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We Are All Home Alone, by Michael Granberry

We're all home alone - Houston tragedy points up the cost of a society of disconnected people

Published 06-25-2001

A 36-year-old Houston woman with a history of depression is accused of drowning her five children in the bathtub of her Clear Lake home. So, once again, a national news story compels millions of Americans to wonder how or why such a heinous crime could happen.

And who, if anyone, could have prevented it.

Shelly Sampson, the suspect's neighbor and herself the mother of five children, said last week, "I just wish that I could have reached out to her. I wish I had known something so I could have said, 'Let me watch your kids for a while. Let me do something.' This is so awful. We just didn't know."

But how much could Ms. Sampson or any other neighbor be expected to know? And what could she or he do to prevent it? One of the most tragic stories in recent memory has raised the question: What can the larger community do to provide a support network and prevent such crimes?

In the view of many, a great deal more.

"This should have been so preventable. There's blood on everybody's hands," says Michelle Oberman, professor at DePaul University College of Law and a national expert on infanticide. She's the co-author of Mothers Who Kill Their Children: Inside the Minds of Moms from Susan Smith to the Prom Mom, scheduled for release later this month by New York University Press.

"We need to try to figure out how we can break down the barriers that divide neighbor from neighbor ... these artificial barriers that stop us from knocking on our neighbors' doors," Ms. Oberman says. "You don't have to sit and wait for these cases to happen. Because they will."

James Vollbracht, author of Stopping at Every Lemonade Stand: How to Create a Culture that Cares for Kids (Penguin USA, $13), says today's United States offers uneasy harbor to "a disconnected culture, and we're scratching our heads about what to do about it."

Mr. Vollbracht contends that "three things have happened" in the last half-century, the first being "a breakdown of the circles of support for families. The first is the extended family. In 1950, 50 percent of grandparents lived with or near their grandchildren. Now it's 10 percent."

Mom and Dad are increasingly pressured, he says, "and getting blamed for everything. If parents in the past had a bad day, Grandma and Grandpa could step in. And now that's not happening."

He sees the second troubled circle as the neighborhood.

"Again, in successful child raising, neighborhoods are very connected," he says, recalling an era such as the 1950s in which neighborhoods and families were as interwoven as the threads on a sweater. "Now kids come home to unattended homes. Nobody is there, they don't know the neighbors, and it's one of the highest risks during the day for kids."

The third circle involves the school.

"We now have schools so large that the biggest risk is not necessarily to kids defined as high-risk - it's to those in the middle who get no attention whatsoever because of the size of the school," Mr. Vollbracht says. "In the past, we've gotten by - by not paying attention. Now they're shooting the schools up."

Richard Madsen, professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, co-authored Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California Press, $17.95), which contends that individualism has contributed to the breakdown of community in American life.

"We live in an age of paid providers," Mr. Madsen says. "Paid child care, paid therapists. In the old neighborhoods, kids who did something wrong got bawled out by the neighbor, even before their parents got involved. So kids developed an understanding of a larger community, one that cared about them and helped steer them in the right direction.

"In modern communities, a kid grows up and is never taken care of by anybody who isn't paid to do it. The idea of being part of a community where people care about you just because you're there doesn't exist anymore."

There's also the popular notion, in Mr. Madsen's view, that Americans - by themselves, as individuals - can solve all of their problems and take care of all of their needs, without the involvement of the larger community or even their own extended family.

"There's this feeling of 'You can't trust the schools, you've got to take care of everything yourself,'" he says.

Though many Americans extol the virtues of home-schooling, critics contend that keeping children away from public or private schools does little to enhance a feeling of community and can, in some cases, deepen a family's isolation. The Houston mother, for instance, had chosen to home-school her children.

"American culture," Mr. Madsen says, "is a culture that assumes society is composed of individuals rather than something bigger."

Tow one's neighbors that didn't exist 40 years ago. The Rev. John Fiedler, senior minister of the First United Methodist Church of Dallas, says, "There are right-to-privacy issues that can keep people from aggressively getting to know each other. You may not know they're manic- depressive. We're very good at showing people what they want to see. It's really hard to know what's going on behind every door in the neighborhood."

But we may need to make the effort.

Frederick Schmidt, director of spiritual life and formation for Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, says, "We leave our homes in the dark and very often return to them in the dark. We do not know our neighbors or we do not know them well.

"Culturally, we're tempted to believe we can recapture what American communities once took for granted with little or no effort. But I don't think community can be attained that easily or that cheaply. We have to find a way to really invest in one another's lives."

Staff writers David Tarrant and Karen M. Thomas contributed to this report.

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