was being abused, but swore the friend to secrecy. How was this friend supposed to react to such information? She's a child herself, and her friend is telling her she is being abused at home but is terrified that things will get worse if anyone snitches her abuser out.

These cases are a tragedy for everyone involved, rippling out into the schools these kids attended and into the community these kids lived in. These cases can make us all more aware of that kid in the neighborhood or at our child's school who looks or act troubled. Maybe, somehow, we should speak up. I'm not sure how. If anyone has any ideas, let me know. We worry that we're jumping to conclusions or we're being unfairly judgmental. We like to think of ourselves as decent people, but we don't want to stick our noses into what seems to be other people's business. At the same time, maybe there are times we should...

Anyway, if you haven't already read about these cases, here are my summaries.

The most recent case involves an emaciated 17-year-old boy who, wearing only boxer shorts and a three-foot chain padlocked to his ankle, stumbled into a gym in Tracy on Monday afternoon, according to the Contra Costa Times and San Francisco Chronicle.

The boy, who had been reported missing from a foster home in 2007, had visible cuts and burns on his back, was reportedly covered with urine and feces, and shivering with cold and terror. He asked gym employees to hide him, saying he was afraid his captors would find him.

He had apparently spent the best part of the past year, locked at times in the garage of a two-story faux Tudor home and “neglected” to the point of emaciation, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

His suspected captors include his 43-year-old aunt, Caren Ramirez, who had had a prior warrant for abusing the boy, and the couple, Michael Luther Schumacher, 34, and Kelly Layne Lau, 30, who were renting the Tracy house. According to Lau’s MySpace page, as outlined in the Contra Costa Times, she described herself as a typical suburban stay-at-home mother of four, who loves camping and spending time with her children. Her kids include two daughters, ages 9 and 5, and two boys, ages 2 and 1. The older girl is involved in Girl Scouts, and the younger girl is a budding ballerina. The Times quotes Lau, on her MySpace page, writing “We have a dog named BUBBA, and no white picket fence, but our neighbor has one.”

Neighbors say Schumacher, a contractor for a cable company, Lau ,and their kids moved into the neighborhood about three years ago. Neighbors noticed the victim at the house, mostly coming outside in front to do chores and throw out the garbage. He usually seemed shy and withdrawn. According to the Times, one neighbor allowed her 11-year-old granddaughter to spend the night at Schumacher and Lau’s home, and that the granddaughter reported seeing the boy sleep at night "on a piece of carpet in front of the door to the garage."

Schumacher and Lau were booked into county jail that evening. Their children have been taken into the care of social services. Ramirez was arrested on Tuesday at an acquaintance’s home in Berkeley, the Chronicle says. All three are facing charges of conspiracy, kidnapping, torture, false imprisonment and child abuse.

The second case involves Jazzmin Davis., a 15-year-old girl from Antioch, who, authorities believe, was kept imprisoned, mostly in a second-floor bedroom, and tortured and starved by her aunt for at least a year. The Times this week published an exhaustively researched and movingly written story about Jazzmin’s short, tragic life.

According to the Times: Police on September 2 found Davis’s naked body in the bedroom she shared with her twin brother. Although 5 feet 7 inches tall, she weighed only 78 pounds. Her body was riddled with open wounds and sores over her head, face, body, arms and legs, court records show. Among the items that police took from the house was a bloody and broken wooden closet rod, a belt with a padlock attached to the end and a clothes iron. She also was beaten across the face and head with a carpet tack strip, police said earlier. Jazzmin's twin brother suffered similar abuses and was taken into the custody of the Contra Costa County child welfare system.

The twins’ aunt, Shemeeka Davis, the twins' aunt, remains in custody. She became their foster mother when the twins were two months old. They were born in San Francisco to a drug-addicted mother and a father behind bars.

Shemeeka Davis managed to keep neighbors from finding out what she allegedly was doing to her niece and nephew. However, one neighbor reported hearing yelling from the house. Meanwhile, according to the Times, Jazzmin told a friend her aunt was abusing her but swore the friend to secrecy, “saying she had been punished in the past for confiding in another adult.”

The San Francisco Human Services Agency, which oversaw Jazzmin’s placement with her aunt, is conducting an internal review of their handling of the case.


Anonymous said...

I think neighbors in the case of the Tracy boy did miss red flags. In one story I read, the neighbor talked about seeing him looking thin and withdrawn and wondering why he didn't go to school.

Anonymous said...

I don't know. What would you do? I've heard yelling come from the house across the street. It turned out to be that the father, who is very ill with a chronic disease, had a bad mix with his medication, and was acting strangely, and his son was trying to calm him down. Of course, we knew something was wrong, and the son later came over and told us what was going on. I probably would have checked in to make sure everything is okay. They are a nice family, and the yelling coming from their house was out of character.