May die 2day," wrote 12-year-old Ramie Marie Grimmer on her Facebook page at 7:50 p.m. on Dec. 5 during a standoff between police and her mother in a welfare office in Laredo, Tex. Two days later the prediction she published using one of the office’s computers was realized. Shortly after that her younger brother, Timothy, also died. Both children were shot in the head by their own mother, who then turned the weapon on herself.
Living in a trailer park in one of the nation’s poorest counties, the family had been under considerable stress. Rachelle Grimmer begged for food at truck stops. She cooked the family’s meals over a campfire outside their trailer because she could not afford gas. Her children did not go to school, bathed outdoors with a garden hose and wore the same clothes day after day. According to neighbors, Rachelle Grimmer had been making her fourth visit—walking five miles, children in tow—to the Laredo social services office, seeking approval for food assistance. When that effort appeared on the verge of failure once again because of improper paperwork, she snapped, took several employees hostage with a .38 revolver and began the seven-hour standoff that would come to such a horrific conclusion.
No one will ever know what combination of crushing poverty, emotional exhaustion or mental illness drove this mother to this unnatural act. In the aftermath of this tragedy, procedures regarding how family aid is administered are under review in Texas and should perhaps be reviewed elsewhere around the country as well. Are public aid offices making it too hard for people, during this time of profound economic dislocation, to find the help they need? Have mental health services been cut too thin by government downsizing? How was it that this frustrated and disturbed woman was unable to get through the application process for food stamps but apparently had little trouble acquiring the handgun she used to kill her family?
One can only hope that institutional reassessments lead to procedural reforms that can prevent a tragedy like this from happening again. But the suffering and loss of these children, and others like them across the country, demand a broader examination of national conscience. More reports of such incomprehensible violence against children at the hands of their own parents and caregivers continued to make headlines in the weeks after Ramie Marie’s death. Are these distressing times driving some already disturbed parents to the breaking point?
There is reason to be concerned. New York police report that the number of child murder victims jumped from seven in 2009 to 24 in 2010. A limited study of 74 U.S. counties in four states conducted by the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh last year found a 65 percent increase between 2007 and 2009 in “shaken baby” cases and other brain injuries resulting from the physical abuse of children. Of the 422 cases tracked, 69 resulted in death.
A quick look at the national numbers of child injuries and mortality resulting from physical abuse (distinct from sexual abuse) or neglect should be a guide. If the numbers are going up dramatically, then it may be time to dispense with all the political prattle about balancing budgets and the proper role of government. If children are dying because government outreach, supervision and intervention programs meant to protect them are being reduced or eliminated, then the rhetorical disputes must end, and the programs must be restored.
Unfortunately the data that could provide a reliable indicator of such a crisis may not be readily available. A study conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that children’s deaths from abuse or neglect may be dramatically underreported in the United States. According to the G.A.O., the 1,770 maltreatment deaths recorded by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System in 2009 represent a 50 to 60 percent undercount. Nearly half of the states that participated in the system include only data reported by child welfare agencies. But according to the G.A.O., “not all children who die from maltreatment have had contact with these agencies.”
Accurate figures on the problem of violence against children is only a starting point, but it will be difficult to justify restoring or salvaging critical intervention programs if the extent of the crisis is not known and demonstrable. It is of course criminal and repugnant that parents assault or neglect their children. But it is also shameful to allow a well-known social pathology to metastasize during a short-term economic downturn because the larger society prefers to continue ideological skirmishes rather than assume the responsibility to protect the innocent and defenseless. It is the least that is owed to Ramie Marie Grimmer, by all accounts a bright and likable child who had a whole, wonderful life ahead of her.