Lost in the fanfare surrounding Casey Anthony’s trial and acquittal is another story of child murder that doesn’t seem to be generating the same headlines. That’s too bad because, for me, it’s a story not just of brutality and evil but of our communal failure to care for the people around us.
Christian Choate was 13 years old when his father beat him to death. Being dead, by Christian’s own account, was a step up from living the dog cage where his father, Riley, and step-mother confined him for well over a year. He was regularly beaten, starved and forced to live in his own waste – taken out only on occasion to help with household chores. Sometimes he was given a pencil and paper so he could write down his thoughts on confinement and why he deserved to be treated as he was. On the good days, Christian wrote about how we wanted to go outside and play . On the bad days, he wrote about how he wanted to die rather than endure any more.
One evening, Riley – whose mugshot appears to show a slobbering fat prick of no less that 220 pounds — punched his frail, malnourished child in the head, full force about a half a dozen times then locked him back in the kennel. At some point in the night, Christian’s sister informed her father that Christian wasn’t breathing. Dad and step-mom wrapped his dead body in a garbage bag and buried him beneath a slab of concrete in the trailer park. It took two years for somebody to finally whisper in someone’s ear and get the police involved. Two full years.
There’s something exponentially worse about what happened to Christian than about the Casey Anthony docudrama or Susan Smith’s mental collapse, because this particular abomination happened in plain sight, in a trailer park over the course of more than a year. For a decade, Child Protective Services had an open file on the Choate family but – impossibly – could never come up with evidence of abuse. It’s a baffling collision of incompetence and bureaucracy and it cost a child his life.
Even if we can, somehow, accept that there’s nothing extraordinary about the way the system failed Christian (it happens all too regularly), we’re still left with a troubling question: Where were the rest of us? Where were the aunts and uncles, the cousins, the mother, the siblings, the passersby, the neighbors, the teachers? How did a year of torture and two years in a hole in the ground go unnoticed?
By the age of 12, I had first hand experience with sad fact that there’s nothing inherently special about being a parent — any idiot with the right anatomy can have a child. I got through this period of my life unscathed and unabused because people that didn’t have any stake in my well being, folks that had no obligation to me whatsoever, made the somewhat courageous decision to give me a home and role models and friends when I needed all of those things. People watched out for me.
Why did no one do the same for Christian?
Stories like this leave me feeling angry and helpless and – most of all – guilt stricken.
“Hey, has anyone seen that home schooled kid? I haven’t seen him in, like, a year”. Shrug. “Who knows, I can’t talk now, the new season of True Blood is on.”
I have day-dreams where I can turn the clock back 3 years and waltz into that trailer park with a machete and a tazer and do things that would land me a spot in criminal psychology books for generations to come. But I can do no such thing. And even if I could, it’s a self-serving fantasy that misses the point. Nothing so dramatic or heroic is required of any of us. Simply that we be present enough to know when we are needed and courageous enough to meet that need when we see it. It’s a crucial gap in our society that desperately needs filling.
Our indignation and thirst for postmortem retribution might make us feel vigilant and involved – but only after the fact. Christian is still dead. In some small way, I feel like we were all accomplices – not in his actual death but in allowing these monsters enough dark corners from which to spread their sickness. It’s not enough to count on an overwhelmed, under-qualified group of bureaucrats to defend the defenseless. We have to be willing to shine a light into every dark corner, to knock on doors, ask questions and make uncomfortable calls — even when we might be wrong.
The opposite of compassion isn’t malevolence, it’s indifference. All the Riley Choates of the world need is our indifference and they’re free to lock children in cages and bury them in shallow graves.