Updated: January 31, 2014 3:22PM
Seven-month-old Jayden Young, 4-year-old DaSani Young and 3-year-old Alexia Young are dead. We must catch those who did it.
If we do not catch the guilty, justice means little. There are crimes, evils, grotesqueries. And we must bring the evil to accounts, otherwise what sort of humans would we be?
In the shorthand of life, we prefer tidy answers, so we can move on to the next puzzle without looking over our shoulders.
Loose ends taunt us. We have to chase the original Nazi stormtroopers even though they are all 90 now and imprisoning 90-year-old monsters does not rectify any unresolved issue. It’s not the person we must penalize, but the crime we cleanse, otherwise we enable future evil if we let past sins slide peacefully into the night.
So somebody killed the three Hammond toddlers on Jan. 7 in a propane-fueled space-heater fire that should never have happened, in a house that should never have been occupied and perhaps in a community that never cared enough collectively or individually to stop it.
There are appropriate investigations by appropriate agencies with appropriate jurisdictions. And when all the careful assessment is concluded, you can guess the result will be a lot of nothing much. Mistakes were made. It was nobody’s fault, really. Let’s all cast our eyes downward with sadness over the unavoidable tragedy. It’s just one of those horrid moments life inflicts. But it’s nobody’s fault, really.
But of course that is not true.
It was someone’s fault.
Real people killed the children by inaction. It was a lot of people’s fault who will never be called to judgment, and likely do not believe they did anything wrong. That’s because we have no moral mechanism for holding inaction responsible for the anguish it causes. That would require a level of duty we’d rather shun.
Who will accept that their lack of foresight caused the death of three children? But before some failure of “the system” gets the blame, we should at last talk more honestly that human institutions are not inanimate objects. Those institutional structures are the way humans arrange themselves. We create them; we run them; we are responsible for them. They are us.
And when they fail to save the lives of children, it is not “the system” that failed; it is us.
So let us say who failed the children.
The grubby landlord owners? Sure. They bobbed and weaved away from legal responsibilities and seemed adept at never making the home habitable. Too expensive.
“Habitable?” That’s not asking much. A home without heat, electricity or water is by definition a hovel.
The city of Hammond could have stopped it, but didn’t. Building inspectors “could never contact” the owners, could never tell if someone lived in the house, never decided that standing in the living room would have proved the obvious. Too complicated?
The subdivided house at 644 Sibley St. never went anywhere, nor did the family. The house sat waiting to kill three children, and the city seemed unable to stop it. It’s not the only house in that condition there.
Hammond City Attorney Kristina Kantar told a reporter that the house would have been found uninhabitable if the city “had been able to make an inspection, as it had tried to do.” Kantar also said the landlord “hadn’t allowed the city to inspect the building, prompting the citation.”
What can those statements mean? The city’s inspectors did not acquire emergency court orders, knock on the home’s door, gain entry and inspect it. Too hard?
NIPSCO had cut off the heat months earlier, and to get warmth returned, the children’s father needed more money than he ever seemed to have. So he did without.
Various social service agencies knew about the family and its burdens.
The state knew. NIPSCO would have known had it wanted to know.
The city of Hammond knew.
Lots of people knew.
And finally, the facts strongly suggest that Andre Young was a doting, loving father, but the quality of life he provided five children was not nearly good enough. He could not provide basics. His unrelenting poverty helped kill his children.
He was lucky that he and two other children in the home did not perish, too.
The “system” did not fail the three dead children. The community failed them. Real people making real decisions failed them.
No one cared enough to save them.
David Rutter was an editor at six community newspapers more than 40 years, including nearly a decade as managing editor of the Post-Tribune. His column appears Sundays in the Post-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.