Undoubtedly, you instantly recognized the photo above as that of Zahra Baker, the Hickory North Carolina 10 year old who was recently confirmed dead, allegedly at the hands of her stepmother and possibly her father. The details are blurry. It has not yet been confirmed if the stepmother acted alone or if Zahra’s father was involved. Accusations are flying.
Several reports have alleged that Zahra’s stepmother was terribly abusive towards her. In articles I searched and read this morning, this was a common theme. One article quoted a family member as having witnessed beatings, but she didn’t call DSS or the police because she was addicted to drugs and feared being caught or charged. Other articles have stated that other people involved DID call DSS, and that the school that Zahra attended had also tried to get involved and help.
I have never seen so many people I know so upset by a story. My Facebook page is exploding with tributes to Zahra and heartbreaking status updates about how this case and this little girl are haunting them. So many people say they wish she was here so they could hug her, comfort her, take care of her.
It is too late for Zahra. It is NOT TOO LATE however, for countless other children out there who are enduring the very same abuse and neglect in their homes. Unfortunately, I can almost guarantee you that within your county, your city, your state, there are several children just like Zahra that need you. NOW.
We all feel helpless when we hear of these stories. And in some cases—either by geography or circumstances- we are. But, if more people in every community started to take action, to get involved in organizations that prevent and aid in child abuse cases, it would make a difference.
I was a Guardian ad Litem in the state of NC many years ago, and the impact it made on my life was significant. I know that my involvement was crucial in at least one case that involved a child being removed from a dangerous home situation- and I hold that memory dear to my heart. The real impact that experience had on me though was the stacks and stacks of folders of abuse cases in ONE county in North Carolina, too numerous and horrific to stomach. I was in shock to learn of the sheer number of cases, and over half of them as serious and horrific as a Susan Smith case or a Zahra Baker case. So many don’t make it into the media, so we all—understandably so—think these are isolated cases. Abuse seems to happen “somewhere else” in another neighborhood.
It happens every day, in every socioeconomic situation. In the worst neighborhoods, and in the best. From people you would expect, and people you would never dream could harm a child.
So, here’s my call to action for everyone reading this, everyone I know, everyone who is aching over Zahra Baker. DO SOMETHING. Not just writing a check to an organization—that does help—but we need more.
First, pay attention to the children you know, the children in your child’s school, children in your church, your co-worker’s children—everywhere. We should not be a paranoid society, accusing innocent people of wrong doing. But, children give signals, and most of us know—we get that gut feeling when something is wrong. If you get these signals, get involved, find out what’s going on, and if need be—report it. Yes, it is drastic. Yes, it is a HUGE decision not to be taken lightly or made for any other reason than the safety and well being of a child. But, you could be changing a life--saving a life.
Severe abuse is not always physical. You can’t just look for bruises and broken bones. The worst abuse is sometimes emotional and is easy for the abuser (and the victim) to hide. Again, listen to your gut. Does the child seem sad, depressed, timid, or excessively anxious or worried? Do things just seem ‘not right’? (click here for a list of signs for recognizing abuse).
More often than not, your gut is telling you something is wrong because of a series of factors. You know one or both parents and are questioning their actions or lifestyle, AND the children seem to be struggling.
Cases of abuse are not always an obviously evil abusive parent or family member. Unfortunately, the parents or family members are often sick themselves—either fighting addiction or mental illness—and in these cases they truly can’t see the harm they are doing. But no matter who has what trouble, no matter how tough it all is—the children need to be put first. Their safety and well being is all that matters. The emotional scars from all kinds of abuse take years—sometimes lifetimes—to heal.
The other action we can all take is to get involved with organizations that do good work, hands-on work in the fight against child abuse and neglect. I was so inspired by a friend of mine this week, who said after this case with Zahra Baker, she felt she had to do something to help. She found out about the Guardian ad Litem program and applied to be a volunteer. Inspired by her action, I also decided to go back to the Guardian ad Litem program, finding an application online and downloading it just yesterday.
I do not want Zahra Baker to have lost her life without something positive coming out of it. It is a senseless, horrific, heartbreaking tragedy. This child got the worst hand dealt to her by life, and I can’t make sense of it all, no matter how hard I try. All I can do now is try to prevent it from happening to even one child in my community. And none of us should rest until we all do the same.
Here are some organizations doing great work. Check them out, become educated, become aware. Do something. (click below to go to the organizations' websites)
CASA/ GAL- Court Appointed Special Advocates- Guardian ad Litem (and links to finding programs in your area)