If you have not read this story yet about the girl in the closet, I warn you that it is a haunting story you may never rid from your memory. The Dallas Morning News has been running this all week, with the first story taking up most of Sunday’s front page. If you don’t want to read it, I’ll just give you a brief summary.
Barbara and Kenny Atkinson are serving a life sentence in Texas (eligible for parole in 2031) for child abuse. Barbara Atkinson is the mother of six kids. She does not know who fathered three of her children. Her second child, Lauren Kavanaugh, was kept in a closet, beaten and sexually abused until she was found in 2001 at age 8, weighing little more than 25 pounds (the weight of a toddler). To read the horrors of what she suffered makes you wonder about humanity. This girl lived in her own defecation; she had cigarette burns on her head and back. At age 8, she was not potty-trained; she did not even know to sit in a chair or use a pencil. It’s heartbreaking. As parents, we know that we would forgo our own meals to feed our children. To see our babies hurt, makes us hurt. How can a mother, another human even, do this to a trusting child?
It is stories like this that make me cringe when I hear people say that god has blessed them, that he has intervened in their lives and kept them safe.
It was the step-father, who had also been abusing the child, who turned the mother in. When I first read the story on Sunday, I thought that this was evidence the man was human–he had a conscience; he sought help. But later in the week, we find that, no, indeed, the step-father was not doing the right thing. He was angry at his wife for running off with another man and leaving him with six kids.
If we are only as strong as our weakest link, what does this mother and step-father’s horrible abuse reveal about us? About our society?
This girl and her siblings are forever damaged. We can hardly expect them to be functioning members of their communities without some kind of help and support from the rest of us. You might wonder why Lauren had to suffer for so long. Yes CPS was notified, but the Atkinsons were able to elude CPS visits by moving, even though Barbara Atkinson was still receiving regular welfare checks. Apparently, the state did know how to find her. Neighbors, relatives, friends? Someone, you would think, had to know.
Every year, 6 million children are reported as abused, with 4-7 child fatalities a day due to abuse or neglect. The U.S. has one of the worst records of abuse among industrialized nations. Why do we require hair stylists and plumbers and drivers to obtain licenses, but not parents? Why is it harder to adopt a dog than have a child? Shouldn’t having children be a privilege rather than a right? Everyone has the right to life; but it seems to me that everyone should not have the right to make new life.
Does reading about these cases day in and day out help us, as a people, to know that this evil exists? Do news reports make us more aware so that we can report abuse or do they immunize us to the horrors of what people are capable of?
The scary thing is, this couple, the Atkinsons, will get parole one day. Do they deserve to be free when they have permanently damaged six children? Perhaps the most important question we need to answer is not how do we punish these people, but how do we, as a society, avoid creating these types of parents to begin with?