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This Family Shouldn't Have Been Saved
By Kay S. Hymowitz, a contributing editor of City Journal and author of "Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future—And Ours" (Free Press, 1999).
A boy has an argument with a girl in his class. The next day, he brings a .32-caliber semiautomatic pistol to school and shoots her in the chest. She is pronounced dead at a nearby hospital within an hour.
The raw facts of the Michigan case resemble other school shootings enough to mobilize the same ambulance chasers—gun-control lobbyists, school-safety experts, advocates of "conflict resolution" curriculums—we heard from after the killings in Littleton, Colo., Jonesboro, Ark., and Springfield, Ore. According to the Detroit Free Press, even Geoffrey Fieger, the infamous lawyer for Jack Kevorkian who went on to represent the family of a Columbine victim in a lawsuit against the parents of the gunmen, has gotten into the act. Rick Rolland, whose six-year-old daughter Kayla died Tuesday, has talked to Mr. Fieger about suing the school.
Yet none of these people are prepared to address the obvious causes of this week's horror at Buell Elementary School outside Flint, Mich. The unnamed six-year-old who shot Kayla was seriously neglected—first by his parents, then by the "family preservation" policies of Michigan.
Take a good look at this boy's family. His father, Dedric Owens, who has six children by three different women, has been jailed for cocaine possession and burglary. At the time of the shooting, he was in jail yet again for a parole violation.
Tamarla Owens, the boy's mother, was "involved in drugs," according to an affidavit from a social worker. She also had a1992 conviction for child abuse. Recently evicted, she put her two sons—the first-grade assailant and his eight-year-old brother—in the home of her own brother, subject of an outstanding warrant for felony theft. Neighbors of the uncle had reported hearing gunshots and seeing strangers coming and going late at night. Even the feckless Dedric Owens called the place "a crack house."
Even before shooting Kayla Rolland, the Owens boy had shown many disturbing signs of such an upbringing. He had been suspended from school for fighting. In one instance, according to his father, he had stabbed another child with a pencil. He said he hated everyone. He spent much of his spare time watching violent television programs and movies. And clearly he was seeing violence in his home.
How could the killing have happened? That's no mystery. All children have the capacity for harming those who make them angry. Many cultures recruit youngsters as soldiers precisely because they have not yet internalized the taboos against violence. The Owens child got mad at a classmate, pulled a gun and shot her. After questioning by the police, he sat and contentedly drew pictures. There was nothing in this boy's experience to internalize a sense that killing was wrong.
Although it appears that the state's child-welfare bureaucracy, the Family Independence Agency, was aware of the life this boy was leading, Michigan authorities failed to take timely action. The agency had filed a report last year alleging that Tamarla Owens had abused her older son. The social worker's affidavit saying Mrs. Owens was "involved with drugs" was filed the day after the shooting—but surely the agency didn't learn about this in the space of 24 hours. The six-year-old had been assigned a social worker who was aware of his fights in school. We don't know whether the agency was aware that the boy was living at the drug- and gun-filled home of his uncle, but it was commonly known that he and his brother were spending a lot of time there.
Still, even if social workers had known all the details of the family's disorder, it's reasonable to assume that the Family Independence Agency was unlikely to do much about it. As its name suggests, this agency, like many child-welfare bureaucracies, follows an ideology called "family preservation," which aims to keep children with their biological parents at almost any cost. Indeed, the Family Independence Agency vows to "treat consumers"—consumers!—"as experts of their own situation."
Now that Kayla Rolland is dead, the Owens children have come under the jurisdiction of the Genesee County Family Court, where they will be supervised by the Family Independence Agency. One of the agency's first acts was to put the children in the custody of their maternal aunt. Meanwhile the Genesee County prosecutor, in bringing manslaughter charges against the man believed to have stolen the gun, announced that he was hoping to send a message that "those guns that you think can make you safer can only make our communities more dangerous."
The real danger, though, is family-preservation policies that leave children like the Owens boys to languish in abusive and neglectful homes. In this case, it was Kayla Rolland—a child not even related to the family being "preserved"—who paid the ultimate price.
©2000 The Wall Street Journal
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