There’s been a gruesome case of child abuse in Harris County, Texas that would make even the Brothers Grimm wince.
At the West Oaks Apartments, three Black children, ages 7, 10, and 15 were left to fend for themselves in an unfurnished, roach and fly-infested unit for nearly a year. They had no food or electricity as the dead body of their 8-year-old brother Kendrick Lee rotted in a closet covered by a blanket. Their mother, Gloria Y. Williams, 35, was living with her white boyfriend, Brian W. Coulter, 31, about 15 minutes away.
Williams has been charged with felony injury to a child by omission and tampering with evidence. Coulter has been charged with murder. The boys were thin and hungry, with old bruises on their bodies. The 10-year-old had a fractured jaw from being punched by Coulter weeks earlier.
Authorities say that sometime around last Thanksgiving, the brothers witnessed Coulter punch and kick 8-year-old Kendrick Lee in his face, feet, back, legs, buttocks and testicles until he was dead. Several months later, the parents moved to another apartment. During a news conference, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said, “For many agency veterans, it was the most disturbing scene they worked in their entire law enforcement career. It seemed too horrific to be real.”
In this multi-racial apartment complex, a number of neighbors told the press that they had no idea that there were abused children living in such dire conditions. Sheriff Gonzalez said that Williams periodically provided her children with junk food either by delivery or by dropping it off. A few neighbors bought the 15-year-old food and charged a cellphone for him. One of those neighbors was Erica Chapman who told a reporter that she occasionally saw the mother drop off food and that she had seen the teen sleeping on one of the slides.
Another neighbor, Trevor Thompson, reported that the teen would not accept cooked food because he was paranoid about being poisoned. And yet somehow his unusual behavior and physical appearance did not make either of these neighbors suspicious enough to call the police or child protective services.
A next-door neighbor who noticed a foul odor coming from the children’s apartment said she repeatedly complained to management about the smell, but no action was taken. Why didn’t she feel compelled to call the police? Or Child Protective Services?
According to the Alief School District, the boys last attended in May 2020. The district brought truancy charges against their mother, but those charges were dismissed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
More neighbors have come forward over the past few days wondering how they could have missed the signs of abuse. Like in many abuse cases, especially those that end with a fatality, family members expressed their shock, regret, and judgement during media interviews
“I hold myself partly responsible. I should have taken Ja’Veon and adopted him,” Linda Smith, the 71-year-old grandmother told the NY Post. “I wish I would have known how bad of a situation those kids were in; I would have adopted all of the kids.
We need to be asking how these children fell through the cracks. What happened to the notion of “it takes a village to raise a child” that helped Black communities through centuries of slavery and the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras that followed?
For context, let’s acknowledge what many of us feared at the start of the pandemic: a surge in child abuse cases that is confirmed by an increase in calls and texts to child abuse hotlines and recent studies on the myriad stressors related to family violence and child maltreatment. Experts say that the combination of pandemic shutdowns, job losses, and widespread economic instability raised parental stress, increased strain on family budgets and forced families to crowd together for quarantines, telecommuting, and remote schooling. On top of that, limited social and mental health supports for parents have exacerbated these stresses which drive up child abuse incidents.
So much abuse is likely going undetected because the usual mandated reporters aren’t consistently putting their eyes on children because school closures and online learning meant less in-person contact with students and thus fewer opportunities to monitor their conditions.
As Education Week reports, “Mandated reporters in schools and day-care facilities made up a third of all those who reported suspected abuse during the study in 2019, but that percentage fell by more than half in 2020, to only 16.4 percent. Police, social workers, and even people such as neighbors, who were not required to report, became more likely to be the ones to spot suspected child abuse.”
Stories like this Harris County case might represent just the tip of the iceberg and we won’t know the full scale of the damage until we are on the other side of this pandemic. But even factoring in the pandemic dynamics, there are still hard and uncomfortable questions to be asked and painful realities to consider when it comes to the abuse of children, especially Black victims.
When I read about the Harris County case, it brought back my own childhood nightmares. My adoptive mother abused and beat me long before this pandemic. And the village failed me just as it failed the children in this Texas horror story. My neighbors, teachers, the people at church, and family members all knew that my adoptive mother was abusive. They saw the bruises on my face. They witnessed how skinny and fearful I was. They all whispered about my abuse but took no action. Luckily, I survived.
I once asked an aunt, “Why didn’t y’all try to protect me? Why didn’t you call social services or the police?” “That was our sister,” she said. “We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t want to see her go to jail.” She was silent when I asked, “What would you have done if she had killed me?”
My aunt would have done exactly what the people in this Texas case did: admitted to seeing signs of abuse and expressed regret for not having helped.
This case is yet another horrible example of how many people turn a blind eye to the abuse of Black children. How could their mother not only fail to protect her own children from her violent boyfriend, but abandon those who survived his attacks? How could she keep coming to the apartment to drop off food, but never seek help? Never call or ask anyone to help?
How did this tragedy happen?
How could the neighbors have been so disconnected? How could they see a thin Black teenager begging for food, sleeping outdoors, smelling a foul odor coming from his apartment and not call the cops? Did they fail to act because they are accustomed to accepting the suffering of Black children who are impoverished, unkempt, starving, and abandoned? Is the adults’ fear of the police, child protective services—the system—so deep-rooted and pervasive that even this situation would have them enabling the suffering rather than reaching out to authorities to try to end it?
To understand how this kind of horrific abuse and so many failures could happen, we need to connect a number of factors:
First, we must always acknowledge the larger ecosystem of oppression and anti-Blackness that drive all systems in this country. So yes, the system is absolutely stacked against Black survival, Black families, Black children, and overall Black well-being. No question about that. But knowing that should make it even more problematic that Black communities have a child abuse problem that we desperately need to discuss and address. Because the ways we talk about it currently are not just dysfunctional, they’re contributing to these kinds of horrific outcomes.
I often hear Black folks say they refuse to call the police or social services when they see a child being physically assaulted by a parent or caretaker. “It’s not my business.” “It’s not my place to tell another parent how to parent their child.” “I don’t want to call the cops because they are trigger happy and they might shoot the parent.” “I don’t want to see another Black family broken up or another black child placed in the foster care system.”
But what if “the system” isn’t the biggest threat to young Black life?
The tragic reality is that Black children are more at risk of being seriously injured or killed by their own parents than by the police. Between 2013 to 2018, 41 Black children were killed by police in the United States, according to data from The Washington Post’s “Fatal Force” police shooting database. During that same period, 2,389 Black children were killed by their parents as a result of maltreatment, according to annual data published by the Children’s Bureau. Not that the police murders are at all justified. But we can’t ignore the fact that 2,345 more Black children were killed by their parents than by police.
This is an issue that we must face.
Child abuse is becoming more normalized as digital content featuring children being humiliated, shamed, verbally and physically abused spreads via social media. Like this recent video of a Black mother treating her son like a prison inmate. She has him stock shelves with his favorite junk food snacks, shown with price tags she has created, saying that he must pay for his “commissary” with good behavior until he is off punishment.
–Or this viral video of a mother saying, “So you have a disturbed son, a very bad-ass child who don’t like to listen and don’t think that you can send them to jail? You bring the jail to your home.” She shows her young child sitting on a mattress that’s wedged into a closet. “Inmate Johnson, what is your number?” she demands, as the clearly terrified child boys responds by reciting a number and the rules of his “imprisonment.”
I realize that these mothers might be parenting with the only tools available to them, based on how they were parented, and on the realities of their environments. But these approaches—and the compulsion to share them publicly—is a sad reminder that this country’s racist system has too many Black people on cruise control, doing its dirty multigenerational trauma work for it. These mothers are grooming their sons to feed them straight into the belly of the beast. If their own mothers are convinced that they are inherently criminal, destined for life behind bars, what chances do these children have to thrive? To grow into healthy adults? Why are their own mothers criminalizing them?
So much of this nation’s culture teaches us to view and parent Black children in detached, non-empathic ways. Not to connect with their pain. Not to normalize healthy development. Not to listen to their voices or consider their well-being. Not to fight for their lives. We’re caught between the rock of centuries of systemic racism and the hard place of a heartless social media culture that takes perverse pleasure in turning their trauma into entertainment. All of this normalizes the abuse and neglect and presumptive criminalization of Black children. We joke about beating kids in comedy, in social media memes and videos, and our urban radio stations. We preach about it through misquoted Bible verses. We celebrate the whuppings we received, claiming that they made us better people, kept us out of jail, contributed to our well-being and success. Few of us can admit that we were actually traumatized, so we repeat and reenact these cycles of pain from one generation to the next. And too often, those of us who do call out these forms of childism and protest violence against children are criticized, demonized, and even threatened.
Sometimes the fierce defense of Black mothers—including those who are abusive and/or neglectful—causes us to resist or shut down the conversations we need to be having about the suffering of our children in our communities. Gender politics further complicate an already tangled dynamic.
We argue over the difference between spanking and abuse. Over whether spanking is actually hitting. I’m convinced that some people don’t believe in child abuse until a child is laying in a casket or rotting into a dry skeleton in a closet with their starving siblings.
We must also consider the growing popularity of viral videos of Halloween photo shoots where Black parents are having their children terrorized on camera for entertainment. The children are dressed up and led to think they’re posing for a pretty picture—and then Halloween monsters scare them often into crying and/or running off the set. While the parents find this amusing and offer up their children’s distress for viral views, we need to address the obvious lack of healthy, nurturing parental attachment that these folks are exhibiting.
Perhaps these parents are reenacting trauma from their own childhoods, even if they don’t consciously recall the incidents that caused their trauma. Then they stage traumatic events for their children. This ensures that the pattern of trauma is passed on and makes the children more likely to be attracted into situations that replicate the original trauma as they grow. And there’s a good chance that when these children grow up and become parents, they’ll subconsciously repeat these cycles. And offering up child trauma as entertainment creates a false sense of safety, a twisted cycle where having children terrorized, shamed, humiliated, and laughed at is a coping mechanism for the problematic parent.
We don’t know whether the parents in these viral videos and holiday photo shoots are ever confronted by the authorities or offered help in becoming more nurturing parents. But like every other type of content that we consume on a regular basis, this cycle of detached parenting and Black child suffering is becoming so normalized that we’re in danger of becoming desensitized to this abuse of Black children to the point where the sight of a malnourished, paranoid, teenager begging for food or sleeping outdoors doesn’t move folks to seek help. And worse, folks can endure the stench of a rotting a child’s dead body for months without calling 911.
When we factor in child services, we’re seeing a recognized a racial disproportionality movement, described by a Harvard University paper, that is leading professionals to under investigate child abuse and neglect. To reduce the number of Black children entering into foster care as a result of abuse, child welfare professionals are increasingly “screening out” calls for suspected child abuse. There haven’t been any state or national level studies to show whether disproportionately higher numbers of calls of Black child abuse are being screened out to avoid claims of racial discrimination. However, in my work as a child advocate, I keep hearing stories of non-Black child welfare professionals who don’t report abuse because they either don’t want to be accused of racism, or they just accept that beating kids is an intrinsic part of Back culture. It is not unheard of for district attorneys prosecuting child abuse cases to find multiple, even dozens of screen-out calls for injured or even murdered children.
Meanwhile, in addition to viral social media content, the normalization of abusing and humiliating Black children is also promoted via jokes, religious dogma, and more. Black children are routinely criminalized, ignored, and too often left to suffer in silence or die.
So, when we consider this latest story in all of its heartbreaking horror, we struggle to understand what would make a Black mother so detached from her children that she serves them up to her white beau to beat and even murder. When we ask the tough questions and consider the research that does exist, we’re left to conclude that not only is the racist system doing its assigned job of maintaining Black dehumanization and suffering, even among our youngest, but that the notion of Black family and community life, that heritage of collective care and nurturing that we love to tout in the recent past, is not working anymore.
It takes a village to beat and murder a child.
Stacey Patton is a journalist, child advocate, and author of Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America and the forthcoming Strung Up: The Lynching of Black Children in Jim Crow America