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It Takes a Village

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Hillary Clinton has been much mocked over the years for arguing that it takes a village to raise a child.

On the other hand, she was right, at least some of the time.

It is impossible to read the shocking details of Josef Fritzl's 24-year-long abuse and imprisonment of his daughter and her children without recoiling in horror and wondering how it was that, in a town of 23,000, in a household with a wife and children, in a community with neighbors and teachers and social workers, no one knew.

The hard question is not what's wrong with Fritzl. He is evil incarnate. It's what's wrong with everyone else, who clearly turned a blind eye to a man they should have suspected, watched, questioned and paid attention to, but instead ignored and let get away with murder or worse.

What is wrong with the people of Amstetten?

Then you read about the 416 children removed from the Yearning for Zion Ranch, the more than 1600-acre "community" near Eldorado, Texas, and you realize it isn't just the people of South Austria who have a problem with giving wrongdoers too much respect and privacy. As details emerge of the number of teenage girls among them who are pregnant or have already given birth, the claims of the "mothers" in the group that they are being unfairly separated from their children seem more and more ludicrous. Sometimes the kindest thing we can do for children is to separate them from their parents.

It is easy to blame civil liberties for the neglect children face at the hands of their parents, whether in Texas or Austria. But I don't buy it for a minute. The law has always allowed the government to take action to protect children. And while the rights of parents have on occasion been given more respect than they deserve, when protection comes at the expense of children, most courts have shown themselves ready and willing to act on evidence of abuse or endangerment.

No, the bigger problem is that too many of these cases never make it to the courts. The bigger problem is with "communities" that let parents abuse their children without the village stepping in, without anyone asking questions, without any desire to get involved much less operational.

Could it be that no one in evil Josef's home, including his wife and the children they raised as their own, had any idea what was going on in that basement? Could it be that he kept adding on to the cellar, but neither his family nor those doing the work nor the neighbors considered it their business to ask why?

Could it be that no one in Eldorado had any idea that abuse was going on within the confines of their own community, that children were being forced to become parents and that parents were not protecting their own children? Why did it take an anonymous phone call to bring the force of law and decency to a 1600-acre tract that clearly respected neither? One local official from the community emphasized that neighbors and local officials tried to remain on good terms with the cultists who took up residence in their community. Presumably Josef Fritzl's neighbors were eager to do the same with him. The children paid the price.

Every kid deserves decent, loving, caring parents, but not every kid is that lucky. And when they aren't, the least they deserve is a village that doesn't turn its back on them, that helps the parents who want and need help, but also moves forcefully against those who have no right to the privilege and blessing that raising children is.

Before we recoil in horror at Josef Fritzl, before we assure ourselves that what happened at Zion Ranch could not happen in our neighborhood, we might all be wise to look around and make sure that's true. Sometimes, it really does take a village to raise a child. But even more often, it takes a village to leave one abused and bereft.


Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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