- The Washington Times - Friday, January 11, 2008

“Nobody knew that family,” a woman said. So how were these neighbors supposed “to know what was going on?” Clear question, but the answer is not so easily discernable or excusable.

The woman begging the question during a television interview Wednesday had just boasted only seconds earlier that everybody knows everybody in this Washington Highlands neighborhood of grayish-blue row houses on the southernmost outreaches of town.

Well, which is it? By all accounts, the family in the tragic spotlight had lived in the 4200 block of Sixth Street Southeast for at least 18 months.

Either way, the decomposed bodies of four girls — ages 5, 6, 11 and 17 — were discovered Wednesday when U.S. marshals went to a second-story apartment to evict its occupants.

U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor said the woman who “calmly” answered the door is presumably the girls’ mother. Banita Jacks, 33, was arrested and charged yesterday with felony murder.

During another television interview, a female relative said Miss Jacks was “struggling” after the father of two of her children died of cancer a year ago.

As shocking as what Mr. Taylor termed a “horrible and heartbreaking tragedy” is the reality that five persons could be in distress for so long without notice or intervention.

The unkempt mother had lost considerable weight, said a second neighbor, and the children’s bodies were “very desiccated,” said D.C. Medical Examiner Dr. Marie-Lydie Y. Pierre-Louis.

In a bone-chilling moment, Dr. Pierre-Louis said her staff was able to determine how long the children had been dead by the insects that had taken up residence around them.

How could anybody smell the stench of decaying flesh for more than two weeks and not report it to animal control or the Department of Public Works, if to no other authorities? Was it fear, apathy or total dissociation that kept the neighbors at bay?

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty assured city residents that there will be a “critical case review” of this unthinkable tragedy — now. We will hold him to that pledge.

Why didn’t child protective services continue its “investigation” until authorities made at least one face-to-face encounter with this mother? Why weren’t the children checked for truancy, if indeed they were enrolled in school? Why didn’t the police follow up on their referral for suspected child endangerment when they canvassed the block on an unrelated search, as one report noted?

The realty or mortgage company can hardly be let off the hook. Isn’t it standard practice to conduct property inspections at regular intervals? If not, it should be.

Of course, we have to wonder why this woman’s family wasn’t able or allowed to come to her rescue.

However, the first line of defense for all is a caring, even curious, neighbor.

At the heart of the horrific deaths of these four girls lies the cultural shift in the sense of community and neighborhood in our nation. Do we know our responsibilities and obligations to the people who live next door anymore? Remember the “Stone Soup” fable? Everyone in the village was starving until someone placed a stone in a big caldron and put it on a fire in the town square. Each neighbor put one item into the boiling water. By day’s end, everyone ate.

It’s up to neighbors to welcome, build, sustain and stabilize one another. But how many of us can provide the name and phone number of the people living to the right or left of us?

Yesterday, an elderly neighbor to my right knocked on my back door, bearing a plate of chicken, potatoes, green vegetables and homemade cornbread as he does on occasion. To the left, my young disrespectful neighbors are doing their best to turn our block into a soundstage for Snoop Dogg’s next music video.

Trust me: I’m painfully aware of the risks involved in attempting to intervene in your neighbor’s unsettling or mysterious behavior. It is a fine line to walk between appearing nosy and concerned or combative.

A good neighbor is a blessing because almost everybody must suffer knuckleheaded neighbors who prove a never-ending nuisance. These selfish folks act as if they are living on a deserted island where the zoning laws do not apply to them.

And, what about the quirky or spooky types? Folks avoid them and their idiosyncrasies as if they had a communicable disease until it’s too late. Then they find themselves standing in front of a television camera saying, “That sort of thing never happens here.”

Love thy neighbor as thyself? You don’t have to love your neighbors, but you sure ought to keep tabs on them, especially vulnerable children, seniors and crying women being beaten to a pulp day after day.

More dangerous than apathy or fear is our total dissociation from our neighbors, as the unfortunate ends of so many young lives demonstrate.

In the wake of this latest calamity, someone wiser than me said: “Strong neighborhoods build strong governments, not the other way around.”

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