The Forgotten Babies

Why do we so often fail at protecting our most vulnerable?

MATT MAHURIN

It was the summer of dead babies. At night I sat drowning in coroners’ reports and case files. Coyotes frolicked in the wash behind my house. Dry by summer, it held remnants of snow play—bright yellow and electric-blue plastic bits of toboggans. Brittle palo verdes littered with refuse from teenage parties, things like bottle caps and empty bags of chips. The hour of molting. The wildlings came in groups of three and four—clearing the mean ash-green pincushions and devil’s fingers in gleeful jumps. They danced, silhouetted against the black. Bats twisted above.

• • •

Over the past three years, I’ve been reporting on the murder of eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez. While I was sitting in on his mother’s boyfriend’s trial, it occurred to me that this is about more than one child and more than one bad actor. I’ve reviewed all the case files for child deaths in Los Angeles County investigated by the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) from 2015 to 2018. Los Angeles is home to the largest child welfare population in the nation and as such is often seen as a model for the rest of the country. After Gabriel’s death, L.A. County set up a Blue Ribbon Commission whose audit declared the child welfare system to be in a state of emergency. It published a report that called for a “fundamental transformation of the current child protection system.”

Stories of dead babies arranged before me like empty bottles. There are accidents, babies falling into swimming pools, into cracks between the mattress and the wall. Careless things. Patience is not for people on fire in the world. People rushing to get fixes, or funds, or some distance between the ache and them. There are too many ways to die when you are a heap of disappointments.

We have a story in Filipinx culture about a vampire woman. Her name is Aswang. At night, she dips her long, thin proboscis through rooftops and sucks the life out of babies. Especially the bad ones. “Be careful or the Aswang will get you” is a common refrain in a Filipinx household.

Babies die from incorrectly completed boxes. Ten-year-old Amanda C. was severely disabled. She was not receiving medical treatment for her condition. Ten separate calls were made to the child abuse hotline about her family. Some of the reports were about Amanda’s father masturbating while watching Amanda’s sister shower. He left the girls’ bedroom at strange hours. The family was enrolled in Voluntary Family Maintenance. Voluntary Family Maintenance is a special name for the Turn a Blind Eye Program, or a fancy way to say Survival of the Fittest Bitches, or Go Ahead and Do Whatevs, We’ll Keep the Cash for Our Salary. The most important word in the name—something anybody knows without having to learn about social work or sociology or psychology or any of the science behind the deviant ways of being a person—is voluntary. It means: Here is a thing you can do or not do. I’m offering a suggestion, and I’m gonna check a box, and I’m gonna keep getting paid.

Two years after the last investigation, Amanda died. The cause of death was determined to be either sexual trauma, suffocation, or cardiac arrest.

MATT MAHURIN

• • •

Domestic violence kills babies. Algernon Rieux had a history of hitting women. In fact, he was due in court the morning of June 4, 2015, when instead he allegedly killed his son, two-month-old Joshua Eli-King, and the baby’s mother, Jacquline. Algernon had a history of mental illness and drug use, and he had been incarcerated for domestic violence.

• • •

Bad pickers kill babies. One-year-old Rosario Torres’s mother picked a shit man. Her husband, Noe Torres, stabbed his daughter and then himself. He ran around the house setting it on fire before finally jumping out the window.

• • •

Indifference kills babies. Calixta Landa beat her son, 21-day-old Sebastian Landa, to death. When interviewed by police, she admitted to having been frustrated and to having got physical with the baby. Ultimately, she told authorities she’d never wanted to have the baby. Calixta had a long history with DCFS, both as a minor and adult, and her family was repeatedly investigated for suspected abuse. A social worker had investigated a child abuse allegation against Calixta regarding Sebastian three days prior to his death. Just after the child was born, she had tested positive for marijuana.

• • •

Drugs kill babies. Ellorah Rose Warner was less than one month old when her father, Matthew Warner, high on meth and taking shots of Fireball, bathed her. She likely drowned. She stopped breathing, and Matthew did “crazy things” to try to revive her. He put a finger in her anus, stabbed her in the neck with a nail file, stabbed her in her tummy with the same nail file, used a hose from the fish tank to try to release water. Ellorah’s grandmother spoke at Matthew’s trial, forgiving him for this careless, desperate murder. She said she could not forgive what he’d done, but she could forgive him.

• • •

Which brings me to mercy. Mercy can kill a child. Lai Yeung Hang took her 17-year-old son, George Hang, to a motel. George had schizophrenia, and he relied heavily on his mom for his care. Lai had recently discovered that she had brain cancer and not long to live. She checked them into a motel one July day and shot him. Lai was arrested, and a few months later she died. The moment before her death, L.A. County gave her a compassionate release. A way to die without the indignity of being an inmate. She’d already made her greatest sacrifice. She gave up her beloved son; she took him out of the place of the Wanting. She was a straitjacket on his life, his heart, his brain, and she likely hoped he’d return next as a butterfly or a horse, wild and free. Perhaps he already was a wild horse. They just gave him the wrong body, a big boy body with dumb hands and no words.

• • •

MATT MAHURIN

I sat in the harsh glow of the computer. The case files emailed to me in batches of five. Sent from DCFS. Each file designated by a date of death with black blocks where a child’s name once was. Surveys completed by caseworkers on house visits. To promote or not promote? Often meaning, to remove the child from the home or not. The facts in the neat little boxes on the forms contradicted one another. Blunt-force trauma, starvation, ligature marks, lacerations, methamphetamines, domestic violence. As I looked at the files of dead children, I tried to excavate sense and order for all that had happened outside these boxes. I imagined all the babies whose names had been redacted and who had died without food or love frolicking along in the wash with the wildlings. Slam dancing, fists in the air, chanting and wailing. I imagined them in the red-hot center of rage, able to wreck it all up or whatever it was that meant freedom.

Maybe kids like George Hang found their beloved people. Maybe George found Lai in her hospital bed and snuggled in beside her. Maybe they died together and now sleep a thousand nights, breathing deeply. Sweet pink tufts of air came together above them as Lai exhaled happily, peacefully, into nothing.

• • •

Occasionally, on morning walks through the wash, I would come upon a hat—a baseball cap, the head band sweated out—or a dropped shoe, or scraps of clothing. The left-behind things had an air of mystery—a cold case, or sacrifice. In the Iron Age, ancient Britons made sacrifices to the bog. Darling boys and girls. Sarah Moss writes of the practice in her novel Ghost Wall: “The bog people were given something, some fungus or spore, maybe to numb the pain but more likely, I thought now, to stop a last-minute change of mind, a hopeless attempt to escape what was coming.”

• • •

The crucial element to sacrificing people is to view them as possessions. The subject becomes object. I know what that’s like, being someone’s most prized possession. I think of my mother, her fingers tight around my arms, her nails digging in. She’d be quick to throw me into the bog. She meets me once a year at restaurants, always with some relic from my youth. A plastic horse for Barbie, a poster from my preteen bedroom. Like she fished them out of the marsh. Like they could transport us back to that place we were in before foster care. That place she’s kept me frozen in time. Even in their death, those people sacrificed to the bog were pinned to their graves, stabbed through with sharp sticks, yet the story goes…they’d scuttle home undead in the dark.

• • •

In court for another trial, I asked reporters, Remember the dad who drove his family off the San Pedro pier? Sadly, they didn’t—they were too busy with the boy starved and beaten to death, in a cupboard, in a closet, a boy treated differently than his siblings. A boy whose parents called him fag. There were at least three boys like this: Gabriel Fernandez, Anthony Avalos, Noah Cuatro.

• • •

Ali Elmezayen and Rabab Diab took their two younger sons out to their favorite Chinese restaurant. The Elmezayen brothers, 8-year-old Abdelkrim and his older brother 13-year-old El Hassan, both had disabilities. They were in diapers. They had an older brother, he was a different boy, away for ROTC training.

There had been six previous referrals to DCFS to check in on this family. None of these referrals led to a further investigation. After dinner, Ali drove his family to look at the boats in the harbor on the San Pedro pier. They’d done this on multiple previous occasions. They’d all been getting along well, and there had been no fights or disagreements that day. I’m sure there were many opportunities, the boys screaming, someone hitting something. It was around 64 degrees that night, the air was still, the sky a peppered gray. Ali had been looking for a parking space along the dock. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he drove the vehicle, at a high speed, directly off the edge. It was estimated that 30 seconds passed before Ali came to the surface and swam to the ladder. Rabab came up 15 seconds later. Ali knew how to swim. His window was rolled down, and he escaped, whereas the boys were stuck strapped in their car seats.

Neither Rabab nor the two boys could swim. Rabab was struggling. Witnesses threw her a flotation device, and she made it to the ladder, where Ali was quietly waiting. The boys remained underwater in the submerged vehicle. Ali was silent. When Rabab reached the ladder, she was yelling for help for the boys. Ali whispered to her that she should “calm down.” I imagine the boys in the back seat, watching the car fill up with water. I imagine their mother and father swimming up for their own air. Meanwhile, the boys—their screams, deep-throated with despair. They speak to the wind. The ocean garbling their messages so they sound like recordings of whale song.

• • •

MATT MAHURIN

Ali Elmezayen was charged with the murder of his two sons. Apparently it was intentional—motivated by insurance fraud. He’d taken out accidental death policies on his family. He’d sacrificed his boys to the bog, and the bog gave him more than $260,000 in payouts.

• • •

Insurance payouts and money bring us to this concept of children as property. In the case of foster care, children are wards of the court—literally possessions of the government. The idea of people being possessed by the government stems from the parens patriae theory. I first learned about parens patriae in law school. In the evenings, I took classes in a decaying building across from MacArthur Park. At the time, I also worked the graveyard shift in a residential treatment center for boys. I briefed cases while the boys slept in their beds. I’d do push-ups to stay awake, sweep and mop the floors. The women from the temp agency would compliment me: “You work like a Nigerian.”

• • •

In the time of Edward I (1272–1307), the English crown claimed wardship over all “idiots” and “natural fools.” Parens patriae’s literal translation is “parent of the nation.” It was initially set in place so that the king would protect the most vulnerable. Eventually the king extended this protection to children, especially those of the landed gentry. These could be children whose parents were deceased or children whose parents were deemed unfit. In either case, the children had estates that could provide riches to the crown. “The wardships were used in the feudal tenurial system in which the guardians—usually a lord, or the king directly—had rights with regard to the male and female wards,” writes Daniel L. Hatcher in his book The Poverty Industry. “And such rights were abused for financial gain.”

American courts, George Curtis explained in an article in the Depaul Law Review, developed their own interpretation of parens patriae that “permits the state to act in a ‘quasi-sovereign’ capacity for the purpose of protecting the well-being of its entire populace and its economy”—not just the dependent class. In other words, the state no longer seeks to protect the dependent class; rather, its interest lies in the protection of the state.

• • •

I had once been a ward of the court. Left to dig through a bin of donated clothing, T-shirts for Camp Hess Kramer, and lights out, and graffiti etched into the furniture of group homes, and being scrappy and detached, and evoking an air of not giving a fuck, but truly deep down giving all the fucks. I got dressed in the morning, I put on something sexy, or something tough, and I stepped out into the city, and I searched for my escape hatch, a king to protect me.

• • •

There is a bus stop on the corner of Palms and Sepulveda in West L.A. It’s a symbol of thrill and angst. I used to reach it by way of the bushes that lined the freeway through a hole in the fence outside our apartment. Across the street from the bus stop was a Grocery Outlet. Sometimes the back entrance was open and cow carcasses on a hook rotated in like suits at the dry cleaner.

• • •

Mainstream home for girls, as it was known, was next door to Palisades High School. Six girls, two to a room. And the small house—although it looked like a normal house, everyone knew it was a home for girls. Walking in and out was my scarlet letter.

• • •

At first my mother sent a card. One every day. One of those pastel cards with the calligraphy, To My Daughter with Love. As time passed, it would be a card a week. One of our visitations—it was at Marie Callender’s across the street from the Pic ’N’ Save. She handed me a bag. Filled with cards. Each one marked with a different day of the week. Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. Two months in, I’d bailed on many of our visitations—I complained of sickness, or my period or homework, but really I was just tired of being a disappointment.

“When are you coming home?” she’d ask.

The cards stopped. Back in my basement room, I could hear the Palisades football team. Losing. Though it hurt when she asked “When are you coming home?,” it hurt more when she stopped asking.

• • •

While accounts of the Aswang still appear on the front pages of the Philippine Daily Inquirer and are everyday news on the islands, we know as a people that she is not here in the States. Instead, there are many others who take our children away—social workers, and shabu (crystal meth), and serial killers, and bad boyfriends, and foster care agencies that partner with companies to identify children most eligible for disability payments in order to take their public benefits, like social security, or any inheritance for state revenue. Children are being charged for their time in foster care. The corporation is king, and we—our healthcare, our children, our child support—are the wards to be sacrificed to the bog.

• • •

MATT MAHURIN

These companies are paper and numbers and machines and entities. They are not beating hearts and minds and young children who look out windows on long drives and imagine they have the power to make the sun move alongside them on the highway. Children who place a tooth under a pillow and wish for a fairy to come while they sleep, replacing the small tooth with a coin. Corporations cannot tell you, Don’t cry so much. Don’t hit your younger brother in the head with a brush. Don’t eat an entire eraser from the end of a pencil. Don’t say your parents aren’t home. Don’t stop trying your best to find a way to get somewhere different and better and brighter. A place where there is a cafeteria and plastic trays and there are vegetables and juice. Don’t stop dreaming. Don’t die. Corporations cannot tell you, Don’t die. They take until the child is a dark box on my computer monitor.

• • •

These are the stories written from nowhere, the darkness of the black boxes. Every mandated reporter—teacher, social worker, law enforcement officer, nurse, doctor, caseworker—has been forced to grapple with the power and authority of their reporting on child abuse and neglect. We, the Redacted, wake up to situations—no electricity, eviction notice, auntie smoke rock, court dates, new family, new room, new rules, brain cancer, daddy smoke meth, daddy take girl, schizophrenia, need. Upon waking, we clean, we yearn, we dream of different, better lives. Let’s hold space and push against the edges of these boxes. Hard angles of blackness—an eclipse to block out the shine.

Melissa Chadburn is an economic justice fellow at Community Change and a doctoral candidate in the University of Southern California’s creative writing program. Her debut novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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