Mama Madison: How tragedy intersects with parenting

Coming to terms with a serious subject

It's been a difficult news summer for parents. The media has been rife with story after shocking story of child murders. But, until now, I hesitated to write about any of them.

While incredibly sad, I wasn't sure I had much to add to the discourse. I struggled with what these stories had to do with me.

I never followed the investigation into Caley Anthony's disappearance too closely. It was the summer of 2008, and the story seemed to play out predominantly on cable TV, which I didn't have at the time. From a trashy magazine perspective, I was far more interested in the impeding birth of the Pitt-Jolie twins than I was in the tragic story of a missing three year-old and her strangely callous mother. As the story got weirder, I became even more distant. So distant perhaps, that when every other mom blogger expressed understandable outrage over Casey Anthony's not-guilty verdict earlier this month, I stayed silent. I didn't know the facts of the case and what little I did know didn't lead me to have much sympathy for the defendant. I was content to let my Facebook and Twitter feeds do the work for me.

At almost the same time, equally unsettling stories were unfolding right here in Madison. On Sunday, July 3, a three-year-old south side boy, Luis Vasquez died of a head trauma at UW Hospital. The following Tuesday, his mother was taken into custody on suspicion of first-degree reckless homicide. On Wednesday July 6, the bodies of Kevin McArthur III, 4, and his younger brother, Kemaury, 3 were found dead in a parked car on the east side. In another case of probable domestic violence, their mother's boyfriend, David J. Hoem, was arrested.

I thought longer and harder about writing about these crimes. Murder in Madison is still shocking to me. My family moved here in March of 1998, just days after Rev. Alfred Kunz , a priest in the village of Dane, was found dead in the hallway of the Saint Michael School. I vividly remember how shocked the community, especially local media, was at this still-unsolved crime. Shocked of course because of its brutality, but also because murder in our community was so uncommon.

And now there were three not-even-old-enough-for-kindergarten Madison children dead in the span of a week. But I chose to write about lighter topics, mostly because they come much easier to me. And I wondered if I had anything meaningful to say.

The crimes are horrid, but right or wrong, domestic violence still felt removed from my everyday existence. I mourned the loss of young life and felt terrible for the victims' families, but I didn't feel scared for my own children's safety.

It may have happened miles away, as opposed to across town, but last week's butchering of eight-year-old Leiby Kletzky in Brooklyn, N.Y., touched more than my heart; it kicked me in the gut. I think because it felt so personal. And I felt compelled to write.

The fact that the crime happened in New York's Hasidic community probably has something to do with my reaction. As a Jewish mother, I can't completely discount Leiby's religion as part of my "tribal" sadness. But I think the most salient reason that this particular crime so profoundly affected me was because Mr. and Mrs. Kletzky were letting their only son do,what I was considering letting my only daughter, 9, do this coming fall: Walk home from school without parental supervision.

I have never worried about unsavory characters in the 10-block radius from my house. As a matter of fact, my husband and I have always told our kids that, if you are ever lost, look for someone who looks like a neighborhood mom to help you find your way home. Talking to strangers may never be advisable from a parenting handbook perspective, but realistically, isn't it the only option sometimes? I've helped lost kids who didn't know me from Adam reunite with their parents at shopping malls and amusement parks. I think their parents were happy a stranger intervened.

And that is precisely what Leiby did; ask someone who appeared to be a safe member of his community help him with directions. It wasn't an act of foolishness; it was an act of human nature.

And that seemingly innocuous stranger turned out to be a kidnapper and murderer. I can't think of a parent that doesn't second-guess his or her own child's safety after hearing news like this.

I don't know what I'll do this coming fall. I know the statistics. My kids are far more likely to be harmed in a car crash or drown in a swimming pool than be accosted by a stranger walking home from school. And I still drive. And they still swim.

But part of me says I need to walk her a little longer.

And another part says I need to let go and trust my gut that everything will be fine. A walk home with friends--but without grown-ups-- is a perfectly safe thing to do.

I also trust that choosing to write about these tragedies was the right decision. Words can't do justice to the memories of five young lives. But I hope, in some sort of weird prophetic way, that by finally writing, the chapter can be closed on a terrible news summer.

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