Even though many perplexinG questions remain unanswered, some horrific details emerging from the decade-long kidnapping and abuse of three Cleveland women reinforce common-sense but valuable lessons for families, neighborhoods and the criminal justice system.
The lessons cry out for serious attention if any shred of long-term good is to result from such a prolonged and painful tragedy.
Ariel Castro, 52, has been charged with multiple counts of kidnapping and rape, but prosecutors expect to file more charges against him in the savagery that has left the state, the country and the world aghast. Three young West Side Cleveland women – Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight – were held captive since they disappeared between August 2002 and April 2004.
During that time, officials allege Castro chained them, isolated them, beat them, starved them, raped them, and inflicted violent miscarriages on them. The torture inside this aptly named “house of horrors” came to an abrupt end last week when Berry escaped and notified authorities.
Police say this unbelievably long and sordid saga began for all three in precisely the same fashion: Castro used trickery to lure each into his vehicle on or near Lorain Avenue, a congested and commercial major West Side thoroughfare.
A Lesson to be learned
The ease with which Castro purportedly broke down any barriers of distrust serves as a lesson to all parents and guardians of all children and teens in all neighborhoods. They must strictly reinforce public-safety Rule No. 1 : Never accept rides from strangers or even from acquaintances with whom strong and long-term bonds of trust have not been firmly established.
The Cleveland tragedy also should be instructive to our extended families – those individuals with whom we should share a close common bond by virtue of our common geography. Through a combination of apathy, fear and today’s fast-paced me-centered lifestyles, the family of neighbors has become dysfunctional in many American communities — from urban ghettos to pristine suburbs. Gone for many are the days when neighbors had the backs of neighbors. That’s why formation and active participation in neighborhood watch groups provide one tangible tool for residents to act more neighborly and watchful to lessen the possibility for incidents of crime and terror to play out.
They also serve to establish a strong link with police. Some in Cleveland accuse the city police department of less than aggressive handling of the case over the years, and some go as far to charge that calls of suspicious activity went virtually ignored. But no credible evidence to date suggests any such nefarious and negligent behavior by the men and women in blue in Cleveland.
Stronger bonds needed
Yet therein lies another lesson of this tragedy — the need to strengthen bonds between police and communities. The internal affairs division of the police department should spare no energy in investigating claims of discriminatory service. In addition, police and court officials must respond to a growing chorus of criticism over the slap-on-the-wrist leniency given Castro in light of credible and repeated reports of his role in domestic violence, assaults, violence inside school buses that he drove and other antisocial and criminal behavior before and after the abductions took place.
To begin the healing, Cleveland police have organized community meetings of the Lorain Avenue neighborhood to air out concerns and to build stronger chains of communication between residents and their watchdogs. Because of the historic distrust between residents of poor urban neighborhoods and local police, such efforts must be strengthened in Cleveland and in communities large and small across the U.S.
To be sure, these lessons of the Cleveland tragedy – stronger family bonds, revitalized neighborhood ties and enhanced community-cop relations – may not have prevented the 12 years of sordid and shameless criminal conduct inside the now infamous house of horrors. But such lessons, if applied steadfastly and forcefully, could at least work to give safety and security a fighting chance to win over evil and depravity.