Child's tragic fame should put spotlight on shameful system

ALICE STEINBACH

February 04, 1993|By ALICE STEINBACH

Now that the Amy Fisher story has had its 15 minutes of fame on TV and in the tabloids, it's time to turn our attention to another tale that demonstrates the human capacity for inhuman behavior: the Katie Beers story.

The Katie Beers story, in case you missed it, involves a lonely, neglected 10-year-old who was kidnapped by a man she considered a family "friend," held in a dungeon and allegedly molested by him. The Long Island, N.Y., girl, who spent her 10th birthday in the underground bunker, is now living with an unidentified foster family.

It is a horrible but compelling story. And everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the action. Financially speaking, that is. There are big bucks to be made from the debris of Katie's life.

Let's see. There's Katie Beers, the book -- already in the works by the same author who wrote "Lethal Lolita: The Amy Fisher Story."

Then there's the likelihood of Katie Beers, the made-for-TV movie. Or movies.

And, of course, there's Katie Beers, the topic of TV talk shows: Family members and other interested parties, who were reportedly paid for their appearances, are now making the rounds of the "The Montel Williams Show," "The Maury Povich Show" and "Donahue."

Soon, however, there will be a new development in the Katie Beers story. Next week, a custody hearing is scheduled to determine whether Katie will stay in foster care or go back to her mother, Marilyn Beers.

This is the same mother, by the way, who left the 2-month-old Katie with a friend to raise; the same mother who allowed her daughter from the age of 4 to wander the streets unsupervised; the same mother who seldom provided a home for Katie.

And this is the mother who allowed her daughter to live in the same house with a man -- the husband of Katie's godmother -- who had been charged with sexually abusing the girl. The mother who suspected that Katie's abductor was sexually abusing her son but allowed the girl to go off with him anyway.

And Marilyn Beers is the same mother who stands a decent chance of getting custody once more of Katie.

"It's not our burden to prove her a fit mother," said John Jiras, Marilyn Beers' attorney, in a Newsday interview last week. "It's [the county's] burden to prove her an unfit mother. And there is no evidence to prove that she's an unfit mother."

The sad truth is that Marilyn Beers could be granted custody of her daughter. Why? Because she has a powerful ally on her side: the state child welfare laws, which prevail in most states, that favor reuniting children with their natural parents.

"Children are usually only permanently taken away from their parents in cases involving direct physical abuse," said New York attorney Seymour Reisman, commenting on the Katie Beers case to a reporter. "This is not that kind of clear-cut case. This is a much grayer area."

Question: Does anyone in their right mind really believe -- law or no law -- that returning Katie Beers to her mother is in the best interests of this 10-year-old? Her short life -- one that bordered on indentured servitude -- already reads like a Dickens novel.

Without the happy ending.

But the system has failed Katie before. Years before the sensational kidnapping brought Katie's plight to the attention of the world, the system designed to protect young children knew that something was seriously wrong in the life of Katie Beers.

Child Protective Services workers had a thick file on Katie that dated back over a period of three years. Included in her file were an educational neglect charge and a sexual abuse charge.

But, as has been said over and over again by every sorry excuse of an adult who ever came into contact with this little girl, Katie Beers "just slipped through the cracks."

Let's face it: The system we've set up to protect children like Katie Beers just isn't working. Where was the system when Katie needed it? This is a child who was abandoned not once but twice: first by her mother and then by the institution set up to protect her.

And how many other Katie Beers are out there? Plenty, I suspect. And if we don't get angry about such a situation, we are just as neglectful as all the adults who let Katie Beers slip through the cracks.

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