Suffer the children

March 12, 2004

WHY DO KIDS hit other kids? Where do they get the idea to beat another child to the point of brain damage or coma?

Experts usually point to family strife - parents who abuse each other or their children, and kids later acting out what they've seen or felt. But witnessing is one thing; it's another entirely to be egged on, to follow a trusted adult's directions to inflict harm.

Police have charged a West Baltimore mother and another adult with attempted murder and encouraging the abuse of 12-year-old Nicole Ashley Townes for allegedly directing children at a house party to beat her into unconsciousness - and for joining in the attack. As described in the charging documents, Monique Baldwin allegedly sicced two young teen-agers on Nicole and her 11-year-old half-sister, prodding them to hit and kick harder. "We don't take body shots, we do the head," a witness recalls her saying.

The alleged reason: A boy at the party had kissed Nicole.

According to police, a child at the Feb. 28 party was prevented from calling 911 during the lengthy attack. After the attack, adults allegedly wiped the blood off Nicole and carried on with the party. Medics weren't called until the girl's caretaker returned from a trip to the store some time later; doctors were told the girl had fallen down the stairs.

Nicole regained consciousness yesterday after lying in a coma nearly two weeks at Johns Hopkins Children's Center. She has a long road ahead, the hard work of healing.

The raw cruelty detailed in the documents offends, but the real outrage is the lesson to which all the children at the party were exposed. The details police have collected so far are grim reminders that kids don't just invent brutality, or learn it from television or video games. In a city where too much violence is perpetrated by children, the role the adults in their lives play is critical, not just to them but to their friends and neighbors and to all of society.

If the facts as police described are true, what is a 7-year-old to make of his mother's telling him to kick a girl who is already lying on the floor in pain? Who can un-teach such a visceral lesson?

One can only hope that police can find all the kids who attended the party, and point them to social workers or members of their own families who can comfort them and set them straight.

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