No one was looking out for Andrea Yates' children

March 17, 2002|By Gregory Kane

LET'S GO back quite a few years, to the early part of the last century. Emma Buck, a widow, tries to support her three children the best way she knows how. Some days, she appeals to local charities in her pre-Depression Virginia community for support. Other days, she turns to prostitution.

Virginia authorities say Buck can't care for her kids and take them from her. Her daughter, Carrie Buck, goes to live with J.T. Dobbs and his wife, Alice. Years later, in April 1920, Emma Buck is committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded in Lynchburg.

When Carrie turns 17, she is either raped (her version) or has consensual sex with the Dobbses' son and becomes pregnant. The Dobbses, probably to protect their son from a rape charge, have Carrie taken before the same justice of the peace who committed her mother. Carrie Buck, the Dobbses tell the justice of the peace, is feebleminded. Put her away.

The deed is done. Carrie is confined soon after giving birth to a daughter. Later, officials at the colony want Carrie Buck, the "feebleminded" offspring of a "feebleminded" woman, sterilized to stop the cycle of imbecility. Carrie is smart enough to object and get a lawyer to plead her case, which winds up before the Supreme Court in 1927.

The result was arguably the worst Supreme Court decision of the last century. With noted Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. piously writing for the 8-1 majority, the high court held that:

"We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices ... in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence.

"It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind."

So Virginia's compulsory sterilization law was upheld. Harry Laughlin, a eugenicist committed to keeping the birth rate among his perceived inferiors in check, wrote the model for Virginia's law. Later, the University of Heidelberg in Germany would give him an honorary degree for his idea. Lawyers for Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg used the Supreme Court's Buck decision to defend the Hitler regime's sterilization of millions.

Most Americans today would probably answer with a resounding "Hell no!" if asked whether the justices made the right decision in Buck's case. And they would be right. Carrie Buck's case was about eugenics, breeding for a "better" species of man. The decision smacked of the worst elements of classism and sexism in American society.

But the case - called Buck vs. Bell - has never been overturned. And in light of Andrea Yates - found guilty last week of killing her five children in Houston - we have to ask: Is there a situation where the state should sterilize people to prevent them from conceiving?

The answer should still be "no," but we have to ask ourselves the question that hasn't been asked about Yates. Everybody's asking whether she knew what she was doing. Few are asking why the severely mentally ill Yates was raising five children.

No, we don't want to forcibly sterilize the mentally ill. But someone in Houston - Yates, her doctors, her husband and other family members, child protective services - clearly dropped the ball on this one.

Weren't there signs that Houston's child protective services workers should have seen to get Yates' children out of harm's way? Sue Fitzsimmons, a spokeswoman for child protective services here in Baltimore, was asked to comment.

"The only way we know anything is if somebody reports something to us," Fitzsimmons said. "Her [Yates'] family didn't report it."

Most of the reports child protective services workers get about abuse and neglect of children, Fitzsimmons said, come from neighbors, relatives and schools. If no one contacted Houston's child protective services, authorities would never have known Yates' children were at risk.

"Who would report it?" Fitzsimmons continued. "What would they have noticed? What indications were there that the children were at risk?"

Fitzsimmons mentioned that Yates did try to kill herself twice. Most of us would consider that an indication the children were at risk. But, apparently, anything passes for child-rearing down in Texas. A woman with five kids attempts suicide twice, and no one thinks it's time to get the kids out of her house?

"It's not an easy call to make," Fitzsimmons said of whether someone should have contacted Houston's child protective services office to remove Yates' children from her care. But let's hark back to those bad old days in the dark ages just before the Buck vs. Bell decision: Virginia authorities took Emma Buck's children from her for a situation not nearly as dangerous.

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