Being Born and Dying Black

The eleven white caskets were lined up per their respective length and held the bodies of Jeanette Williams, 11; Angel, 9; twins Carl and Caressa, 7; Tracey, 6; Anthony, 5; Willie, 4; twins, Kattie and Kitty, 3;  James, 2; and Lottie, 10months (their real names). It was on a cold January Morning in East St. Louis, Illinois, 1981 at approximately 2:00am when these black children died as a result of neglect in a house fire and the story quickly became national and international news. Later it would be revealed at approximately the same time and date a white boy, Allan Madden, age 5, died in Quincy, Illinois, his body riddled with the classics signs of physical abuse. Both cases had one common denominator, that of having a current involvement with the child welfare agency that existed to protect them. A child welfare agency that quickly evolved into becoming a “child welfare industry” bent more on self preservation of the agency at the expense of the so often quoted “best interest of the child.”  Cloaked in the shroud of confidentiality, deeply weighted down by a culture of silence and always at the ready to offer up a human sacrifice either management or non-management, the public paid for a system that kept the taxpayer forever in the dark. Generally after each and every tragic event (death with media attention) of child abuse or neglect, a call was made by the agency for more money and more staff as the children industrial complex became larger and more out of control. What follows can be call the “confessions of an ex-caseworker,” as I will write of what my eyes have seen and my ears have heard. No more, no less. Now back to the eleven children and back to more than 33 years ago.

During our Sunday Morning Worship Service my pastor made the announcement to the congregation regarding the death of the eleven children. The ambers from the fire had not been extinguished but this story would captivate the media, local, national and international for the days, weeks, months and years to come. I learned later that the agency’s case record had been summon by the director and an airplane was dispatch from central office to retrieve the files. There exists nothing more confidential than juvenile court records, however later the court would open up the files to the media to show that any court action against the family had been dismissed at the request of the state. In essence everyone was running for cover and the juvenile court system was quick to show that the court system did not have any blood on their hands. Damage control back then, like today hinges on being politically correct and using the right words like “I did not have sex with that woman” to your political favor. Who knows, the job that you save may very well be your own. With no need to go off into the blame game as there always exist plenty of room for blame for everyone involved, information was gradually released on how the mother of the eleven children went from one State to another State to avoid child protective services. How there had been a history of neglect and lack of supervision and other facts of the case. But when the dust finally settled the State took the position that everything had been done proper and in order as it relate to the eleven black children and the child welfare agency dropped the ball as it relates to the case of the little white boy. But in fact, the truth was hidden behind the walls of confidentiality and control silence. The Child Welfare Agency dropped the ball on “both cases” but covered up “the less important” eleven little black children. No one knew that the agency had “only one black child abuse/neglect investigator” that was serving a geographic population of more than 70,000 blacks residents in five interconnected black municipalities. No one knew that more than 9 investigators were “white” that tried to avoid the black communities at all cost. Many of the white investigators could not find (in actuality did not want to find) the address of a black resident even if the house had the “Good Year Blimp” anchored to the roof. Cultural diversity and sensitivity training was in its infant stage as one white investigator was noted for asking the question, “Is there anything any the papers today regarding (the mother) and her crispy critters?” making reference to the eleven children who died in the fire. I would frequently inform different directors of the agency that the qualifications for working with abused and neglected children should be that one had to be a “racist or hated children”, hence including both white and black employees without exceptions.

While working on this “post” I “Googled” Allan Madden and was surprised regarding the printed information regarding his death and the failure of the system to protect him. I “Googled” the mother’s name of the eleven children who died in a house fire and discovered the lack of information and memorials to their death. For 33 years I have wondered if there exist head stones or markers for the eleven children.  I often wonder have these eleven children like our black history, been ignored, lost and forgotten? January, 11, 1981 has always had a special meaning for me, not only because I had a personal involvement with their lives and questioned God many times, “why?  The mother and the father of the eleven children were blamed and vilified, but no one blamed the various social agencies and neighbors who knew about the ongoing neglect. No one blamed the public and the media who failed to ask the right questions. No one blamed the politicians who continue to respond to the lobbyist and pour money into a broken system long after the “Blue Ribbon Committee” had been disbanded.

The poem by James Patrick Kinney, The Cold Within” the last stanza best describes the lost of these eleven precious children who lives were extinguished much too earlier on that cold January morning at 2 am.

…They did not die from cold without…

They died from cold within.”