There are some stories too terrible to read. And yet we must read them, because in the end they pose questions all of us must answer. The saga of Clarence and Ernest Wright is such a story. Painfully detailed in a series of articles by Nina Bernstein in the New York Times, the boys’ tale is one of unspeakable abuse. But worse, it is the chronicle of indifference and our own fear of getting involved, even when intervention is clearly called for.
Clarence, 7, and Ernest, 8, are now being treated in New York’s Presbyterian Hospital, the victims of multiple facial stabbings and beatings by their mother, Linda A. Harley, 38, who now sits in jail awaiting trial on 41 counts of abuse. Harley is no stranger to the criminal justice system. She has been arrested at least 29 times for drug possession, prostitution and for stabbing the boys’ father, Ernest Wright, 18 times. Her children, including three older children, have spent most of their lives apart from their mother because of her history of violence and abuse.
Clarence and Ernest, too, lived with relatives until 1998, when New York’s Administration for Children’s Services returned custody of the two boys to their mother. At first, all went well. The mother’s drug addiction seemed to be under control. The boys attended school. Their father took care of them while their mother worked as a practical nurse. But sometime late last year, Linda Harley allegedly reverted to her brutal ways.
When school officials noticed Ernest had a laceration on his head, social services sent case workers to the home to investigate. But, as often happens in such cases, both the boy and his mother denied any abuse, blaming the cuts on an accident that they said occurred while Harley shaved the boy’s head. The social worker didn’t pursue the investigation. Soon after, Harley took both boys out of school, ostensibly for a funeral down South, then took them on a 3,000-mile journey to and from California.
It is at this point that the boys’ story becomes our own. For weeks, Clarence’s and Ernest’s fate was written on their faces. This was no hidden story of abuse, but one whose details were painfully obvious to anyone who came in contact with the boys in their trek across America. Their wounds were fresh, untreated, and so severe that one of the boys lost most of his lips from lacerations.
The boys and their mother stayed in motels in California where clerks and other staff had to have seen the boys and where maids cleaned blood-smeared walls, without ever notifying authorities. The family traveled at least one way on Amtrak trains; yet ticket agents, porters and passengers ignored their obvious plight. Did no one wonder why the boys wore ski masks indoors? One woman apparently cared enough to tell one of the boys that she would pray for them. But they needed more than her prayers. They needed someone willing to intervene.
Most of us fear involvement in such cases, however. We don’t know the circumstances. It’s none of our business. If we’re wrong, we’ll look foolish. Or worse, maybe we’ll be sued. Besides, we’re in a hurry, and intervening will take time. We’ll have to stick around and talk to the authorities, file reports, maybe testify. What’s more, we have our own problems to worry about. Why should we interfere in someone else’s predicament?
There are a million excuses. How many times have we ignored a situation that clearly called out for action?
Yet if only one person had notified the police, Clarence and Ernest might have been spared at least some of the terrible wounds their mother inflicted. The boys’ relatives, fearing the worst when the children disappeared, had already called the authorities, who were searching for them in the weeks they were missing. But no one bothered to place the call in the weeks she traveled across country.
The boys’ mother will undoubtedly be punished for her terrible crime. But wouldn’t it have been better if someone — anyone — had intervened to stop the abuse? We should all remember Clarence and Ernest the next time we avert our eyes or walk away from a situation calling out for our intercession.