When the villages stop raising the children

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Stephen Gage Berry, 9, and Stoni Ann Blair, 13. Two children with faces, personalities and dreams. Tortured, murdered, their bodies stacked in a deep freezer for two and three years, respectively, just inside the front door of the place they called home.

Two surviving siblings, left to bear the burden and scars, mental and physical, of living through the horrors inside the small townhouse in the Martin Luther King Apartments in Detroit.

Their mother, Mitchell Blair, 35, was arrested and charged with felony murder, premeditated murder, torture and child abuse.

As the saying goes: It takes a village to raise a child. So where was the village as these children suffered abuse at the hands of their mother? Have we let the notions of “not my business” and “not my problem” get in the way of our better judgment and cloud our concern for others?

Immediately following the discovery of Stoni’s and Stephen’s bodies, their fathers and extended families spoke to news outlets about the hurt they felt over this tragedy and their past efforts to see the children.

Neighbors spoke of how they used to see the children outside all the time, and how, suddenly, they didn’t. Blair’s next door neighbor lay claim to being her best friend and told of babysitting the surviving children and coming inside her home. She passed the freezer each time, unaware.

She was “very protective,” and “loved her children.” Sentiments that found their way onto the pages of the Detroit News and Free Press. How could she uphold this illusion? How could no questions have been raised?

The fathers admitted to not seeing their children for years, far longer than they lay cold and lifeless in the freezer. She wouldn’t let them see them, they said. They owe back child support and were afraid to take legal action, they said.

As a parent, you don’t let back child support be a reason for letting your parental rights go un-exercised. Better yet, you pay your child support and remain an active part of your child’s life so you aren’t afraid to question when your child disappears. Be pursuant.

It’s hard to empathize with their tears or even believe that they tried to see Stoni and Stephen when they were alive. This implausibility must be felt by the courts as well, as not only Blair’s parental rights are up for termination in June, but also the rights of the fathers.

Why were red flags not raised to the grandparents, aunts, uncles? Not hearing from family, estranged or not, especially when there are children involved, would have to warrant a welfare check at some point, right? A grandparent being denied even the right to speak to their grandchild should raise an eyebrow.

And what about the people living closest to them? Anyone who has ever lived in an apartment or townhouse would likely concur that at times it’s as if the walls are made of rice paper. The statements given by Blair’s surviving 17-year-old daughter detail vicious acts of gory-horror-movie proportions executed upon the children. How could adjacent neighbors not hear children being beaten and burned?

Have we become such a “mind your own business” society that we aren’t seeing things that are in front of our faces? If you see children often and then not at all, be curious. If you hear something that doesn’t sound right, be nosey and listen harder.

Hindsight seems to be 20/20 for everyone involved. There have been questions of what could have been different if only they had done this or that. “If only” and “what if” won’t bring back Stoni and Stephen, who should be laughing, playing and living children. “I should have” and “why didn’t I” won’t undo the atrocities that the surviving children suffered in the years following Stoni’s and Stephen’s deaths.

These children were let down on many levels, but hopefully it is a lesson to all to pay attention to what is going on around you, to be concerned for others and to be that village because lives can depend on it.




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