Monday's murder charges against Zahra Baker's stepmother mean someone is finally being held accountable in her death. Good. If Elisa Baker is guilty of the horror that law enforcers say was inflicted on the cherubic 10-year-old - her body was dismembered and body parts scattered and buried - she deserves the harshest punishment allowed. The indictment against Baker says she had "a history and pattern of physical, verbal and psychological abuse of the victim."
But when a 10-year-old dies after repeated complaints of mistreatment and abuse, a broader adult failure is apparent. Children rightly rely on adults to keep them safe from such treatment - or to provide timely and adequate help when we can't. In Zahra's case, adults failed. Now, with an autopsy labeling her death of "undetermined homicidal violence," adults must figure out why. How could Zahra Baker end up dead, especially when adults knew or suspected she was abused?
Social service agencies in Catawba and Caldwell Counties are surely reviewing their role. For the first time Monday, they acknowledged they had investigated four complaints that Zahra was being mistreated but never found evidence of "maltreatment or child safety issues." The last Department of Social Services investigation was closed six weeks before authorities say Zahra was killed on Sept. 24.
But other adults must examine their roles as well. Family members of Elisa Baker have said Zahra was locked in her room much of the time and was allowed five minutes a day to eat. Brittany Bentley, who is married to a nephew of Elisa Baker, has said Zahra "was beat almost every time I was over there" by her stepmother.
Some family members did report abuse suspicions to the DSS in Caldwell County. But she was still left without the protection she needed.
Zahra's father has not been charged in her death, and he told WBTV that he had nothing to do with her dismemberment or death. But if Zahra was being abused in the home, it is difficult to fathom that Adam Baker was unaware of that. If he did know, he too failed to adequately protect her.
In North Carolina, many children face a life of abuse and neglect in the home. Last fiscal year, 123,734 children were referred to local DSS agencies for possible abuse and neglect. In 2009, 17 children died at the hand of a parent or caregiver in this state. In all, there were 36 child homicides in the state that year. That was a great improvement on the year before when there were 58. But even one homicide of a child is too many. In Mecklenburg County that year there were four such deaths, and 40 child homicides from 2005 to 2009.
Only we adults can change that outcome for children such as Zahra. N.C. law requires all adults to report suspected child maltreatment. We must do so. You do not need proof that maltreatment has occurred; you only need reasonable cause to suspect maltreatment. We can also help parents or caregivers whom we suspect of being abusive. Talk to them about the children in their care, and refer them to resources that can help them provide a safe environment for their kids.
Children depend on adults. All of us must commit to being there to protect them, and act to ensure they are.