The Blackstone Horror And The Duty To Care

"You know your house is really messy when..."

“You know your house is really messy when…”

We have been discussing, of late, the ethical duty of strangers to intervene when they get the sense that something may not be right and an individual, especially a child, may be at risk of harm. Doing this involves its own risk: being wrong. Causing embarrassment to yourself and others. Being accused of being racist, or a busybody, or a meddler.

This is what can happen when no body cares enough to take that risk.

I am in Rhode Island, having come from Boston, where a nightmarish story is obsessing the radio talk shows:

Police were setting the record straight as to how many times they’ve responded over the years to the Blackstone, Massachusetts, house of squalor, where three dead infants were discovered among piles of trash, dead animals, feces and vermin last week, as clean-up at the condemned house finally finished up Tuesday.Four children who lived in the house – a 5-month-old baby, a 3-year-old toddler, a 10-year-old boy and 13-year-old girl – have all since been removed by Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.

Their mother, 31-year-old Erika Murray, is behind bars. She’s pleaded not guilty to charges of child endangerment and fetal death concealment. Her boyfriend, and alleged father of the children, Raymond Rivera, claims he stayed in the basement. He’s only been charged with marijuana offenses at this point.

I’ll have plenty of links at the end so you can read the details of this disgusting story, if you have the stomach for it. Obviously it’s not ethical to have your children living in a home with dirty diapers are piled two feet high and dead pets are stuffed in corners. Obviously it’s not ethical to father kids, live in the basement, and ignore the squalor your children are being raised in. Obviously the parents in this case are mentally ill, or approaching evil. From the perspective of this blog, the parents’ conduct has nothing to teach anyone who isn’t demented. I am interested in the neighbors’ conduct, or rather their lack of it.

They saw that the windows were always shuttered, and that the children who lived there were filthy. They noticed vile, rotten smells coming from the house. One neighbor said that she saw one of the children foraging in the trash for food. Finally, after years of this, after conditions in the home reached such an abysmal state that a hazmat team had to handle the clean-up when it was discovered, a neighbor did investigate after a boy from the house inquired how to make a “baby stop crying.” The neighbor became alarmed, and went to the home, where she found…

“….a 5-month-old girl and 3-year-old on the second floor in separate rooms. Each was on a bed and both were filthy…It appeared that the girl’s fingernails had never been cut and the 3-year-old had long hair..and looked like they’d been dipped in feces. …The 3-year-old was… rocking back and forth while sitting in the middle of a bed that sagged because it was so saturated with feces…. When she called 911, the dispatcher told her not to pick up the children until officers arrived…After officers arrived, the woman said, she disrobed the infant. She said she couldn’t find anything clean to wipe the baby [because] everything had maggots on it. Everything had feces on it…”

It is inconceivable that nobody suspected there was a serious problem before this. What were the neighbors thinking? Caring is a core ethical value: did nobody care? Anyone could have called in an anonymous complaint regarding possible child neglect, yet apparently no one did. There had, however, been complaints about trash in the yard, excessive noise, truancy, and animal welfare. Twenty-nine times police knocked on the door of that house in Blackstone to register concern, and be assured that all was well. They never investigated the interior sufficiently to discover the horrors inside.

This is also unexplainable….well, maybe that’s the wrong word. It is all too explainable. The default response of authorities is to not go looking for trouble. The default response of our neighbors in this new world where we don’t know the people who live on our block, stare at a small screen instead of interacting with the human being standing next to us or have an earpiece occupying our attention so no one can speak with us is to let everyone deal with their own problems, because ours are difficult enough.

Something is wrong with a society where children can be living in a home with dead babies littering the floor and nobody in the neighborhood cares enough to risk asking, “What’s going on? Is something the matter?” I don’t know how to fix it, but recognizing a shared duty to be proactive rather than dull to the life around us is good place to start.


Sources: Boston Globe 1, 2, 3; Washington Post, CBS, Mass News

17 thoughts on “The Blackstone Horror And The Duty To Care

  1. I live in Rhode Island, and this is a horrifying story that really captured my attention. And this is from someone who doesn’t watch much news, sadly. It just shows a lack of vigilance on the part of the police.

    I’d like to think we don’t need to choose between the highly overenthusiastic cops from Ferguson and cops about as permissive as your cool stepdad’s brother. I hope there’s a middle ground there somewhere.

  2. Jack
    Perhaps the neighbors did alert authorities if the police were knocking on the door on 29 separate occasions.

    We had a similar situation – no dead babies but the place was littered with trash and animal feces. On the surface it just looked like the dad was down on his luck and could not provide the little girl (about 14 years old) new clothes or maintain the property the way the rest of the neighborhood did. Even though the family rarely interacted with the neighbors, the neighborhood ladies took the child at Christmas to get her some clothes. Each one spent about $100. Little did we know that the gas/electric and water had been turned off. The girl’s mother had left and the little girl was not at all vocal about what was going on. Never did she say that they had no water, heat or lights. We assumed that they had power because from outside the home at night we could see light. To this day I don’t know what they were using for lights as it was too bright for candles.

    Ultimately the girl’s mother returned seeking custody and CPS intervened. We had no idea of the abject squalor in which she was living other than she always appeared to unkempt. There were few clues available for us to make a call to CPS. Appearing to being simply poor was not enough for me to intervene beyond trying to make the child’s Christmas a bit brighter.

    I do not know why the girl’s teacher or school counselors did not see it necessary for a referral to CPS or any of the other adults that were guests of the father in the home. These people had far more interaction with the child and the father than any of us. I also do not know why the city, which supplies and bills for the water and electricity, does not at least issue some form of notice that the premises were uninhabitable due to lack of utilities when they cut them off. Ironically the city has a rental inspection program that charges landlords for inspections but has no procedure in place to prevent someone from living in a property that would otherwise be unable to secure an occupancy permit.

    I understand that in a civil society we should intervene when we evidence suggests that someone is a risk. The question is where is the line between respecting someone’s privacy, allowing them to maintain some dignity, and when to intervene when there is a perceived risk? Just how obvious does it have to be ? I don’t know but I will probably ask more questions in the future.

  3. Because for every one intervention that helps you will have a 1000 that destroy. If you want to give your life over to the whims of society so that anyone and everyone can demand answers from you just bare your soul now.

  4. I’m reading the comments before this, and they for the most part take the same stance: This is horrifying, but we don’t want big brother looking in on our shit.

    Well…. Bullshit. There has to be some compromise, some middle ground , some way to identify the difference between down on their luck but good people and dead baby mould farms. Some way we might be able to tell the difference. Perhaps it’s the copious amount of shit hanging from the kids hair? Their penchant to rummage in garbage cans for food? Maybe the fact that their hair is so long, matted and tangled it looks like an albatross could live in it? How about the fact that babies have gone missing, and there aren’t as many kids in the yard as there used to be?

    I think the hard right people get their backs up when we talk about any increase to government surveillance, liberals hate children, and I’m probably committing an ethical fallacy, but Jesus…. Shit like this should not happen to kids, and I think we need to be a little more outraged.

    • Humble
      You are right that we should be outraged. The question is at whom. If I had seen the child I mentioned filthy and scrounging the trash for food, or detected an offensive odor coming from the home I would have intervened. But I did not. That home was seven houses away from me. The Rhode Island is the extreme case of neglect.

      Conversely we have some overzealous CPS personnel and the law coming down on people for letting their kids play unsupervised in parks. Parents have been arrested for paddling a child (not beaten) for misbehaving in a grocery store. In those cases there was no middle ground, no common sense application of identifying abuse, just the complainer’s sense of what is appropriate child rearing. When I was growing up we always played unsupervised in Baltimore City. I played mostly with kids just like one I referenced up the street from me. Some signs of neglect are obvious and some are exaggerated by adults that may have other motives. Keep in mind that you can have child neglect even when all appearances of the child are normal or even when they suggest affluence. Remember the “Affluenza” defense. To me, simply being poor is not indicative of child neglect.

      I think however some of the outrage should be directed at those that are PAID professionals that have direct and sometimes daily interactions with the children. The report indicates the police department was called multiple times and simply walked away after assurances everything was OK. That is unconscionable. If they can detect the faint odor of alcohol or weed within a car then they should easily discern the odor of death coming from a home littered with filth and feces. The professionals have a higher duty of care than the neighbors and they did not show up 29 times out of the clear blue sky. Someone did intervene and called them.

      Regarding the child I referenced, why didn’t the child’s teacher who interacted with the child daily never make an inquiry into the home life? That teacher failed the child as well. Why did the mother abandon the child in this situation? She visited regularly. Some of the neighbors living closer to the situation called the father a pervert – I don’t know why – but none was willing to level an accusation. I chalked it up to gossip because the man was physically an unattractive little man. To me that is insufficient evidence of wrongdoing. If these neighbors who were closer to the situation and who may have felt the child was in danger would not act, then a reasonable person could conclude that the unsubstantiated charges were without real merit.

      This discussion began with the story of a father taking pictures of his adopted daughters and the relative costs of being wrong. In the case of one’s perception of child neglect, the cost to the child and the parent is very high for being wrong but I don’t know which is higher; being wrong letting the child live in squalor or being wrong and having children taken by the system by overzealous child advocates.

      • I think we have the systems in place to handle these issues without imposing more state nosiness on innocent parties. I just don’t think the officials in charge of or responsible for those systems use them properly or wisely enough.

  5. How can any human being even have sex – even get aroused to be able to have sex – in an environment like that?!

    (I am not looking for answers; I have already considered that the residents might have made videos of goings-on in that house, showing those pets and those children and God-knows-what-else. But maybe, mercifully, they were too poor, ignorant and lazy to own and operate video cameras.)

    This case leaves me completely stumped…utterly confused about where is the border between a Good Samaritan and a typical Samaritan, between a nanny state and a “negligocracy.” Clearly (hah!), “failures have occurred.”

  6. Does anyone recall how little Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped off a street in her own neighborhood and held captive for FOURTEEN YEARS in the house of a known sex offender? The house was even visited by authorities. Yet, no one was willing to look in the back yard, where Jaycee was held in a tent, caring for the two children that her abductor had brought on her. There is such a thing as reasonable belief. There is also such a thing as doing one’s natural duty to protect children.

  7. There have been several such cases over the years in my area. After talking to some DHS employees, it is evident why these things happen. On of the DHS employees makes appeals for people to donate socks, underwear, and food. She says that the parents of her ‘clients’ no longer see the need to provide underwear or socks for their children and the kids are embarrassed about it at school. Nationwide, I sure you have heard that parents have stopped providing food for their children. Schools now have mandatory breakfast time because such parents won’t bring their children early to school for free food, even if they don’t provide food themselves. Several schools provided free breakfast and lunch to the children through the summer when school was out because the parents won’t feed them.

    These parents get food stamps for their children. Half of their children’s meals are provided by the state. They take the kids’ food stamps and use them for themselves. DHS provides money for shelter and clothes for the children, but the parents use it for themselves. These parents don’t care about their children. Why doesn’t DHS take them away?

    The answer is that DHS doesn’t care about the children. They only care about the mothers. I have seen DHS cover up scenes like the one you describe above to protect the mothers. I have seen DHS lie to protect the mothers. Thousands of easily adoptable children are languishing in foster care on the faint hope that their mothers will get their act together and reclaim them. DHS doesn’t care about children. Children are just property of their mothers. Mothers can treat their children however they feel is convenient.

    Until we decide that the children are important, this won’t stop. This probably also goes to your double standard post. Until we are willing to a admit that mother can be child abusers, this won’t stop.

    • That was well said, Michael. While women can be rightfully said to be nurturing by nature, that nature can be all too easily twisted in early life. There’s far too much of this these days and it occurs across the board. What’s worse, dysfunctional families corrupt children into dysfunctional adults… and the cycle of misery continues. Far from being a relief to the problem, I’d maintain that these sort of government agencies help to perpetuate it and even to initiate it.

  8. Please do an update on this story! Im still dumbfounded the father not charged. No way he didn’t know everything going on. And even if she did tell him she was babysitting, so then it was OK to neglect them? This story makes me need to vomit. Honestly the parents of both Erika and Raymond had to of known something…you know your children. Looking at Sharon Murrays FB acct you can tell she’s also very ill. Incredibly sad for those kids. Disgusted Massachusetts has yet to prosecute Erika and at a loss for words the father went free. The hero in this story is the little boy who called his mom. I just can’t wrap my head around any of it. Why didn’t she take those kids to a safe haven?! So many unanswered questions. I’m I’m California and if this happened here it would’ve been the biggest news. There would’ve been experts coming forward to help the victims, donations, the courts would have thrown the book at those two and politicians would’ve passed new laws regarding child abuse. Massachusetts really fell short. Despicable. I hope those Two young ones have all their needs met now. I hope they are doing well and can recover from the horror movie life their parents made while in that house. It was stated there were more babies in the house by a witness years back. I just can’t begin to think if these are the same ones they found deceased or are these others she had. So heart wrenching and definitely the worst case of child abuse I’ve ever come across. I do hope the women at Chickopee prison give her hell.

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